Preservation Engineer Robert Silman, who saved Fallingwater, Dies at 83

Those who worked with Silman say he will be long remembered for his innovative and daring solutions to seemingly impossible engineering problems.

Robert Silman, the structural engineer whose work saved Frank Lloyd Wright’s famous Fallingwater, has died after a battle with cancer, the New York Times reports. He was 83 years old.

Silman, a graduate of Columbia and New York University, founded his engineering firm in Manhattan in 1966. The firm took on a range of projects from new construction to adaptive reuse and renovations, and private residences to cultural, commercial, and religious institutions. While Silman’s work spans the United States and Canada, the bulk of his projects were in his native New York. 

Robert Silman Associates was responsible for some of the city’s most emotional and recognizable monuments. In 2008, the firm engineered the preservation of the 175-ton “Survivor’s Stairs,” the Vesey Street external stairway from the World Trade Center plaza that allowed hundreds of survivors to escape the grounds on September 11, 2001. The staircase is now held in the National September 11 Memorial and Museum. Silman’s firm was instrumental in moving the stairs to their current location prior to the construction of the museum buildings. They worked with landscape architects from James Corner Field Operations on New York’s High Line elevated park, which repurposed an unused New York Central Railway elevated railroad viaduct into a pedestrian greenway above the streets of West Manhattan. The project’s success has inspired other cities to repurpose disused infrastructure that has long been considered an eyesore.

It was perhaps Silman’s work on Frank Lloyd Wright’s late 1930s masterpiece, Fallingwater, in Ohiopyle, Pennsylvania that drew him the most acclaim. In the 1990s, it was discovered that the house’s cantilevered decks that jutted up to fourteen feet over the Bear Run waterfalls were slowly failing. By the time they were accessed by Silman, one deck had drooped seven inches down from its original position. In 2001, Silman used a network of steel cables to shore up the failing concrete pillars. 

Silman also taught classes on structural engineering and historic architecture at Yale, Columbia, and the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies. He was diagnosed with multiple myeloma in 1984, and myelodysplastic syndrome in 2017. He retired to his home in Great Barrington, Massachusetts with his wife of 62 years, Roberta. Silman passed away at home on July 31. Those who worked with him say he will be long remembered for his innovative and daring solutions to seemingly impossible problems.