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Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater in Mill Run, Pa.GENE J. PUSKAR/AP

The adoration lavished on Frank Lloyd Wright can sometimes seem a little much. Already substantial in his lifetime, the master architect’s fame has grown and grown since his death in 1959 at the age of 91. In the year-long celebration of his 150th birthday that just wrapped up, admirers flocked to museum exhibitions, lectures and house tours celebrating his prowess. One high-end hat maker created a limited-edition replica of his famous porkpie hat and charged US$1,500.

He would have been delighted. Wright was an inexhaustible self-promoter with a monster ego. When admirers called him the greatest living American architect, he objected only to the qualifiers “living” and “American.” He swanned around the country like a god, bullying clients and trailing disciples. With his capes, scarves, walking sticks and mane of white hair, he was the forerunner of the “starchitects” that now plague the architectural world.

For that reason, I’d always felt a little wary of the Wright cult. Then I visited Fallingwater. The country house near Mill Run, Pa., is one of those rare places that exceeds even its gushiest notices. I went for the first time in the summer of 2017, driving down from Toronto with my wife and some friends.

Of course we had seen pictures before. The image of the house, suspended over a waterfall, is one of the most famous in modern architecture. But nothing quite prepared us for our first, heart-stopping view of the place.

Bitten by the FLW bug, my wife and I set off on a Year of Frank Lloyd Wright, visiting all the FLW buildings we could within striking distance of our home in Toronto. We visited Wright houses in Buffalo and Chicago. We visited Fallingwater for a second time. We stayed overnight in a Pennsylvania house built by a Wright follower.

We watched the Ken Burns FLW documentary (great). We dipped into the thick Brendan Gill biography (disappointing). I bought an FLW ball cap with his red insignia on the front. We picked up an FLW fridge magnet, an FLW mug and an FLW hot mat for the dining-room table – but passed on the creepy FLW marionette for sale at the Fallingwater gift shop. Our Wright Year made me reconsider my skepticism about the old rogue, look with fresh eyes on his work and wonder why so much of what we build today seems so second-rate by comparison.

Frank Lloyd Wright was born in Richland Center, Wis., on June 8, 1867, three weeks before Canada’s birth. His strong-willed mother was a schoolteacher, his father a roving musician, lawyer and preacher. Frank was mother’s little darling and he went through life in a nimbus of self-satisfaction, forever the golden boy.

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Frank Lloyd Wright looks at a model of the Guggenheim Museum in New York where the real thing still stands today as an example of his art.The Canadian Press

He studied engineering, moved to Chicago to work in an architect’s office, apprenticed under the renowned Louis Sullivan, a pioneer of skyscraper design, and then set up shop on his own. Over the course of his seven-decade career, more than 500 of his buildings were completed, including the Guggenheim Museum in New York, the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo and scores of private residences. The Encyclopedia Britannica calls him “the most abundantly creative genius of American architecture.”

Today, the United States has more than 70 public Frank Lloyd Wright sites. FLW lovers can troop to Taliesin, his long-time base in Wisconsin where he drew up the plans for Fallingwater. They can visit Taliesin West, his wintertime retreat in Arizona. My wife went with friends this spring. They can fill up at a bizarre-looking FLW gas station in Cloquet, Minn. They can even be buried in an FLW mausoleum in Buffalo, ensuring that their name “will be joined forever with the legacy of Frank Lloyd Wright.”

Fallingwater is the obvious place to start any FLW trek. When Wright drew up the plans for the house in 1935, his career was in a rut. Scandal had washed over him in his Chicago years when he left his wife and six children to run off with Mamah Cheney, the wife of a Chicago neighbour and former client. It didn’t help his case when he told the press that a man of “artistic mind” should really have two women: one for a soulmate and the other to raise his children.

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Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater in Mill Run, Pa., April 18, 2009.MICHAEL HENNINGER/The New York Times News Service

Commissions dried up in the 1920s. The Great Depression hit. The emerging International Style of architecture put Wright in the shade. Its leading lights – Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Walter Gropius of Germany, Philip Johnson of the United States, Le Corbusier of France – championed a spare, functional design. Wright responded with pure contempt. Whenever a structure by Le Corbusier went up, he remarked that “now that he’s finished one building, he’ll go write four books about it.”

