Preservation Magazine, Spring 2018

A Maple Tree Takes a New Shape After 60 Years of Witnessing the Farnsworth House's History

The Farnsworth House, a Mies van der Rohe–designed glass-and-steel country retreat just outside Plano, Illinois, may be famous for its Modernist architecture. But its historic 62-acre landscape, dotted with maple, linden, and walnut trees, is just as important, providing a bucolic riverside foil for the building’s pure geometric form.

Mies took his cue from a large sugar maple on the site when deciding on the perfect placement for the house, designed in 1945 for Edith Farnsworth. He built the iconic structure next to that tree, and for nearly 60 years the sugar maple stood witness to the Farnsworth House’s activities—family visits, restorations, and changes of ownership, including becoming a National Trust Historic Site in 2003.

But after decades of harsh winter weather, floods, windstorms, and even a few lightning strikes, the Farnsworth House’s witness tree neared the end of its life, jeopardizing the building’s safety. It was removed branch by branch one afternoon in 2013.

The tree still has a presence at the site, though. The Farnsworth House’s staff tapped noted woodworker Mike Jarvi to transform a chunk of its wood into a series of seven turned bowls, six of which are now on display. The remaining wood is in a climate-controlled storage unit as the site looks for another woodcrafter to turn it into something new—perhaps seating for visitors.
Witness Tree Bowl

photo by: Leon Liss

Lauren Walser is the Los Angeles-based field editor of Preservation magazine. She enjoys writing and thinking about art, architecture, and public space, and hopes to one day restore her very own Arts and Crafts-style bungalow.

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