Shelter from the Storm

Fathers and sons, architecture as refuge, and a family’s great loss

Artwork by Sergei Sviatchenko

For certain fans, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater represents a kind of Lourdes, and going there is a pilgrimage to the heart of Wright and the mystic deism that surrounds him. Wright’s genius, his relentless and often unsuccessful public claims to that genius, his principles, audacity, wiles, and professional demons are all contained in Fallingwater. The house was an attempt to perfect an architecture that expressed the American soul, which in 1934 — the year Fallingwater was commissioned — still had a rural aspect. As a student at mit in the 1950s, my father heard Wright speak in Boston, and he had visited many of Wright’s buildings and held to many of his principles throughout his own career as an architect and professor. But he had never been to Fallingwater, and for his seventy-fifth birthday I suggested we go together.

We flew into Pittsburgh, only to find that Fallingwater was closed due to an unseasonal snowstorm that had felled trees and knocked out power lines, and our trip, which had assumed Lourdian proportions, was rendered quixotic before we even left the airport. We booked a hotel downtown, ate lunch, then walked across the Andy Warhol Bridge and wandered the almost deserted Andy Warhol Museum, which dedicated several floors to that industrious and bloodless Pittsburgh native. With Fallingwater closed, my father turned his interest to whatever the city had to offer: the local history, the urban landscape, the young black man who collapsed on the sidewalk in front of us, Philip Johnson’s enormously idiosyncratic, mirrored neo-Gothic ppg Place. But I was deflated.

The father-son outing has a delicacy to it. Those formal and informal moments carry the weight of expectation, and, in their earliest versions, something approaching destiny, a sense that the relationship will come to be defined by this football game or that fishing trip. When I turned thirteen, my father took me to Hy’s Steakhouse for my birthday dinner, just the two of us, a rite of passage. I was dressed in a corduroy blazer and tie, a freckled hormonal volcano. As we were leaving, my ten-year-old brother, David, picked up my birthday cake and pretended to throw it in my face, a Three Stooges joke, but as he held it cocked, his eyes wide in vaudevillian glee, it slid off the cardboard base and crumpled onto the floor. My name, written in festive icing at Jeanne’s Bakery, disintegrated, and my brother burst into tears. We left my mother to deal with the situation, and went to Hy’s, a restaurant filled with dark wood, cigarette smoke, and salesmen’s laughter. I was thrilled.

In Pittsburgh, my father and I talked about David, and my father recounted how he had lost every argument with him, failing to make much of a dent in his pot smoking or steer him toward university despite repeated efforts. David was a prodigiously talented musician but for a while had been adrift, though he had just got a job as the manager of a bookstore, and my mother was enormously relieved.

He was living in the Yukon, in Whitehorse, and he had become one of those northern converts who are evangelical about the mysterious allure of the North. He could play a dozen instruments with flair, and played in a series of country, bluegrass, and vaguely jazzy bands. His house was crammed with musical instruments, tapes, vinyl, CDs, and his laughter, which was often punctuated by a smoker’s cough that bordered on the tubercular. Each night, he ventured out to the bars, playing until late, familiar to everyone. He was most at home and in control onstage, not uncommon for performers.

After his gigs, he would return home to his instruments, and to the succession of girlfriends and wives who gave him motherly lectures on smoking and his famously bad diet, which saw its first vegetable somewhere in the ’90s. “I’m eating iceberg lettuce now,” he told me with little irony during a phone conversation. When the family got together every few years or so, my sister and I would remark that David seemed to have wandered outside the fragile borders of the middle class. On those occasions, he would sit at the Steinway piano in the family room and revel in the flow of his effortless talent.

Frank Lloyd Wright was at a low point when he got the commission to design Fallingwater. He was sixty-seven years old and hadn’t done a building in several years. His reputation was on the wane in America, and he had become, in the glare of European Modernism, a nineteenth-century figure. So when Edgar Kaufmann, a Pittsburgh department store owner, commissioned a weekend house in the Pennsylvania outback, Wright invested a great deal in it. He saw Fallingwater as a battleground that pitted him against European Modernism, which he felt had stolen concepts from him. Plus, he needed the money.