It was in the depths of this rut that Wright got the commission from heaven. Edgar Kaufmann, a Pittsburgh magnate, had a summer retreat in the Allegheny Mountains of western Pennsylvania. His son, a Wright apprentice, introduced him to the master, then already 68 years old. Would Wright build a house for the family on their favourite picnic spot, a secluded place with a view of the waterfall on a creek called Bear Run? Well, no, he wouldn’t. He told the family he would like them “to live with the waterfall, not just to look at it.” Instead of building a house across from the waterfall, he would build them a house over it.

Mimicking the rock ledges above the falling water, Wright created three cantilevered concrete terraces that seem to defy gravity as they hang over and above the creek. A fieldstone core made of rock quarried from the creek anchors the whole.

Visitors approach via a gravelled path that comes down through landscaped gardens and into the woods. You hear the falling water before you see the house. Then there it is, rising up out of the oaks and hemlocks. With its ochre concrete, Cherokee-red window frames and stacked stone, it seems to emerge from the landscape like a tree from the earth.

Inside, you can often see the bare rock rising out of the floor; Wright built around and over it, emphasizing the feeling of being integrated with nature. The main public room features a small staircase that the Kaufmanns could use to descend to the creek and dangle their feet in the water.

After our first visit to Fallingwater, it was not hard to decide where we should go next. Buffalo, the reviving postindustrial city that’s a two hours drive from Toronto, has two excellent FLW houses, not to mention that mausoleum. Both houses were commissioned by Darwin Martin, a reliable Wright friend, champion and creditor.

Wright was a big spender who was always in and out of hot water. “As long as we have the luxuries, the necessities will take care of themselves,” he was known to say. So throughout his career, he relied on indulgent millionaires to underwrite his genius.

Martin worked himself up from teenaged door-to-door soap salesman to leading executive of the Larkin Company, a soap and mail-order giant that was the Amazon of its time. He persuaded Larkin to hire the up-and-coming Wright to design the company’s new office building, a brick fortress with a light-bathed atrium that, unforgivably, was demolished in 1950.

Martin also got Wright to design him a house – not just a house, a compound – for his family. The Martin House was constructed between 1903 and 1906. He and his wife, Isabelle, lived there for years, but the stock-market crash of 1929 wiped him out. After his death in 1935, the glorious main building stood vacant for 17 years, with rain coming through the roof. A developer knocked down the adjoining greenhouse, conservatory, garage and pergola to put up a cheap apartment block.

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Outside view of the Martin House in Buffalo, New York.

Today, after a US$50-million, 20-year effort, the house has been renovated and the rest of the complex rebuilt, good as new. Although nowhere near as famous as Fallingwater, the complex is one of Wright’s masterworks. With Martin’s money, Wright went to town.

A guide showed our group the exquisite “art glass” windows, so hard to replicate that it cost the conservators US$28,000 each to replace them. He showed us the four-sided fireplace with a mosaic in the form of a cascading wisteria plant. He took us through the pergola, the long, covered walkway to the conservatory that leads to a replica of an ancient Greek statue, the Winged Victory. With a smile, he even showed off the Frank Lloyd Wright clothesline poles in the garden. Only FLW would fuss over the design of a clothesline pole.

In 1927, before he went bust, Martin had Wright design him a summer house on the Lake Erie shore outside Buffalo: Graycliff. We made the half-hour trip from Buffalo to take a guided tour. The broad, light-bathed house stands on a 20-metre bluff. Wright had the contractors use limestone from the beach below, broken into building blocks. Graycliff, too, is undergoing a massive restoration, returning it to what it was before it was purchased and altered by a Catholic religious order.

The next stop on our FLW tour was Chicago. Perhaps the best collection of FLW buildings anywhere can be found in Oak Park. Among them is Unity Temple, the sky-lit Unitarian church that recently reopened after a US$30-million renovation. Wright designed spectacular houses all over this leafy western suburb. One of them was his own. With typical chutzpah, the young Wright asked Louis Sullivan for a loan of US$5,000 (the equivalent of about US$130,000 today) so he could build a place for his family.

