Penguins of Simon’s Town

At Boulders Beach, on False Bay along the Cape Peninsula of South Africa, within Table Mountain National Park…

Welcome to Boulders

stands a boardwalk that showcases a free-roaming colony of African penguins.

watching the penguins

When they are not busy nesting,

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or caring for their hatchlings…

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they are preening,

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and standing watch…

on the march

over the rookery.

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Some African penguins may gather in small groups before setting off to hunt for fish,

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while others are content to surf the shoreline,

a dip in the Atlantic

always wary of hungry seals…

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who would easily prey on unsuspecting penguins, ready to rip open their bellies for the fish they have recently swallowed.

Ahh, the abbreviated life of an African penguin…

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Otto’s Collections

The former Alcazar Hotel in St. Augustine, FL was originally built by Henry Flagler in 1888…

The Alcazar from the Ponce (2)

as an adjunct to the Hotel Ponce de Leon (see The Poshest Campus in America) to accommodate overflow patronage and provide recreational facilities to his guests. Built in the style of Spanish Renaissance Revival with Moorish overtones, the Alcazar was patterned after its famed royal palace namesake in Seville, Spain.

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The Alcazar enjoyed a storied history, hosting society’s gentry throughout the winter months, and at one time housing the world’s largest indoor swimming pool…

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until the Great Depression forced the hotel to shutter its doors in 1930. The Alcazar remained uninhabited for the next seventeen years, and sunk into ruin.

Enter Otto C. Lightner, a Chicago editor and publisher who purchased the property in 1947 for $150,000…

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and began an extensive restoration campaign in anticipation of moving his massive Victorian era arts collection from Chicago into a proper facility worthy of its size and stature.

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Today, this National Register Historic Landmark features an elaborate courtyard with a stone arch bridge…

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over a koi pond.

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The first floor of the museum simulates a Victorian street emporium showcasing shop front window displays of assorted paraphernalia,

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pocket watches

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spectacles

spoons

toys

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Industrial Arts inventions,

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mechanized music machines,

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and curiosities, like an Egyptian mummy and an aboriginal shrunken head.

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The second floor features the remnants of Alcazar’s Turkish and Russian baths…

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offering vaulted views across the courtyard.

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Access doors to the baths stand at opposing sides the gallery vesibule.

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Continuing on, the gallery boasts a prodigious collection of Victorian cut glass beneath a Tiffany chandelier,

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The third floor exhibits fine furniture,

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relevant fine art oil paintings from the Renaissance,

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and additional collections, from match boxes…

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to cigar bands.

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The Lightner Museum represents Otto C. Lightner’s legacy of collecting.

He endowed his collection to the city of St. Augustine upon his death in 1950, and continues to keep a close eye on his Chicago treasures from the courtyard, where his remains are buried.

Mount Airy, NC

When I was eight, it was thrilling to be able to watch television. It was 1960, and as America’s new favorite past-time, television had quickly taken over as the modern recipe for family togetherness.

Early television programming came from only three channels (NBC, CBS, ABC), so the networks’ scheduling had to appeal to as many home viewers as possible to attract sponsors’ advertising  dollars needed to fund the show.  Usually that meant finding a personality with versatility and broad appeal, and crafting a show around their persona.

Aside from notable comedians (Sid Caesar, Milton Berle, George Burns, Jack Benny, Groucho Marks), variety stars (Ed Sullivan, Arthur Godfrey), and singers (Perry Como, Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland), movie actors were also drawn to television with an opportunity to increase their audience. Yet few would cross over with the success enjoyed by Andy Griffith.

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Already a star of stage…

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and screen…

No Time for Sargeants swag

A Face in the Crowd poster

Andy Griffith easily transitioned to sitcom television as a guest star on an episode of The Danny Thomas Show, playing a country bumpkin sheriff who arrests Danny Thomas for running a stop sign in Mayberry.

