A visit to Frank Lloyd Wright’s masterpiece and the vast Laurel Caverns makes for a awe-inspiring weekend in Southwestern Pennsylvania.
By Val Brkich
I’m ashamed to say it, but in my 44 years living in the Greater Pittsburgh area, I’d never made the brief trek to Fallingwater— Frank Lloyd Wright’s (1867-1959) architectural masterpiece, located in the lush forest of southwestern Pennsylvania’s Laurel Highlands. So, when the home/museum officially opened for tours last month, I made sure to finally purchase tickets for me and the fam before they all sold out. And, boy, I’m so glad I finally took the plunge.
It was a cool, rainy spring day as we made the two-hour trip southeast into the mountains. As we pulled into the parking lot, oddly all we could see was thick foliage all around. But then as we made our way down the path to the welcome center, we immediately got the sense that this was going to be something special. Instead of entering a building, guests walk into a circular-shaped, open-air structure with a connecting gift shop and museum. It was so beautiful and peaceful being outdoors yet safe from the elements as the gentle rain fell into the forest canopy. Heck, even the bathroom was something to behold.
Once our group number was called, we each grabbed a complimentary umbrella and strolled down the pea-gravel path to where our tour guide awaited. Taking in the crisp, clean air, we made our way down the winding trail that was surrounded by its lush, green, rainforest-like vegetation.
And then, suddenly, there it was—Fallingwater. I had seen so many pictures of it before, but it did nothing to prepare me for what it felt like to finally see it in person. Built in 1935 to be a home for the Kaufmann family — owners of a Pittsburgh-based department store that would later become part of Macy’s — the home is considered by many as Wright’s pièce de résistance and the ideal example of architecture blending with nature.
As we met our guide just outside the home/museum, I was straining to hear her amidst the sound of the falling rain and the nearby waterfall. Inside, however, was an entirely different experience. It was so soothingly quiet. The main living area is a vast room surrounded by large windows that provide tons of natural light. It almost feels as though you are both inside and outside at the same time, which is precisely what Wright had in mind when he designed it. The decor, which is made up of cozy earth-tone colors, is stylish yet casual and comfortable (not that you’re allowed to sit on any of it). There is even a stairway that leads down to the creek that runs directly beneath the home. Best of all, nearly every room offers access to a veranda, so you can get even closer to the nature that’s all around you.
We spent around an hour exploring the interior of the home and the connecting guest house, imagining all the swinging, Gatsbyesque parties the Kaufmanns must have thrown during their time there. I, personally, was imagining how nice it would be to take a nap, the spring rain gently falling outside. It was well worth the price of admission ($100 for a family of four); I just wish we had a little more time to explore (and maybe relax with a glass of bourbon). The kids certainly were inspired. Later, when we got back home, my son immediately designed a Wright-inspired home in Minecraft, while my daughter worked on a hand-drawn sketch of her own Fallingwater-like dream home.
Following our Fallingwater tour, we drove a couple miles down U.S. Rt. 40, aka the National Road and stopped for coffee at the charming Bittersweet Cafe), nestled cozily within the mountain landscape.
After that, we headed further up the mountain to our next stop—Laurel Caverns ). My wife and I had visited the caves years back without the kids. We thought it would make for a fun surprise after the enjoyable but somewhat stuffier visit to Fallingwater. Luckily a thick fog hid the roadside signs and helped us keep our destination a secret until we arrived.
Located within PA’s Forbes State Forest, Laurel Caverns is the Commonwealth’s largest cave system, with over three miles of passages. It is also the largest sandstone cave system in the world.
Inside the cave, it is a slightly chilly 50 degrees year-round. But we quickly warmed up as we began our 1/4-mile tour, descending 17 floors down a long, steep passageway. (The cave actually goes as deep as 45 stories!) The whole thing is charmingly lit by a series of chandeliers hanging from the cave’s ceiling. Though, my son thought lanterns would be more “cave-y.” The rest of the cave is illuminated by hundreds of colorful, strategically placed lights that create a soft and inviting glow.
Laurel Caverns is actually quite roomy inside with most of the ceilings ranging anywhere from 10 to 20 feet high (some even as high as 50 feet). It’s also eerily quiet inside, which I can only assume is due to the several-feet-thick sand floor designed to make for smooth, safe walking throughout the cave’s interior. And if you’re imagining stalactites and stalagmites like those found in Mammoth Cave in Kentucky, for instance, you won’t find anything like that here. The sandstone is just too fragile to support them.
The tour itself is a lot of fun. At one point the guide stops and does a trick where she rolls a ball downhill, seemingly, along a track, and then we all watch as it mysteriously rolls uphill and back into her hand. At another stop, we were treated to a colorful light show before getting to experience the utter darkness of the cave when all lights were turned off.
The kids and I wanted to sneak down some side corridor to do some unchaperoned exploring. Of course, unchaperoned exploration is strictly verboten, due to safety regulations. And that’s probably for the best. Our guide told us about a couple of early explorers who actually got lost in the cave for close to a week. When they were finally rescued, they were found to be only 40 feet from the entrance!
Plus, let’s not forget about the bats.
After the tour, my daughter did her usual sluicing for “gems” up in the gift shop before we headed off to grab a bite to eat. Unfortunately, the fog still hadn’t burnt off, so we were unable to see the top of the U.S. Steel Tower (today the UPMC Building) in downtown Pittsburgh—50 miles away! But that’s OK. I was just glad to be above ground again. Like they say, any day above ground is a good one. Though I guess underground is OK too every once in a while.
by Valentine J. Brkich, June 2019
Hailing from the charming town of Beaver, Pa., Val and his wife enjoy discovering other small towns and dragging their two young children along for the ride (sometimes literally). Read his blog SmallTownDad.com and follow him on Twitter @valentinebrkich.
© ROAM Family Travel 2019 – All rights reserved
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