Visit it today, as we did this winter, and you can already see the Wright trademarks: the obsessive attention to every detail and the insistence on the very best materials, the contrasts of stone and wood, the focus on the fireplace as the centre of home life, the use of high windows and skylights to bring in natural light, the art glass on those windows. Engraved on a wall is the motto “Truth is life.” You can guess who decided what the truth was.

It was at Oak Park that Wright developed the Prairie Style, a fresh, American look that drew on the landscape of his native Wisconsin. He loathed the dark, fussy, high-ceilinged houses of the Victorian age, with their big verandas and grand entrances. His Prairie houses hugged the ground. They had horizontal lines, ribbon windows, low ceilings and overhanging roofs. The entranceway was often disguised to emphasize the privacy of the occupants.

You can see a masterpiece of the Prairie Style in Hyde Park, next to the University of Chicago. Wright designed the Robie House for inventor and businessman Frederick Robie. Although it was completed in 1910, the year Queen Victoria’s son, Edward VII, died, it has a strikingly modern look, marked by a low, sweeping outer wall and bands of low windows. With his usual insistence on quality and equally typical disregard for cost – a tendency that kept clients reaching for their wallets – Wright used Pennsylvania Iron Spot Brick, flecked with iron to produce an iridescent effect. To emphasize the horizontal nature of the buildings, he had the vertical joints between the bricks done in dark mortar and the horizontal joints in light.

Inside the house, which was in the midst of a painstaking restoration during our visit, our guide showed us how Wright “destroyed the box,” breaking up the traditional house pattern of distinct, boxy rooms and creating a unified whole. (“The box is a fascist symbol,” said Wright, never one to mince words.) She also showed us his technique of compression and release – smallish, low-ceilinged rooms opening into bigger, grander ones, creating a sense of arrival. Here, as in other houses, Wright used built-in and purpose-built furniture that he considered “client-proof” – clients couldn’t replace it with Aunt May’s ugly armoire or chest of drawers.

Where to next? After our first visit to Fallingwater, we swore we would come back someday. The opportunity came sooner than we expected. A Vancouver friend bought a Gulf Islands house designed by a student of Wright’s and invited us to visit. A few weeks later, we invited her back East to revisit Fallingwater. With our two grown daughters along for the ride, we piled into the van this Labour Day weekend for the six-hour drive to western Pennsylvania.

Just short of Fallingwater, we stopped for the night at a Frank Lloyd Wright resort (yes, resort). Polymath Park in Acme, Pa., is the creation of a hard-working couple who lucked into a piece of land that contained two houses by Wright apprentice Peter Berndtson: Balter House and Blum House. When the Wright-designed Duncan House faced demolition in Illinois, it was transported to Pennsylvania in pieces and eventually reassembled on the property to join the others. A fourth building, the Lindholm House from Minnesota, is rising at Polymath Park, too.

After dinner at the resort restaurant, Treetops, we settled in for the night at Balter House, a cottage-like beauty with an end-to-end skylight and a cantilevered screened porch. The next morning, after a guided tour of all three standing houses, including “ours,” we set off once more for Fallingwater. Our Year of Wright was coming to an end.

Wright had other faults besides egomania. He wasn’t always very practical. He didn’t believe in gutters (or basements, garages and closets: They only encouraged residents to accumulate useless junk). A guide confided that Fallingwater has an unintended double meaning. The place leaks. Wright scorned modern cities as greedy, soulless places and so his mark on our modern, urban world was slighter than it could have been.

But he designed many buildings of great beauty, humanity and even genius, and that is something. More than five million people have visited Fallingwater since it opened to the public in 1964.

On our second tour of the house, our guide, Brandon, ushered us into Kaufmann’s airy study. The room looks down on Bear Run. Brandon gestured to the unusual corner windows and invited us to listen when he opened one. As the fresh air of the forest wafted in, the sound of the waterfall filled the room. A murmur passed through our tour group. It was as if we were inside and outside at the same time, sheltered from the elements yet somehow a part of them. Magic.

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