Mayberry Courthouse

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The Andy Griffith Show pilot ran on CBS later in the same year, where Andy reprised his role of sheriff,

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often playing straight man to a host of characters…

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who worked and lived in a fictionalized town patterned after Andy’s beloved hometown, Mount Airy, North Carolina, where today, the Andy Griffith Museum shares space with the Andy Griffith Playhouse,

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bringing fans from across the nation…

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to follow the career of Mt. Airy’s favorite son, and enjoy a collection of memorabilia,

Take a Stroll with Andy

The Taylor House

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dedicated to a cultural icon.

Andy at sculpture dedication

Whenever I watched The Andy Griffith Show, I’d pretend being Opie Taylor (Ron Howard), Andy’s son,

The Taylors

walking hand in hand with Pa, down to the Fishin’ Hole,

Andy and Opie going fishing sculpture

while whistling the show’s familiar theme song:

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There would be lunch at Snappy’s…

Snappy Lunch

and a haircut at Floyd’s…

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before heading back home, where Aunt Bee would be frying up the catch of the day for dinner.

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Without sounding too utopian, life seemed simpler in 1960. Looking back, our role models were wholesome, our families were intact, and civility was practiced in earnest.

How many of us Baby Boomers yearn for the nostalgia we remember from classic TV, before the innocence was shattered by the assassination of JFK, and television brought us closer to the horror and tragedy that’s so commonplace today?

Peekaboo, Kickapoo!

With a name like Kickapoo Cavern, you would think that a regional Texas Indian tribe named Kickapoo would have discovered this cavern, thus elevating the cavern’s official name with a rich historical context and record. But you would be wrong.

Geologists and archaeologists who have mapped the cave have yet to find any artifacts or any other evidence to prove that prehistoric Native Americans used this cave for daily living or ceremonial business. However, a large mound of burned rock and chipped stone nearby suggests that Native Americans were familiar visitors to the area.

poster1poster2After listening to Ranger Matt’s presentation, I have a personal theory why natives might have avoided the cave. It seems that during the cold winter months, the cave acts as a warm weather haven for Indiana Jones’ worst nightmare. Only until the weather heats up outside, and all the good snakes wind their way out of their cozy cave den is it safe for humans to explore the inner depths, and that’s where master spelunker Ranger Matt was taking us.

Leah and I boarded a dirty white pint-sized school bus named Bertha with nine perfectly-mannered teenage girls and their two chaperones. The bus, created in 1986 had seen better days. Leah and I were commenting on the duct tape upholstery when Matt mentioned that we were riding in a retired Kinney County prison bus.

Bus int.2“That explains the bullet hole in the windshield,” I presumed.

Bus int..jpgBertha had been given a pardon, only to be reincarnated as a park bus. For some reason, I was reminded of a road sign I spied on the way to Kickapoo that read: DO NOT PICK UP HITCHHIKERS. THEY MAY BE PRISON ESCAPEES.

Our driver returned us to the park entrance where she steered Bertha onto a poorly-marked, tipsy-turvey, hippity-dippity dirt path that severely challenged her suspension, prompting memories of “The Little Engine That Could”. And so could Bertha!

After donning colorful hardhats and checking flashlights for brightness, Matt led the way to the cave entrance…

matt 1stchecking for varmints before allowing us to climb through a small crack in the ground,

girls enteringwhere we found ourselves standing on the collapsed ceiling of a limestone rock pile measuring 130 feet thick. The mouth of the room was big enough to park a Cessna if you could figure a way to get it inside.

Matt explained that according to carbon dating, we were standing where Devils River once flowed 105 million years ago. He directed his flashlight 40 feet overhead to reveal an embedded fossil of a nautilus–common during the Paleozoic Era–embedded in the ceiling…

nautilus fish fossiland more recent remains of an unfortunate sheep or goat littering the floor

animal bonesFrom there we dropped approximately 40 feet, scrambling over ledges of flat rock and boulders, on our way to survey the three largest columns (when a stalactite meets a stalagmite) in Texas. How apropos that along the way, we would pass a formation of stalactites that managed to aggregate into the shape of the Lone Star state.

