Departing director Lynda Waggoner says Fallingwater changed her life | TribLIVE.com
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Mary Pickels
Lynda Waggoner, director of Fallingwater, and vice president of the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, poses for a portrait in front of Frank Lloyd Wright's iconic home at Falling Water, in Mill Run, on Monday, Nov. 06, 2017.

Lynda Waggoner was 17 when she first saw the stunning house in the woods, a dream destination for aficionados of architecture in general and Frank Lloyd Wright in particular.

And she knew, she says, her life had just changed.

“I grew up in Fayette County. I know how important Fallingwater was to me in my life,” she says. “I still remember walking down and seeing the house for the first time. … You come around the bend and you begin to see it. I looked at it and I just thought, ‘My life has changed.’ I remember that from being a kid. Suddenly, my little closed world — I’d never been anywhere west of the Mississippi. … It was unlike anything I’d ever seen before. I was smitten.”

The house had opened to the public just one year earlier, in 1964, and she soon accepted a job as tour guide.

Waggoner, 69, of Farmington, plans to retire in February from her current position as Fallingwater director and Western Pennsylvania Conservancy vice president.

For close to 40 years, the house in Mill Run, surrounded by a forest overlooking the rushing water below, has served as a second home of sorts for Waggoner.

Built in 1936 as a family retreat for Pittsburgh businessman Edgar J. Kaufmann, it is revered as an example of Wright’s efforts to blend architecture with nature.

Edgar Kaufmann Jr. presented the home to the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy in 1963.

Waggoner says her early work at Fallingwater inspired her decision to study architecture at the University of Kentucky and art history at the University of Pittsburgh.

Her career has spanned tour guide to curator and site administrator to director, with a 10-year break during which she worked at the Baltimore Museum of Art and was founding director of Touchstone Center for Crafts in Farmington.

Expanding the mission

Waggoner’s office on the Fallingwater property includes a large set of windows and a terrace, from which she can watch the seasons change.

“It’s kind of hard to give it up,” she says.

“I never had a moment that I didn’t appreciate being here. … It’s wonderful to work in a building where you can readily access the best talent in the world,” Waggoner says.

And that talent has been called in at times, from those handling dozens of leaks to experts like engineer Robert Silman, summoned when a major undertaking was needed to correct deflection in the main cantilever, threatening the home’s stability.

“We’d always had a whole vision for the site,” she says.

As America’s economy was changing from one of commodity to one of experience, and more disposable income, visitation grew.

“Places like Fallingwater still have that ability to ‘wow’ us,” Waggoner says. “It is not sullied by commercialism at all.”

Closer looks were taken at everything from signage to its former “strip mall” parking lot, she says.

“My next goal was to get a handle on the landscape. … What does it look like when you arrive?” Waggoner says.

Saving and restoring surrounding farmhouses, a schoolhouse, and most recently, Hickman Chapel, all contribute to the landscape, she says.

Educational opportunities remain a priority.

“My goal was to get every kid in Fayette County to Fallingwater at least once during their public school time, ideally twice,” Waggoner says.

Funding that goal came from the determination that 75 percent of the site’s visitors travel at least four hours, often resulting in an overnight stay. Local hotels, beneficiaries of those stays, agreed to become lodging partners in funding the educational visits.

Fallingwater also hosts free admission events for Fayette County residents several times a year, allowing all to see the treasure in their backyard.

The home’s educational opportunities were important to Edward Kaufmann Jr.

“He felt very strongly that Fallingwater had lessons to offer for a wide variety of people. He wanted us to do something more than just the public tours,” Waggoner says.

A high school residency program was started for students interested in architecture, and teachers are offered opportunities to learn all of the STEAM aspects of Fallingwater’s architecture.

High Meadow, a newly expanded former split level home about a mile away, now serves as home base for students of Fallingwater Institute’s residency programs in architecture, art and design.

Boards and books

Waggoner’s professional affiliations include serving as past president of the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy, past vice president of the Greater Pittsburgh Museum Council, past chairman of the Laurel Highlands Visitors Bureau, and past vice president of the Pennsylvania Federation of Museums.

She currently serves on the board of the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy, the Community Foundation of Fayette County and the Advisory Board of Preservation Pennsylvania.

In 2007, she received the “Wright Spirit Award” from the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy for her service in the preservation of Wright buildings.

She is the author of the book, “Fallingwater, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Romance with Nature,” and more recently, she was the editor and a contributor to a landmark volume entitled “Fallingwater.”

“Lynda Waggoner has been an extraordinary director of Fallingwater and vice president of the Conservancy,” says Tom Saunders, Conservancy president and CEO, in an email.

“She has brought exceptional leadership ability, expertise in early modern architecture and the work of Frank Lloyd Wright, and a lifetime of experience and familiarity with Fallingwater. She has a deep understanding and appreciation of Fallingwater in so many different respects: as a key point in early modern architecture; as one of the very most important works in the body of Frank Lloyd Wright’s many projects; as a pre-eminent example of organic architecture — architecture that springs from nature and the site; as an important site in the social history of Pittsburgh and the region; and as a place of scholarship, exploration and education,” he says.

“I have been fortunate to work with her (on the Conservancy board) and always appreciated her expertise, leadership abilities, her enthusiasm in sharing Fallingwater with others and with the world, her perspectives and ideas, and her sense of humor,” Saunders says.

A national search for her successor has begun, he says.

Leaving a legacy

Waggoner is looking forward to traveling more with her husband, Thomas, and dedicating more time to her hobbies.

“I love gardening. I would love to try painting again. I love cooking, I love hiking. … I think I would like to do the Great Allegheny Passage,” Waggoner says.

She credits Fallingwater’s “terrific staff” for its good physical and fiscal shape, and is confident now is the time to turn it over to other hands to nurture.

As for her legacy?

“That I saw to it that the building was cared for, and well-preserved, had good policies in place for ongoing care. A strong educational program, strong curatorship in terms of care of the building. I think the site is looking fabulous,” she says.

Waggoner intends to stay active in advancing Fallingwater’s nomination in the United States’ submission to the United Nations’ World Heritage List of significant cultural landmarks. Fallingwater is one of eight Wright-designed buildings included in the nomination.

“Then I would feel like I accomplished everything at Fallingwater that I had hoped to,” she says.

Mary Pickels is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 724-836-5401 or [email protected] or via Twitter @MaryPickels.

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