Kaufmann was a celebrated philanderer, a handsome, virile Jewish businessman who wasn’t close to his son, Edgar Jr., and his marriage, like so many among his peers, was a quiet ruin. Perhaps Wright’s design reflects this: Kaufmann’s wife, Liliane, has a separate bedroom, and her balcony is larger than her husband’s, facing south while Edgar’s looks west. Edgar Jr. has a small retreat on the third floor, isolated from his parents, accessible by a narrow staircase. As in most of Wright’s houses, the bedrooms are tiny, just serviceable, and the central living space is the focus of the house, spacious, detailed, and magnificent. Had Wright designed Fallingwater for the Kaufmann family as it existed, he might have made three large bedrooms and a tiny communal area. But he tried to shape their world, if not perfect it.

With Fallingwater closed, my father and I drove to Kentuck Knob, one of Wright’s last houses, completed in 1956, three years before he died. Only a few kilometres from Fallingwater, it contains many of his signature ideas, including what he called “client-proof furniture” (a built-in couch runs the length of one wall). We bought postcards from the gift shop, and I noticed that one of the interior shots had a different configuration of the custom furniture Wright had designed. “Someone moved the furniture,” I said to my father.

“That’s probably what caused the storm,” he said laconically.

One of the projects Wright developed while waiting out the Depression and the absence of commissions was Broadacre City. After 1929, he thought the modern city needed to be decentralized, diluting its physical impact, and hopefully lessening its social inequities. Broadacre was a work of social philosophy as much as architecture: if you could change the way families lived, perhaps you could change the way they were.

Wright wasn’t the only person working on such utopian schemes at the dawn of the Depression. In 1929, two architects, Clarence Stein and Henry Wright, developed a residential model called Radburn in Fair Lawn, New Jersey. They called it a “Town for the Motor Age,” and their design separated pedestrian and vehicular traffic, using U-shaped bays that limited traffic to people who lived there, and even they would only traverse part of each bay. The houses fronted onto a huge common park. Like Broadacre, it was a social experiment.

The model was recreated in various places, among them Davis, California, and Osaka, Japan; in England at Coventry, Bracknell, and Stevenage; and in Winnipeg at Wildwood Park, where I grew up. There was a vast contiguous park connecting most of the houses, and Wildwood was situated in a generous cul-de-sac formed by a loop in the Red River. Bordered by a golf course, it was protected from the outside world, a green and isolated Oz.

When I was ten, we bought a post–World War I vintage house at Wildwood’s edge. My father redesigned it completely, and my brother and I were paid fifty cents an hour to unleash our destructive adolescent energies on the walls with hammers, knocking out the lath and plaster. A photograph taken in front of his creation shows the family in hopeful ’60s fashions, sitting in a pile of leaves with our handsome, sweetly useless dog. The house was unique, and it reinforced the idea that we were unique, coming out of an era of conformity when individuality was slowly becoming prized in the colourful riptide of the ’60s. My father has a hip, short-lived beard, and I am sitting in tight-lipped adolescence, sullen and plotting rebellion. My sister is still a perfect five-year-old, and between us is David, a blond-haired, blue-eyed, pudding-faced boy who, even then, had a musical talent that my mother retailed with some pride. She was taking the picture, and demanded proof of our happiness.

My brother was a guileless child, open to the world, while I was paralytically shy. I used him as a buffer to ask directions, deal with adults, anything that required interaction. He was a foil and a convenient target. One day when my mother was sewing, she asked where her pins had disappeared to.

“David swallowed them,” I said, immediately and fictively.

“You swallowed them?” she said to David, who was standing next to her. He looked at me and nodded, a four-year-old along for the ride.

Oh my God.” She loaded us into the front seat of our unsafe Chevrolet Corvair (soon to be condemned by Ralph Nader in a screed titled Unsafe at Any Speed) and raced to the hospital. She had grabbed a loaf of bread on the way out and kept feeding slices to David, hoping this would cushion the trauma of the pins. He chewed each piece of white, nutrition-free ’60s bread, then put the damp ball of dough in her purse as we careened toward the hospital for no real purpose.

David and I shared a room for almost ten years, which ensured a mild ongoing antagonism based on our three-year age difference, our contrasting habits and personalities, on months-long arguments over who actually owned the magnetic puck hockey game, and whether the Dave Clark Five would be bigger than the Beatles (I argued for the DC Five). Once, while staying at my grandmother’s house and having just watched a prison movie, my cousin and I knotted sheets into a rope, tied them to a bed leg, and lowered David out the second-floor window. He descended erratically and dangerously into the frame of the living-room picture window, in view of my grandmother, who was serving tea to a group of Presbyterians. The sheet rope wasn’t long enough (just like in the movies), and he crashed into her prized flower bed. David recovered from this mishap as he did many others, and he continued to play the piano in the study with infuriating talent, sailing through his Toronto Conservatory lessons like Mozart as I struggled with each note.