Texas shaped stalactitesThere was no meaningful trail. Every step was a floating rock, see-sawing under our weight. That’s when I heard Leah go down hard behind me. I swung around to see her flat on her back, saved by her fanny pack.

leah downAnd Matt was there in an instant.

Leah gets help“I’m alright,” she declared. “I just lost my balance on the rocks.” It was good news to my ears. For some reason, Leah and caves are not on equal footing, and rarely without incident (see “A Hole in the Head” post),

She brushed herself off and we continued along, safely negotiating the terrain while admiring scenery the likes of Yogi and Boo Boo, immortalized in stone.

Yogi and Booboo

Yogi and Booboo2We turned the corner and the room opened up. The ceiling vaulted higher to accomodate the caves’s largest column.

snow on rocks“Don’t be afraid to touch anything,” announced Ranger Matt. “We’re not like most of those other parks that have guard rails and ropes, and psychedelic lights with church music playing.” He was preaching to my choir.

“Just don’t carve your name on anything unless you’re willing to pay for the crime. We have little patience for graffiti here.”

glowing column with graffiti“Like this one over here?” suggested a blond coed, pointing to a name scratched into the calcite that dated back to 1887.

Robinson graffiti“Ah, good ol’ C. Robinson,” Ranger Matt explained, “He was one of the early ones. But there’s older graffiti in this cave that predates Mr. Robinson–written with torch soot–but that’s in a room that’s off limits because it’s still developing.”

He was referring to parts of the cave that continue to evolve, thanks to rhythmic water droplets falling from ceiling tendrils onto budding mounds below.

“Are you sure we can’t see it,” I asked?  The tour was exceeding the pre-determined time limit, but I was eager to explore more.

Ranger Matt agreed to take us further in and 40 feet deeper to give us a peek, but only if we were willing. Half the group was ready to call it a day, but the other half of us who pledged our lives to Jules Verne was ready for anything, so we descended deeper still.

“Just remember,” Matt forewarned as he led, “the deeper we go, the longer the climb out.” There were no objections and no complaints. Each of us found our own way down. When we reassembled at a flat area, we were given a new set of instructions: NO TOUCHING, and STAND AWAY FROM THE RIDGE which plunged another 120 ft. below.

wishing wellWe solemnly wove our way around the space, beholding the nascent natural beauty that will one day become a future column.

water drop

Two Tales of One City

As the cradle of the confederacy and the birthplace of the civil rights movement, Montgomery, Alabama has embraced its nascent roots, and is ready to exploit its role in two historic struggles: one, a political secession that was hastily formed to preserve the rights of whites; and the other, a social revolution to protect the rights of blacks. Both have come up short, which makes Montgomery, arguably, a municipal work in progress.

A visit to the Rosa Parks Museum, integrated into a corner wing of Troy University’s urban campus, takes the visitor through an interactive display of film, story-telling, life-size dioramas, documents and artifacts that frame the Montgomery Bus Boycott and its aftermath as ground zero for racial equality.

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Rosa Parks has been embraced as a national hero, the face of moral courage, and Mother of the modern Civil Rights Movement.

For her troubles and heroics, Rosa Parks received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1996, and the Congressional Gold Medal in 1999.

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A 10-minute walk along Washington Ave. to the Civil Rights Memorial Center, across the street from the Southern Poverty Law Center was eerily reminiscent of the calm before the storm. As the second largest city in Alabama, it seemed unusually quiet. The breezy and balmy climate had uncharacteristically produced few cars, and even fewer pedestrians. Shops were closed, and construction areas were still–as if the city was under lock-down or quarantine.

The entrance to the memorial behind Maya Lin’s sculptural tribute was roped off.

