Dispelling a Ghost at Fallingwater

April 22, 2016

Is Frank Lloyd Wright’s masterpiece, Fallingwater—built 1936–1939 as the home of Edgar J. Kaufmann, president of Kaufmann’s Department Stores—actually haunted, perhaps by the ghost of his wife Liliane?

According to an article in the New York Times Magazine (Gray 2001), the specific site is the Master Bedroom. Notwithstanding the term, that room (at the center of the second floor) was hers, the couple having slept separately. As to the specter: “She is allegedly a woman in a white nightgown staring out the window. She never speaks, just looks sadly at the falls. A night watchman, who has since been replaced, is supposed to have seen her while making his rounds [emphasis added]. Is it Liliane Kaufmann, who died of a broken heart and a drug overdose?”

What are we to make of this account that uses the words “allegedly” and “supposed,” in addition to providing such scant information? The apparition was seen by a single individual who is unnamed, and the report comes to us at no better than third hand.

Nevertheless, apparitional experiences occur in just this fashion, often to someone alone, tired, or in a relaxed state, or perhaps daydreaming or performing routine work—say a night watchman! Under such conditions, a mental image might well up from the person’s subconscious and be briefly superimposed on the visual scene—a sort of mental version of a photographic double exposure (Nickell 2012, 345).

If we imagine a ghost to be a form of “life energy” that has somehow survived death yet fails to dissipate even though its source is gone, how do we still explain how it can function without benefit of a brain? That non-living things—the nightgown for instance—are also seen in apparitions is due to the fact that they too are part of the mental drama.

In any case, Liliane Kaufmann (her husband’s first cousin) did die in 1952 of a drug overdose—perhaps a suicide, although ruled accidental. Thoughts of her sad last years—she was heartbroken over her husband’s having fallen in love with his latest mistress (Gray 2001)—may have captured the imagination of a night watchman. He would have routinely passed by a portrait of her (Hoffmann 1993, 86). A trick of mind could have done the rest.

My wife Diana and I celebrated our anniversary in 2016 with a trip to Pennsylvania’s Laurel Highlands, including a visit to Fallingwater. No one talks of ghosts there; ghost promotion tends to occur at places with less professionalism, little history, and fewer stunning sights. Fallingwater—Wright’s architectural marvel cantilevered over a waterfall (see author’s photo)—needs no ghosts. Raconteurs please take note.


Gray, Kevin. 2001. Modern Gothic. The New York Times Magazine, September 23.

Hoffmann, Donald. 1993. Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater, 2nd ed. New York: Dover.

Nickell, Joe. 2012. The Science of Ghosts. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.

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