I can see all this in the photograph. Most family photographs from any given era have certain similarities, posed and framed in the same way, the subjects wearing similar clothes, sporting the same haircuts, filmed with the same technology, and sending the same message: we are happy. With our own family photos, we see the context, we see what lurks outside the frame, the talents, limitations, antagonisms, and kinship that bind us and drive us apart. We know the grown-up version of the grinning child, that he was venal or gentle, that he loved his family or worked in the insurance game, that his liver gave out or his heart blew up. We go through family photo albums with a running narrative, and with what Roland Barthes described as “that rather terrible thing which is there in every photograph: the return of the dead.”

In 1971, we moved west, and my father designed the house that had been sitting in his head for years, a Wrightian gem that sat in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. All of our bedrooms were small and functional, like Wright’s, and the main floor was communal and soaring and bright.

On our third-to-last day in Pittsburgh, my father and I drove to Fallingwater with the faint hope of good news. The road was blocked, and a woman with a walkie-talkie stood guard. She leaned into the window like a state trooper and we feared the worst, but she told us it would be reopening the next day. My father grasped her hand and said, “You don’t know how happy this has made me.” He made reservations for 9:30 a.m. I was overjoyed as well, and filled with profound relief. Our quest now had a restored purpose: it wouldn’t join the litany of rained-out baseball games, postponed fishing trips, deferred ski vacations, and unbuilt Lego castles that haunt the larger father-son narrative out there.

The next morning, we joined a group that walked down the path through the woods until Fallingwater’s epic balconies came into sight and the house took on the quality of a mirage. We toured its rooms and paced the balconies. Beneath them, the famous waterfall flowed, moving under the house and spilling out with its trademark drama.

The guide gave us a circumspect history of Fallingwater’s inhabitants. She didn’t tell us about Edgar Sr.’s heroic philandering, which approached the cartoonish at times. He once took a troupe of Ziegfeld girls to Atlantic City for the weekend, and boldly named his illegitimate daughter after his mother. By the early 1950s, his mistress, who had the wonderfully Dickensian name of Grace Stoops, was a regular fixture at the home. In September 1952, Liliane Kaufmann fell unconscious at Fallingwater and died after being rushed to a Pittsburgh hospital. The doctor determined that the cause of death was Seconal, a sleep medication. Edgar died three years later of bone cancer, shortly after marrying his mistress.

After his parents’ deaths, Edgar Jr. refashioned their family life into a harmonious unit set in that idyllic place. He renamed his mother’s separate bedroom “the master bedroom,” and called his father’s bedroom “the dressing room,” implying a conjugal bliss that had been absent throughout the marriage. His father had complained that Edgar Jr. “refused to be a son,” and Edgar Sr. wasn’t much of a father. Edgar Jr. put a bust of himself on his father’s desk and hung a portrait of the three of them on the wall. He removed Frida Kahlo’s sexually charged paintings (perhaps a reminder of his father’s libidinous nature), and finally donated the house to the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy. Over the years, roughly three million visitors have toured this, one of America’s most famous houses, marvelling at its ingenuity and detail, and soaking up the warmth of its stone hearth.

While we were in Pennsylvania pondering the transformative qualities of architecture, my brother was beginning to embrace the idea of his own death. David didn’t show up for his first day of work at the bookstore. He hadn’t come home the previous night either. He was seen around Whitehorse over the next two days, at the Blue Moon Saloon and coming out of a bank. Everyone agreed that he was in good spirits. David was last seen at the 98, the final stop in a descending order of local bars.

On December 2, his truck was spotted at a rest stop on the Alaska Highway forty kilometres south of town, beside the Yukon River Bridge. A woman who used to work with him saw it and assumed it had broken down. She saw it again eight days later, and the rcmp were notified. They drove to the bridge and found the truck under a light dusting of snow, almost out of gas, unlocked, the window rolled down. More ominous, they found two empty bottles of Nytol on the seat, and David’s cowboy hat sitting on the ground near the river. (He had worn a cowboy hat for the past twenty years.) They searched with dogs and an airplane, and would have searched the river but, already half covered in ice, it was inaccessible. The river search would have to wait until spring.

