Publication Date


Degree Program

Department of Folk Studies and Anthropology

Degree Type

Master of Arts


Fallingwater, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, has always been more than just a house. It has also functioned as a workplace, a tourist destination, "the best all-time work of American architecture," and a cultural symbol. By talking to some of the people involved in its history and by examining "autho-ethnographic" texts found within the community, I attempt to use ethnographic methods to understand a complicated site. Nestled in the rural Appalachian foothills of southwestern Pennsylvania, Fallingwater is also isolated. It is tempting for visitors to view it as a work of art "plopped down in the middle of nowhere." And yet Fallingwater is fundamentally related to its site, both in its use of local materials and the place it holds in local memory. An attempt is made to connect this one place to a broader cultural landscape, and to understand the social and historic currents that led to its construction and eventual elevation to tourist icon. For data, I rely primarily upon tape-recorded interviews conducted while working as an oral history intern at Fallingwater in the summer of 1997. Local perceptions of Fallingwater and the creative role local builders played in construction are examined, with the author concluding that at a site such as Fallingwater, sole responsibility for the creativity of the finished architectural form cannot be attributed to the mind of a lone creator. The author examines local manifestations of modern architecture in the vernacular landscape, and concludes that local builders struggled with the same forces of Modernity that influenced famous high-style modernist architects such as Wright. The project's scope reaches beyond the historical constraints of the initial oral history project, however, to include an ethnographic analysis of competing contemporary tourist landscapes at Fallingwater and at neighboring Ohiopyle State Park. While Ohiopyle offers an individualized, vernacular tourist experience, Fallingwater is experienced in a highly ritualized way. The ritual of experiencing Fallingwater is designed to effect change in the visitor and to spur the visitor on to environmental awareness and action. The author contends that an ethnographic analysis of Fallingwater allows for the humane consideration of a larger cultural phenomenon, Modernity. By examining local manifestations of broader cultural forces, the author contends that folklore has a contribution to make to cultural analysis. By closely examining the "texts" collected by folklorists—however broadly those texts are defined—a more contextual understanding of broader cultural phenomena may be obtained.


Anthropology | Environmental Design