The Authentic Experience of 12 People Touring A Room Designed For One Person

I visited Fallingwater this weekend. Believe it or not, my impetus for being there wasn’t due to the 150th anniversary Frank Lloyd Wright’s birth, but rather because for the last 6-7 years, I have been obsessed by the idea of visiting the Nationality Rooms at University of Pittsburgh’s Cathedral of Learning. Visiting Fallingwater actually came in second as a “well since I will be in the area…” consideration.

First of all, let me just say visiting the Cathedral of Learning is absolutely worth it. The idea of inviting different countries to set up classrooms to reflect a learning environment in their nation makes a positive statement about the people of the United States in these contentious times. The newest rooms in development are Finland and Iran. The newer rooms on the 3rd floor are open for regular class use (with some stern warnings about keeping them clean) which would make for an interesting learning experience.

As for Fallingwater, it will come as no surprise that visiting was pretty great. It is one of the most highly esteemed works of architecture in the country.  One of the things I was interested to learn was that when the original owner’s son bequeathed the house to the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, the two conditions he set for opening the house to the public was that there not be any velvet ropes, nor could there be any scripted tours.

If you have toured the house, you know to be grateful for the first condition. The interior is intentionally cramped based on Wright’s desire to force people to go outdoors.

Assuming the prohibition against scripted tours eliminates recorded guides, humans are guaranteed employment.  Given the cramped quarters and original furnishings, you probably want humans keeping an eye on things.  I assume the Conservancy does monitor the quality of the tour narration and has a list of things to cover.

Something I didn’t appreciate until later was that the tour guides were scrupulous about mentioning what furniture had been removed from each room in order to accommodate tours.  I also visited the Frick Pittsburgh which had a room depicting furnishings of a historical period. Next to the portal was a big sign next saying how controversial period rooms are because they don’t accurately reflect how the inhabitants really lived.  Learning this, I saw a number of the points made about the authenticity of certain features (or lack thereof) at Fallingwater with a new perspective.

As I have mentioned recently, decisions about how to depict, represent, discuss, etc., artistic works, cultural practices and even daily lives of others are never clear cut and easy. I am sure that the classrooms in the Cathedral of Learning don’t accurately reflect classrooms in the countries they purport to represent. But given the time invested in creating them, I don’t doubt that they accurately reflect an important essence of those individual countries.

I think the 24 hour news cycle and prevalence of social media is underscoring the importance of fully considering the impact of decisions and what our potential response might be.  Artist training programs may want to consider a renewed emphasis on philosophy and rhetoric as artists are increasingly called upon to defend their decisions without contributing to controversy.


About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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