Even as an experienced interior designer, she wasn’t certain. For sure, the chance to refurbish Frank Lloyd Wright’s iconic Fallingwater seemed enticing, but as a classicist Gil Walsh didn’t know much about his work, especially the organic architecture of Edgar J. Kaufmann’s home located in the woods of the Appalachia, a little over 40 miles south of Pittsburgh.
Still, Edgar Kaufmann, Jr. requested Walsh’s help. She came highly recommended, having worked at Irvin & Company, a large in-house interior design firm, and then at an architecture firm in Pittsburgh. “I was very flattered,” Walsh remembered, “but this was not the right project for me.”
After learning about the opportunity, her husband, Mason, insisted she go to the library, do some research on Frank Lloyd Wright. With some persuasion, Walsh agreed.
She first met Edgar Kaufmann, Jr. almost 40 years ago. He said he wanted Fallingwater, his family residence which opened to the public in 1964, to look and feel like a lived-in home. That—along with selecting textiles, reupholstering the furniture and bedding, and replacing moth-eaten rugs—was his main concern. He also wanted Walsh to design flower arrangements like his mother used to.
When she arrived at Fallingwater for their initial meeting, it was raining, as it often does in that part of the country. But water was leaking through the roof, running down the walls, soaking the upholstery. Walsh was shocked. She asked Kaufmann: “Before we do any work, we’re going to repair the roof, right?” He thought about it and replied, “Oh no, Gil. It always rains at Fallingwater.” It was at this moment when Walsh insisted that Fallingwater hire a curator. Window frames were rusting as well, and there were major cracks in the ceilings and the walls.
Walsh said she would help—and did so for four years—but requested that Kaufmann remain involved. He approved, checking in and visiting every month or so. “We would walk through the house and he’d pull these accessories out—beautiful Tiffany pieces, Colombian pieces,” she described. Several had to be restored, however, and Walsh recalled Kaufmann’s solution for these broken porcelains and glasses. His treasured repair tool? Elmer’s glue.
After further examination, it was discovered that the house had shifted—“the cantilevers were failing and Fallingwater could literally fall into the water,” said Justin Gunther, Fallingwater’s current director. The roofs were replaced in 1987. And in 1999, under the direction of Lynda Waggoner, Fallingwater began its first major restoration.
“Lynda came in and was able to restore all this properly,” said Walsh. “She embraced this home and did what needed to be done when I stepped in, in nineteen eighty-two, making the changes I had originally suggested.”
While working at Fallingwater, Walsh learned a lesson: “You have to rise to the challenges. You have to say, ‘I can do this.’” Now, she finds that if a new, puzzling project comes into Gil Walsh Interiors—the business she founded in 2008—she can handle it.
And she is still involved in Fallingwater, on its advisory committee. She wants to keep the site alive so a new generation can appreciate it.
This past July, Fallingwater received World Heritage Designation; the home, along with seven other Frank Lloyd Wright–designed sites, was inscribed to the UNESCO World Heritage List. “It’s a huge honor for us,” enthused Justin Gunther, who took over as Fallingwater’s director in 2018. “It puts Fallingwater on the same level as the Egyptian pyramids and the Great Wall of China.”
Under Gunther’s guidance, Fallingwater is expanding. He’s initiated several programs, including immersive residency experiences.
Gunther said he’s conquered a lot of preservation challenges, too, but there will always be more—especially for a home that pushed materials and technology to their limits.
Asked about Fallingwater’s importance, he replied: “It transforms how we think about domestic life, how nature can enhance mindfulness. It’s more than just a house tour.”