Fallingwater was love at first sight for tour guide
Sandra Spagnola’s first experience at Fallingwater made quite the lasting impression.
She fell in love, first with the college boyfriend (later her husband) who took her to visit Fallingwater, and secondly with the globally recognized iconic Mill Run, Fayette County, home designed by famed American architect Frank Lloyd Wright.
“We were both amazed at the connection of the house with nature,” Spagnola, 68, and a retired Freeport Area School District art teacher, recalls. “Fallingwater — we immediately fell in love with the house and became Frank Lloyd Wright fans.”
Spagnola made sure she satisfied her annual Fallingwater fix, arranging field trips there with her art students. “I began taking students in 1988, and continued until my retirement in 2012,” she says. “It made me more aware of my passion for Fallingwater (on those visits) and a few years before my retirement I thought about how wonderful it would be to work there.”
She placed a call to Fallingwater’s employment office after retiring from Freeport, sent in her resume and aced her interview. The house is located in Bear Run Nature Preserve.
Hired and trained in 2018, Spagnola just wrapped up her first summer season as a guide on the popular one-hour guided house tours.
“Being able to work at Fallingwater has been my goal for a few decades,” she says. “I’m so happy that I’m finally here.” Spagnola works part time, managing about 12 visitors during each tour.
“Each group is like a mini-classroom,” she jokes. “South Africa, New Zealand, China, Japan, Sweden, Great Britain, France and Italy — I’ve had the the pleasure of guiding people from all over the world,” Spagnola says.
And those tourists glean information about Fallingwater’s history, grounds, architecture and the family who owned it. That would be the Kaufmann family, notes Spagnola, the Kaufmann family from Pittsburgh — as in Kaufmann the legendary Pittsburgh department store.
Seeking a weekend retreat from their busy life in the city, the Kaufmann family of three — Edgar, wife Liliane and their only son, Edgar Kaufmann Jr.., hired architect Wright.
“The Kaufmanns were surprised,” Spagnola says. “When Frank Lloyd Wright designed their house over a waterfall.”
Retirement goal realized
Spagnola successfully completed an eight-day training program for all newly hired guides, coordinated by Denise Miner, public tour manager at Fallingwater.
Fallingwater, a National Historic Landmark, employs about 50 tour guides. “Our training program is very intense, and I fondly refer to it as ‘Fallingwater Boot Camp,’ ” Miner says.
“There is a lot of reading and each tour guide personalizes their tours. Each trainee is expected to create their own narrative about the house, and making sure to incorporate important information,” Spagnola says.
With Fallingwater, Wright’s design marked a turning point in his career, says Spagnola. “Wright was 67 when he designed their house, and it launched the second half of his career. In my opinion, Fallingwater is his most exemplary examply of organic architecture.”
What’s organic architecture?
Spagnola explains it as a style of creating a building that looks like it belongs in its environment, she says. “The magnificence of this house never grows old.”
Spagnola always explains the cantilever architecture to visitors. By definition it is a rigid structural element, anchored at one end to a support from which it protrudes.
With decades of teaching experience under her belt, Spagnola says she wasn’t nervous giving her first tour. “It was really exciting to share my love of Fallingwater with people that are obviously interested because they come for the tour,” she says.
Spotting the occasional celebrity is not uncommon at Fallingwater, although they are likely to book a private tour. “We had Kevin Bacon visit here recently,” Miner said. “Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie visited, and Hillary Clinton.” Spagnola hasn’t encounterred any celebs yet. “It’s something to look forward to,” she says.
Spagnola encourages questions from her tour groups. “We like to have interaction with our visitors here at Falllingwater.” Guides are expected to keep track of their groups and enforce the no indoor photography rule during the majority of tours available at Fallingwater.
An interesting mix of tours are offered online and children 6 and older are permitted inside Fallingwater.
Choose from a Guided House Tour ($30/adult), In-Depth Tour ($80/person), Brunch Tour ($140/person), Sunset Tour ($130/person), Children’s Tour ($18/youth), Landscape Hike ($12), Grounds Passes ($10 at the gate) and for the ultimate exclusive access to Fallingwater, book the private Focus Tour ($1,200 for up to four people).
But don’t plan on visiting Wednesdays; Fallingwater is always closed that day.
Feeling accomplished now after wrapping up her first summer season at Fallingwater, Spagnola makes the hour-plus-long trek from her home in Gilpin to her cabin in the Laurel Highlands. “It’s 20 minutes from Fallingwater and staying there makes for an easy commute. My work schedule consists of a few days a week.”
Spagnola is thrilled with attaining her tour guide retirement goal.
“As a guide, I still feel the same sense of exhilaration every time I walk onto the grounds,” Spagnola says. “It’s a fantastic place to work and is augmented by the company of the other guides. Not only are they fun to work with, they are knowledgeable and I learn so much from them on a daily basis.”
Joyce Hanz is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.