Two months after Fallingwater and seven other Frank Lloyd Wright buildings were designated a World Heritage site, Justin Gunther said the news is still settling in.
“We’re absolutely thrilled with the designation,’’ said Gunther, director of Fallingwater and vice president of the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy. “I think it’s a tremendous honor, not just for Fallingwater and Frank Lloyd Wright but for all of Fayette County and, really, all of Pennsylvania.’’
Gunther noted Pennsylvania now has two World Heritage sites: Fallingwater in Mill Run and Independence Hall in Philadelphia.
“You can explore the foundation of American democracy – the start of our country at one end of the state – and then make your way to Fayette County and see this modern house that changed how we live and enjoy life,’’ said Gunther. “It’s just a remarkable opportunity for Pennsylvania.’’
An architectural historian and historic preservation expert, Gunther became director of Fallingwater in 2018, succeeding Lynda Waggoner, who retired after more than 40 years.
“It’s wonderful. It’s like a homecoming in many ways,’’ said Gunther, who previously served as Fallingwater’s curator of buildings and collections from 2007-11.
A Richmond native, Gunther grew up inspired by Virginia’s rich history and architecture.
“Every family vacation was to some historic site,’’ said Gunther. “My mother was a lover of nature, and she would always take us on hikes and quiz us on tree species and understory species and what kind of fern is this? I get a love of nature from her.’’
Gunther, who now lives in Pittsburgh, earned a bachelor’s degree in biology from Virginia Commonwealth and a master’s in historic preservation from Savannah College of Art and Design where he most recently taught preservation and was program administrator. Gunther has also worked as preservation manager at George Washington’s Mount Vernon.
This year at Fallingwater has proved exciting with the World Heritage designation, an effort spearheaded by Wagoner, achieved in July.
“What we think it’ll probably do for us and the region is to generate more international tourism,’’ said Gunther. “And the fact we have more Frank Lloyd Wright architecture in Kentuck Knob (in Chalk Hill) and Polymath Park (in Acme) – not only can you come to Laurel Highlands to see Fallingwater, but you can explore the legacy of Wright’s architecture even more.’’
Gunther noted the three Wright structures are working together to develop a campaign that will be called “Wright in the Laurel Highlands.’’
While most visitors come from within a four-hour drive. Fallingwater offers two Fayette County Days each year when local residents can visit for free. The next day is Nov. 17. Like all programs, visitors are asked to call ahead for tickets.
“We continue to have a goal of trying to connect with our local community. It’s been successful for us along with our Wright in Your Own Backyard,’’ said Gunther of the program that provides transportation, admission and educational workshops for school groups in Fayette, Greene, Washington, Westmoreland and Somerset counties.
Fallingwater also works to enhance guest experiences with a variety of tours and special events as well as a new menu at the café.
And there’s been an emphasis on education in recent years through the Fallingwater Institute, which provides high school, college and teacher residency programs as well as gatherings for professionals.
Gunther said, “These fully immersive, fully hands-on learning experiences can really change your life, change the way you see the world, change the way you interact with nature.’’
Gunther continues to be amazed by Fallingwater, noting the hair on the back of his neck still stands up when he visits the classic viewing area.
“It’s this remarkable coming together of perfect plan with perfect architect with this absolutely stunning, natural site,’’ he said. “It’s the union of all those things that creates this amazing work of architecture that will forever be an inspiration.’’