People go north to reinvent themselves, to become the person they felt was stifled in Toronto or Ohio or Aberdeen. Not everyone embraces its specific charms, and they return after the first dark winter and put on their old lives the way you put on a wet bathing suit. I had assumed David would come back, defeated by the cold if nothing else, but he didn’t. He stayed for twenty years. The North is filled with missing persons, people who have fled marriages, jobs, eastern complacency, the law, alimony payments, and themselves, and now my brother was officially listed as one of them.

In that grim lacuna between information and rumour, we waited. I talked to the rcmp, to his wife, his friends, and former bandmates, sifting through the contradictory portrait that emerged. He had habits that grew over the past decade, or had been clean for two years. He was slipping. He was finally happy. He was desperately unhappy and feeling trapped. He was faithful, had had affairs, was in debt. David had an actor’s ability to present an untroubled facade, and a gift for compartmentalization. In the evenings, I phoned people in Whitehorse, cataloguing the various Davids, assembling my blood.

Christmas passed with its wounds, and my family was forced to contemplate three scenarios. The most optimistic was that David had decided to start a new life, a northern prerogative, to simply light out. This, alas, was the least likely, though some of his friends held to it in the spirit of northern bravado, and he was reportedly seen in Alaska, in Vancouver, and in Mexico, living the good life. The second was foul play, the phrase still used to soften the dreadful connotations. The third was that he had taken his own life. All three had some support from people who had known him, and all three possessed gaps in logic if the evidence was examined closely, but I reluctantly drifted to the third, compelled to fill that awful silence with something. Thus began the attenuated death of my brother.

I compulsively ran through what I thought might have happened, a mental tape loop that arrived unwanted most nights. David had driven down the Alaska Highway, tired, buzzing, broke, fleeing, but without a real destination in mind. He had been listening to a cassette of his first band in his truck, a twenty-year-old recording he’d been playing for two weeks. He hadn’t been paying his bills, and he seemed to be building toward something, a despairing crescendo. When he pulled over at the scenic stop, he rolled down the window and smoked a cigarette, and sat there until the gas gauge read empty. Perhaps what came to him wasn’t a series of rational thoughts, but a blunt yearning that pulled like an undertow. He wanted to be unburdened, and this mood blackened into inchoate darkness; pain filled him, and he was spurred on by the December cold. There were footsteps in the snow that led to the open water.

How long did he stand at the river’s edge, leaden with Nytol? He was forty-nine years old. Our forties bring the first wisp of mortality, the slow parade of betrayal: our bodies, our careers, our love quietly slipping away. Religion, which had once been an obligation — that weekly march into the Fort Garry United Church in a blue blazer to hear about locusts and floods — had long become an abstraction. What are we anchored by? For David, there was his musical talent, which had defined him for so long. But perhaps it became less of a comfort, became something like a reflex. He was known throughout Whitehorse, a relentlessly public man, though his private world was rigorously hidden. Before the age of forty, David had been the colourful sibling, dressed in cowboy boots and hat, his hands restless and jangling, as if they constantly needed to be connected to an instrument. But after forty, our eccentricities often become something else. A series of small steps that began years earlier finally brought him to a landscape he couldn’t bear, and he walked into the river.

Whitehorse is located just north of sixty degrees latitude, a city of 20,000 that spreads out along the broad valley of the Yukon River, and rises into the surrounding hills in pockets of suburban order. In June, I flew in at midnight, the light on the horizon giving off a novel, benign glow, the moon sitting ghostly and superfluous in the western sky. At this time of year, the sun only barely sets. The spring was late, and the hills still held ribbons of snow. Below, the Yukon River was wide and curving, a muted emerald green.

My brother was spectacularly ill suited to the Yukon. A lifelong indoorsman, he shunned sports and physical activity, was indifferent to scenery, and had an almost pathological fear of the cold. He liked heat the way very old people do, a musty, closed-window warmth that permeates the bones. David may simply have been looking for distance, though, and the Yukon is famous for it.

It had been six months since he disappeared. The ice had come off the river only a few weeks earlier, and a body had been found downriver, but it wasn’t him. The river gives up its secrets when it wants to, an rcmp officer told me. I visited friends of David’s, who murmured happy memories, and I sat with native colleagues of his, grateful for their gift for stillness.