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We caught the attention of an armed guard patrolling the area who asked if he could help.

“Isn’t this the entrance to the memorial center? Shouldn’t it be open?” I asked, pointing to the hours of operation.

Visitors to the Civil Rights Memorial Center have the opportunity to take the pledge and add their names to the Wall of Tolerance during their visit, and I had come to take the pledge:

By placing my name on the Wall of Tolerance, I pledge to take a stand against hate, injustice and intolerance. I will work in my daily life for justice, equality and human rights – the ideals for which the Civil Rights martyrs died.”

The guard shrugged. “Everything is shut down today, sir, because of the weather. Yes sir, they closed the schools an’ all, in anticipation of the storm that come through here early this morn’. So the memorial is closed as well, sir.”

“But it’s gorgeous outside,” Leah offered.

The guard nodded, “I know ma’am, but the storm is suppose to loop aroun’, an’ this kinda weather is completely unpredictable. Best you come by tomorrow for another look, okay? In the meantime, have you seen the state capital and the White House, just up the road?”

“Sounds like a plan,” I acknowledged.

The stately-looking capital sits alone on a green and projected a ghost house allure, devoid of any activity. I imagined Alabama governor Robert Bentley hiding under his desk–weathering his own personal storm of sexual misconduct, awaiting word from the State Ethics Committee who holds his legal fate in their sweaty fingers.

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Directly across the street is the transplanted Confederate White House, home of Jefferson Davis, the first and only President of eleven southern breakaway states, whose doctrine upheld slavery as a states’ right along with political liberty for whites. Inside the house, an affable guide exchanged greetings and historical trivia in down-home Southern hospitality fashion.

“Make sure you buy plenty of cotton clothes before you leave town,” he drawled, alluding to the area’s cash crop, “an’ help our local farmers.”

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The town could use some help as well. About a quarter of the population lives close to the poverty line, and it shows in large chunks of the business community, where abandoned storefronts are less the exception than the rule. Nevertheless, there are pockets of revitalization, such as the Riverfront,

which features a minor league baseball park and amphitheater,

and the novelty of an old-fashioned steamboat cruise down the Alabama River.

Montgomery is not hiding from its past. It chooses to become a relevant city that tells it’s story from colliding perspectives, while dealing with hate and tempering with tolerance.

P.S. Four days after publishing this post, Governor Bentley is now an admitted felon who resigned to avoid prosecution–all because of chasing tail. Perhaps, the blog title be changed to “Three Tales/Tails of One City”?

A Hole in the Head

What’s so special about a 379 ft. hole in the ground?

Well, it matters to a lot of folks near the bottom of Kentucky, where the National Park Service legitimized Mammoth Cave as the 26th National Park in 1941. And it matters to lots of Black Americans whose slave ancestors have recently gained recognition as some of the earliest cave explorers before the Civil War. Of course, the biggest irony is that the most qualified cave guides couldn’t get work at the cave once the U.S. government took over the concession.

Stretching more than 400 miles in all directions, Mammoth Cave is the largest subterranean cave network in the world, with geologists speculating that another 600 miles of caves have yet to be discovered. But what cave explorers have mapped thus far, has brought international tourism to this area, and turned spelunking into a regional phenomenon. Hardhats with headlights are de rigueur in Edmonson County. And children nag their parents for facsimiles in the park and hotel gift shops.

Reservations during peak season are strongly recommended by the Park Service as tickets are needed for cave access, and group sizes are limited. Upon arrival, we were disappointed to learn that spring-breakers had overwhelmed the demand, and we’d be shut out during our stay in the park. We reluctantly accepted a self-guided tour that was underwhelming, albeit we learned that the cave had once been a mine for sluicing saltpeter (an essential component of gunpowder) during the War of 1812.

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We later discovered that the park offers 16 tickets for the Frozen Niagara tour to the lucky few who are willing to wake up early and stand in line the following day when the ticket office re-opens at 8:00 am. Leah arrived at 7:45 am to find a lengthy line which didn’t bode well. With a little misdirection, she managed to cut the line, and snagged two tickets.

