Preserving a Masterpiece: How Fallingwater Maintains its Striking Paint Colors for the Future

Preservation of Frank Lloyd Wright's greatest work is made easier with paints developed to match the original color schemes as well as mitigate mold risk

sponsored | August 03, 2017

Fallingwater is a property entrusted to the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, Mill Run, PA.

Frank Lloyd Wright, born 150 years ago this year, is widely considered to be the greatest American architect, and Fallingwater, a private residence he designed in 1935 when he was almost 70, is thought by many to be his greatest work. Located in the mountainous Laurel Highlands about 70 miles southeast of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Fallingwater is a dramatic architectural gesture, a multi-level cantilevered house that seems to hover magically over a pristine stream and stunning waterfall. Since March 2003, the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy—the stewards of Fallingwater—have been working with PPG PAINTS™ to supply the landmark structure’s coatings and sealant systems, a partnership that has gone on to produce a new palette of paint colors for the marketplace.

The beauty of Fallingwater is known to many. Its cantilevered, tray-like masses reference the surrounding natural rock ledges, so that the house seems almost to have evolved from the surrounding landscape. It was originally built as a weekend house for Edgar Kaufmann Sr., owner of a Pittsburgh department store, and his wife Liliane. Donated to the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy in 1963 by Kaufmann’s son Edgar Kaufmann Jr., Fallingwater was named a national landmark in 1976 and now draws hundreds of thousands of visitors each year.

Preservation of this architectural treasure is not easy. The house is exposed to changes in temperatures and humidity from the waterfall below. Over the years the building has been subject to issues such as leaks and mold, and maintaining Fallingwater in its original condition, including use of the original paint colors selected by Wright, is complicated. Moreover, the modern shift away from VOC-emitting coatings of the past to more environmentally friendly paints and sealants has changed the preservation methods.

In 2001, Fallingwater undertook a program to develop resources for the continued preservation and maintenance of the property, inviting several coatings companies to propose materials and systems that were appropriate to current environmental standards and to the protection of the watershed in which the house is located.

The house only has two colors specially selected by Wright to blend the building into its natural forested setting, ochre for the concrete and his signature Cherokee Red for the steel. But the actual preservation needs of the building were far more complicated than two colors of paint would suggest. Moisture was everywhere, including the stream that runs under the living room cantilever, and the exterior concrete overhang walls were plagued with efflorescence, which are the highly alkaline soluble salts that are the result of water infiltrating the concrete. Mold cleaning and mold resistance were also important factors in choosing a paint coating system for Fallingwater. The proposed solutions involved paint removal, development of liquid-applied vapor barriers, anti-microbial primers, and, finally, exact color matches to the original paint. More than 100 test patches were applied in unobtrusive locations in order to select a system that would keep Fallingwater authentic to Wright’s vision.

When it began working on Fallingwater, PPG performed extensive biological testing to identify environmentally friendly cleaning treatments. They developed and identified liquid-applied vapor barriers for interior and exterior surfaces, alkali-resistant primers, and a wide range of paints for each of the different applications on the property. The house’s interior walls, for example, now use an alkali-resistant primer and two coats of PURE PERFORMANCE® base paint, which is zero-VOC before the addition of colorants. For the exterior walls, PPG applied the same primer but with MANOR HALL® paint. 

At Fallingwater, color is custom-mixed and matched every time it needs to be applied, even for minor repairs, because it has to be exact. The ochre paints have built-in UV resistance because of the titanium pigments in the system, and the Cherokee Red on the exterior metal trim required particularly robust colors designed for that environment. Based on its work with Fallingwater, PPG has recently released to the public a new palette of colors inspired by the house, featuring tones such as Red Gumball, Moth Gray, Dusty Trail, Mountain Forest, and of course, Cherokee Red.

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