‘Secret garden’ restored at Wright’s masterpiece Fallingwater

Eric Kobal, a landscape volunteer and tour guide at Fallingwater, has spent more than a year restoring the Pottery Terrace Planter. The area is a somewhat secret garden as visitors rarely get to the terrace. Kobal hopes this restoration will make the garden a focal point of this area of the house.

MILL RUN, Pa. — Eric Kobal stretches across a lush planter to examine a brown leaf on a rhododendron he planted in this garden on the Pottery Terrace at Fallingwater. The sound of running water is never far away here, especially this year as Bear Run, the stream that runs under the famous property, is flowing fast and high after a summer of plentiful rain.

For three years Kobal has been leading tours of the 79-year-old house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright for the Kaufmann department store family. In October he began a special project as a landscape volunteer.

The 5-square-foot Pottery Terrace planter is in an area that's not on the tour. It's where the Kaufmanns stored their pots for the winter.

This "secret garden" was in bad shape after a recent construction project on the house. Workers had trampled some of the few plants that had managed to limp along over the last several years. "It was missing something," Kobal said, "It had serious drainage issues."

Nothing grew well, and when he took a close look at the planter all he saw was water, mud, soil and lots of large rocks. His goal was to bring the space back to its former glory.


With the help of horticulture specialist Ann Talarek, the two combed the archives for pictures of the garden. "We knew there were rhododendron, moss and boulders, she said, but all the old photos were grainy and hard to see. It wasn't a very prominent garden in any of the historic photos."

Kobal created a plan, which included the two plants known to have been in the garden and added a list of native varieties.

While excavating the planter, he was surprised by the large rocks found under the soil. "It was like a jigsaw puzzle; dozens of these boulders were up here and we don't even know why." Another unexpected find was the depth of the planter itself.

The staff thought it was only a couple inches, but after taking everything out of the garden, he discovered it was 7 to 8 inches deep, with a deeper trench in the middle.

The trench was filled with aggregate for drainage and good soil was brought in from nearby Lower Bear Run.

Then the fun part began. Kobal was able to fulfill his plan by finding the native plants on the Fallingwater property. The small planter was packed with trillium, mayapple, rhododendron, sedum, mosses, three species of violets, black cohash, eastern marginal wood ferns, partridge berry and Virginia creeper. The latter will hang over the edges when mature, greeting visitors who look up at the planter as they enter the house. In fall the vines will turn brilliant red to make the garden a focal point.

He kept some of the rocks in the design to add texture. Green moss, harvested from the woodlands, already is growing on them.

"Not many people make it to the Pottery Terrace," Kobal said. "They don't even know they can come here."


While it's not on the guided tour, he said visitors can request to see the secret garden.

"I think it just speaks to the site," he said. "Seeing this, they understand Fallingwater, they understand the grounds. It's a microcosm of the site."

His experience as a volunteer here has inspired Kobal to become a landscape architect. He will head to Washington University in St. Louis for his master's degree on a scholarship, partly because of what he's accomplished at Fallingwater.

As soft light filters through the trees and across the planter, he looks out over the driveway at the beams that tie the hillside to the home, which was built between 1936 and 1939.

"I kind of see these as veins," he says. "That hillside is the heart of the property; blood flows through these beams, these veins into the home here."

Then while pointing down to the planter he says, "This is an opening on top of one of those beams, this is where the site bleeds out, and you can see what bleeds — it's nature."

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