We boarded the bus at 9:45 am after a brief safety introduction by Ranger Jerry Bransford.

The ride to the cave gave Ranger Jerry a chance to tell the story about his great-great grandfather Materson Bransford, who along with Nicholas Bransford and Stephen Bishop became the first to guide the curious through the darkness holding candles.

His kin welcomed royalty and celebrities from around the world, including Jules Verne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Gen. George Custer. What a scene it must have been for the rich and famous to heed the commands of slaves while underground, only to be castigated as slaves when they resurfaced.

It was after a 30-year career in manufacturing, and a 55-year interruption of Bransford know-how, that Ranger Jerry accepted an invitation from the park service to continue the legacy that started four generations ago, and return as a Mammoth Cave tour guide.

Since Mammoth Cave is known to be a dry cave, there is insufficient dripping water to mix with limestone to form stalactites from the ceiling and stalagmites from the floor. However, Frozen Niagara is a rare exception for having a subterranean river that flows overhead, producing spectacular formations that continue to drip and grow, as they have for the past 250 million years.

Uncharacteristically, the bunker-like entrance to the cave yielded to a revolving door. The last one in had to volunteer to lock the door from the inside. On the way down into the tunnel through a narrow passage with low ceilings is when I yelled at Leah to “DUCK!” while she was looking for her feet in the darkness and heading towards a ceiling with no clearance.

“Owww, FUCK!” she yelled, her head bouncing off a knob of stone. It was only minutes ago that Ranger Jerry forewarned that “someone on this bus is gonna get ‘brainrock’ goin’ through the passage, so BE CAREFUL!”

I saw it happening in slow-motion, and I was powerless to stop her. I reached over to massage a knot beginning above her hairline that was fast-turning into a knob—almost a mirror-image of the stone she crashed into.

A woman yelled behind me, “Hey, thanks for the warning.”

“Look Mommy, I’m getting down on my hands and knees,” her daughter said.

“Get up, Cindy. The nice man said you can’t touch the rocks.”

The tour continued to a 200 ft. shaft of carved and decorated rock that plunged into a pool. We got to stand somewhere in the middle between top and bottom of this opening which made it hard to decide whether to look up or look down. Either way, it was breathtaking. I was delighted to learn that stainless steel railings would lead us to the bottom, providing another remarkable perspective.P1010209.JPG

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At the conclusion of the tour, the passengers were directed to a gangplank lined with spongy mats soaked with Wool-Lite and water to decontaminate the soles of our shoes from possible exposure to “white nose”, an invasive fungus that has claimed more than 6 million bats in the past 5 years, and has appeared in 29 states to date. The original carrier was known to be an amateur English spelunker who brought the fungus across the ocean on his caving equipment. As a child, Ranger Jerry’s kin would tell him stories about ceilings so thick with bats, that you could feel the room quivering. But not anymore.

Ranger Jerry shook my hand at the end, and gave me his card. He wanted me to share his story. I would have liked to record Jerry’s story during our bus trip. Unfortunately, the idea occurred to me halfway through his spiel. But redemption came when I approached the exhibit area and discovered a video of Jerry’s interview playing on a small kiosk monitor. The audio portion was captured and may become available at a later date if I choose to upgrade my subscription for an additional expense.

In the meantime, the New York Times carried the following travel feature about the historic Bransford connection to Mammoth Cave:

Eat and Get Gas

Towing a silver behemoth is welcome news for the oil industry. With an average 10 mpg, I have become gasoline’s new best friend. With an extended range fuel tank capacity of 36 gallons, Leah and I have agreed to limit our truck trips to one fill-up per day when moving from one location to another. It keeps down the daily expense, and caps our driving time to approximately 6 hours.

