“It’s a building,” my kids said.
“Yeah, I’ll pass,” my husband added.
None of my family members could understand why I was so excited to spend an afternoon touring a house in western Pennsylvania that no one had been vacant for forty years. Even I, a Frank Lloyd Wright fan, wasn’t sure what to expect beyond an initial moment of awe upon seeing a home teetering on the edge of a waterfall.
The waterfall, as it turns out, was only a smart part of what made the former home of Pittsburgh department-store tycoons, the Kaufmann family, such a marvelous spectacle to explore.
Fallingwater was built for the Kaufmanns in the 1930s as an escape from the dirt and noise of the Steel City. When they originally commissioned Frank Lloyd Wright for the project, the Kaufmanns assumed they were having a home built with a view of beautiful waterfalls. It wasn’t until they saw the first sketches that they learned their home was to be built on top of the falls and into the surrounding mountainside.
A home teetering above rushing water is a sight to behold and an auditory wonder, no doubt. But the architectural genius is most evident inside the home where Wright’s firm hand controlled precisely how his building would be enjoyed. He used tight corridors and narrow doorways to force relief and an outward facing perspective upon entering his rooms and built-in storage spaces to dictate a clutter-free living space. Wright envisioned a family living among nature, not just looking out at it through windows, and he created sweeping decks, wide angel windows, and a waterfall-level patio to accommodate this vision.
Self-guided ground tours of Fallingwater start at $8, although a $20 guided tour of the house and guest quarters offer much more information than what can be gathered with the naked eye. An in-depth tour is $65 per person and is the only tour option that permits photographs of the inside of the house. Reservations should be made several weeks in advance for any of the guided tours, especially during the fall months when the autumn leaves allow for breathtaking photographs of the area.
Photo Britt Reints
Where can you find the first dinosaur bone found in America?
Where can you see the first complete T-Rex skeleton – the one for which the species was named?
If you guessed the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History you’d be a very good guesser, but wrong. While the collection of dinosaur bones in DC is certainly impressive, it doesn’t have as many complete and authentic (ie not cast) skeletons on display as the natural history museum in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
What are all these national treasures doing in western Pennsylvania? Before Andrew Carnegie was building concert halls on the East Coast, he was a building a steel empire in Pittsburgh, the steel capital of the world during the late 19th century. When news of a giant animal being discovered in the west hit the papers, Carnegie commissioned archaeologists to bring one home to Pittsburgh. The result of those early expeditions was the discovery of the first complete tyrannosaurus rex skeleton, which is still on display in the natural history section of the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh.
Along side this headline-grabbing monster are several other complete skeletons, including multiple holotype specimens, the specimen to which all other members of its species are compared. The Pittsburgh museum is the first in the world to offer a permanent exhibition with accurate, immersive environments spanning the Mesozoic Era arranged chronologically and filled with actively posed original fossil specimens. In addition to the exhibits, visitors can peek in on a working PaleoLab where fossils are prepared for study or display in the museum.
My family and I spent about a month visiting Pittsburgh recently, a luxury most visitors don’t have. Usually guests drop in on new cities like unexpected in-laws, hoping to learn as much as possible in a long weekend or short week. While every city has quintessential attractions — many with hefty advertising budgets to lure the bulk of first-time visitors — some of the best places to absorb a lot in a short amount of time are the lesser known local museums and history centers, places dedicated to moments and themes only natives and school teachers care about. Remember the historical society in your own town you visited on an elementary school field trip? That’s actually an excellent place for a town newbie to find out what you and your neighbors are all about. The Heinz History Center is Pittsburgh’s local field trip hot spot and storyteller worth listening to.
The Senator John Heinz History Center is part history and part sports museum, which makes sense if you know anything about the fanatical nature of Pittsburgh fans. They are sports fans through and through and the History Center helps visitors understand why by illustrating the development of sports lore in the industrial town. The center introduces old heroes and makes the case for sports as an escape for hardworking Americans.
The history center also examines Pittsburgh’s role in early American history and highlights some of the inventions and technologies that came out of the soot clouds for which the city was once known. Today the city is better known for it’s beautiful bridges and tree-covered hills, but the spirit of innovation and love of sports live on.
Looking for a lesson in liquid nitrogen? How about a chance to practice your cryogenic surgery skills? Head to the Carnegie Science Center on Pittsburgh’s North Shore to learn through hands-on exhibits and interactive classes.
As you would expect, the Carnegie Science Center teaches kids (and adults) about electricity and gravity and centripetal force through a series of exhibits that vaguely resemble the play centers in a preschool. Of course, you won’t find an explanation of gamma rays or cryogenic tumor removal in most pre-K classrooms. At the science center you (or your kids) can pretend to be surgeons and devise a treatment plan for removing a tumor using gamma rays without affecting the patient’s hearing or speech. Impressed? Your kids will be.
Nothing impresses a kid like the promise of things breaking or exploding, a fact the Carnegie educational staff obviously keeps in mind when planning their daily learning labs. On a recent visit my son and I attended a class about liquid nitrogen and got to see the power of the ridiculously cold compound firsthand. Rest assured, no one was ever in danger, but frozen marshmallows and popping lids got the point across just the same.
In a corner tucked away from the flashing lights and twirling parts, a massive model train set tells the story of Pittsburgh much more quietly, but no less impressively. The model train and miniature village has been mimicking life in western Pennsylvania for almost 90 years and is updated constantly with new mini-animations. An extreme case of art imitating life, the village has been expanded and changed over the years to reflect new buildings and historical events happening in the region, including opening day of PNC Park.
A visit to Carnegie Science Center can easily last several hours, with enough focus changing to keep your kids from having an early afternoon meltdown. You may, however, want to plan for a quiet evening in your hotel (or at home) to make up for all that stimulation during the day.