David surfaced the day I arrived. A jogger saw his body at the edge of Schwatka Lake and called the rcmp, who came and pulled him out. After more than six months in the ice and water, he had travelled roughly thirty kilometres down the Yukon River into the lake formed by the hydro dam just outside Whitehorse.

I had already rented a canoe to go down the river the next day, thinking that maybe I might find him, as unlikely as that was. Now that he was found, I decided to take the trip anyway. I drove to the Yukon River Bridge, where his truck had been found. The Alaska Highway had lines of two-tone recreational vehicles with names like Zephyr and Ulysses moving in small convoys and driven by retirees, but in December this road would have been sparsely travelled. It was dark by 4 p.m. then, and there hadn’t been much snow, but it was one of the first truly cold days of winter, going down to minus twenty-eight degrees. The Yukon River Bridge, which has a canopy made of steel girders painted the blue of a child’s bedroom, is the site of a scenic rest stop, and that’s where David’s Ford pickup had been parked, angled toward the water.

I put the canoe in there and drifted slowly downstream. It was warm and the water was calm, with enough breeze to keep the mosquitoes away. The river was a hundred metres wide in places, and cut through sandbanks that rose up to ridges crowned with spruce. There were mountains in the background, the tops obscured by cloud, and the river was as placid as a pre-dawn lake. At a hairpin turn, it mirrored the twenty-five-metre cliff above it with such eerie precision it was like entering a special effect. I entered a gorge, and the river suddenly and dramatically narrowed. Until then, the banks had been sand, easily eroded, giving the river its impressive width, but the gorge was high, dark volcanic rock that hadn’t budged in millennia. Here the water was dotted with small whirlpools that made the canoeskittish. It began to rain, softly at first, then a downpour that didn’t let up.

I came out of the gorge into Schwatka Lake and put in at a bush pilot’s shack to use the phone. He told me they had pulled a body out of the water thirty metres from here the previous night. I walked along the shore and stared uselessly at the spot. How had David arrived at this place? Thinking back on our childhood — those sunny houses, leafy neighbourhoods, that Wrightian commune with nature — it seemed incomprehensible. We build homes to protect ourselves: from nature, from others, from ourselves. And then we leave.

In Wildwood Park, there were several acres of dense forest between the Red River and our house, and my brother and I spent summers building forts among the Manitoba maple, bur oak, and green ash, an unconscious mimicking of our father. We examined the river on a daily basis, keeping a look-out for floating bodies coming up from the crime-riddled US. The forts were constructed of scavenged boards, dead-wood, and sticks, and furnished with discarded cushions.

The first forts were essentially clearings in the underbrush, slightly reinforced with branches, secretive and barely defined. They were an extreme application of the Wrightian idea of breaking down the barrier between inside and outside. The forts became more ambitious, though, and our downfall was in celebrating that ambition by showing too many people where they were. Someone told someone, who told Tim Hicks, who wrecked the forts. We rebuilt them, this time far into the forest, past even the isolated spot where we’d found a mouldy plaid blanket, an empty package of cigarettes, and two condoms, and spent weeks speculating on what famous actress or wayward mother had been down there. Wrecking and building forts went on all summer. Sometimes my brother and I were allied in this, sometimes we were adversaries.

Each new space was utopian, in the sense that I believed the time spent in the new fort would be superior to time spent in a previous one. The moment when that girl took off all her clothes, for example, would be less confusing (but just as exhilarating) in the new fort than in the old. Tim Hicks wouldn’t find it this time. It would be a refuge, a concept that is elemental to a child. These forts were our first attempts at constructing a world, one that had two chief advantages over the larger world: freedom, and a society limited to people we liked. They were both primal and safe, and were invested with the optimistic energy of the middle class in the early 1960s, seeking a better place even as we inhabited this one.

In one of our last forts near the banks of the Red River, we used salvaged plywood for a roof, and the north wall was a discarded door. It was reinforced to insulate us from atomic explosions. At Oakenwald Elementary School, there were bomb drills, and we sat cross-legged under our desks with our heads down, waiting for the temperamental, vodka-soaked Russians to attack. They never did, a disappointment, but on a hot August afternoon a black prairie thunderstorm approached, and we sought refuge in the fort, huddled with the neighbour’s dog, waiting for the worst to pass. For David, of course, it didn’t pass. The worst was still forty years away, unimaginable, waiting.

Don Gillmor
Don Gillmor’s book To the River  won the Governor General’s Award for nonfiction.