After a day of unfulfilled scenery following the plumes of coal exhaust along the highway to White Sulphur Springs, WV, we stopped at a Shell station that was refreshing its reservoirs by a fellow who operated a Reliant Oil tanker. Given that it takes a while for both of us to fill empty tanks, we had a chance to chat. He greeted me and shook my hand.
“I just want to thank you for helping me help keep my job by you helping to buy gas here, and I really do appreciate it.”
With his Santa-esque appearance, he would make a welcome addition to the C & O Train Depot-turned-Christmas Store operated by the Greenbrier Resort down the road.

His day was almost over, with one more stop to make at an Exxon station.
“You mean to say that Shell and Exxon share the same gas?” I asked.
“That’s about right, since it’s cheaper to hire me than have both companies service their own pumps.”
“But look at the signs,” I protest. “Shell claims they sell nitrogen-enriched gas while Exxon, across the street claims they sell Synergy gas. How can that be if it comes from the same truck?”
He looked at me as if the answer was obvious. “You ever eat your grandma’s cake, an’ it’s so good. An’ then you eat your mom’s cake, an’ it tastes just as good? Well, cake is cake an’ gas is gas.”
“By the way, you’re not allowed to call us hillbillies anymore,” he continued. He lived local, about 50 miles from Lewisburg—named “The Coolest City in America” in 2011—and advised me that his kind preferred to be called “Appalachian proud”.
I asked him about the area’s high unemployment and the many unfriendly reports of poverty-level living with so many coal mines shut down.
“Don’t let these people fool ya. All them shacks with mud floors along the road without heat and electricity? They live that way ‘cause they want to. This way they ain’t beholden to no government.”
“I’ll bet the still behind the house helps to make them forget,” I added.
“Shhh…,” he whispered, pulling a grease-stained finger to his lips. “That’ll be our little secret.”

Form vs. Function

Just in case you’ve been living under a rock, there is no better rock to be living under than Fallingwater, located in the Laurel Highlands of southwestern Pennsylvania along Bear Run. Where else could you retract a glass floor to walk down a set a stairs from your living room, and soak your tired feet in running water spilling over rolling rocks? With stone quarried on site, and repeated themes of cascading concrete terraces that cantilever throughout the structure to resemble nearby rock formations, I can’t imagine another residence anywhere that is so bound by its natural habitat.

P1010122.JPGP1010127.JPGFallingwater is considered the finest piece of mid-century architecture anywhere, and it’s a treat to tour the house from the perspective of the Kaufmann family, who commissioned Frank Lloyd Wright to design the retreat at the age of 70 in 1935. Completed in 1937 for $155,000, Wright frequently battled with Edgar Sr.–a Pittsburgh department store magnate–to preserve his purist design.

While the family respected Wright’s vision and artistic integrity, moreover, they wanted a house that would work for them–a house that they could live in. And so, Wright, who was at the nadir of his career, and famous for his unwillingness to compromise, held his breath and took on a client who had an equally strong idea of how his house should function. That they would survive such a contentious relationship for the sake of art and design is a testament to patron/artist symbiosis.

The sound and smell of water is omnipresent from room to room. There are no blinds or drapes that would rob the senses of scenic vistas–only walls of glass that seam at the corners, or more miraculously, windows that hinge without a trace of interruption.

Much of the furniture is built-in, and would seem uncomfortable, as if to suggest to the tenant that it’s motivation is to drive you outside, where nature is always the winner. But there are touches of warmth as well, including a massive fireplace with a swinging cauldron that could easily provide gallons of hot toddies when pulled into the fire, and bathroom walls and floors lined in cork.

The steel beams that buttress the building are colored to respect the outcroppings.

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And other beams are playfully conversational and conservational.

The notion of unifying form with function is always contentious. The language of one easily dominates the other, leading to certain confusion and discord. But if both sides listen at the same time, and hear the quiet between the noise of overlapping voices, then something wonderful happens, and it’s called Fallingwater.