March 23, 2020

"Broken Glass": Dr. Edith Farnsworth, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and the Modern Marvel They Created

A Conversation with Author Alex Beam

When you think of the Farnsworth House, you likely think of its famous architect, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. But what about the building’s namesake, the woman who commissioned Mies’ work—Dr. Edith Farnsworth?

Author Alex Beam’s new book from Penguin Random House, Broken Glass: Mies van der Rohe, Edith Farnsworth, and the Fight over a Modernist Masterpiece, unpacks “the true story of the intimate relationship that gave birth to the Farnsworth House, a masterpiece of twentieth-century architecture—and disintegrated into a bitter feud over love, money, gender, and the very nature of art.”

Today, the Farnsworth House is a Site of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Acquired by the National Trust and Landmarks Illinois in 2003, and opened for tours in 2004, the site is recognized as an iconic masterpiece of the International Style of architecture and has National Historic Landmark status. We reached out to Beam, also a columnist at the Boston Globe, to learn more about his new book. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

Your two most recent books have been about feuding literary giants (The Feud: Vladimir Nabokov, Edmund Wilson, and the End of a Beautiful Friendship) and Mormonism founder Joseph Smith (American Crucifixion: The Murder of Joseph Smith and the Fate of the Mormon Church). What sparked your interest in Dr. Edith Farnsworth and her house?

This project had nothing to do with my two previous books, although they are all about conflict in some way. I came to this project a number of years ago because I started writing about architecture for the Boston Globe and several other outlets. I was doing the journalism work and decided I wanted to do a book about an architectural masterpiece; I also wanted to write a book where the research would have a significant paper trail.

Cover of Broken Glass: Mies van der Rohe, Edith Farnsworth, and the Fight over a Modernist Masterpiece  by Alex Beam

An editor I was working with suggested several sites, including the Farnsworth House, which I was not familiar with at the time. The House is a stunning beauty as a physical object and one of the greatest architectural pieces of the 20th century, and I knew it would not be hard to find materials about.

When did you first visit the Farnsworth House?

Probably four years ago. The world is rich with gorgeous photos and illustrations of the house, and you almost get to know it through these amazing images before you visit. Once I was actually there, I was overwhelmed by the size of the house—it towers over you in a very surprising way. It’s built up five feet, four inches, to accommodate the flooding of the Fox River.

It’s also such a visual surprise when you approach it as you do now, which is not necessarily how Edith and her contemporaries would have. Architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright worked hard on the “procession,” meaning how you approach a building or even a part of a building, and the current procession to the Farnsworth, flanking the Fox River, is unforgettable.

Where did you conduct research for the book? Was it challenging to find information?

I got access to the transcripts of the nearly 4,000-page lawsuit Mies filed against Dr. Farnsworth. Journalists love litigation because it means the information is protected and can be quoted. The transcript of the court proceedings is a public document, but the original went missing decades ago. Mies’s biographer Edward Windhorst, and Mies’s grandson, the architect Dirk Lohan, let me use their transcript, and I’m working to make that record public so that future researchers don’t have to go through the same process I did.

I also did research at the Ludwig Mies van der Rohe Archive at MOMA, the Getty Research Institute, and the Northwestern Memorial Hospital Archives (Edith was a researcher at Passavant Hospital, which became part of Northwestern). I interviewed Fairbanks Carpenter, Edith’s nephew, who was very helpful.

Edith spent the last 10-11 years of her life at her villa on Via Carota, in Bagno a Ripoli, outside of Florence, Italy. I visited there, which was a fascinating visual experience, but I did not conduct a lot of research.

The Farnworth House has also recorded oral histories with people who knew both Dr. Farnsworth and Mies. They are available online and were very helpful.
Partial installation of "Edith Farnsworth Reconsidered" an exhibition that was scheduled to open in March 2020.

photo by: Farnsworth House

View of a partial installation of "Edith Farnsworth Reconsidered." This exhibition was scheduled to open in March 2020, but has been delayed due to the pandemic response.

Dr. Farnsworth was a remarkable woman and ahead of her time: She was an accomplished research physician in a male-dominated field, a classically trained violinist, a poet and translator, and a world traveler. Has her role in the design and construction of the Farnsworth House been taken seriously?

No, it hasn’t. Wellesley College professor Alice Friedman calls Edith as the patron of the Farnsworth House, which I think is quite accurate. Edith felt that Mies was a genius and this was a highly unusual commission—he had complete control.

In your question, you mention design and construction of the House. It’s important to note that Edith did not have a integral role in design or construction. In fact, Mies was dismissive of her requests. For example, she wanted curtains, for obvious reasons as a woman living in a glass house an hour outside the city, and that was a source of friction. She wanted creature comforts that he ignored. The process of creation was a collaboration, but the architecture is all Mies; every signature element belongs to him.

Mies was famously fond of the aphorism “God is in the details.” What is a detail crucial to understanding Mies and Dr. Farnsworth’s relationship?

They had an extremely intense, intellectual relationship. Mies was a very big consumer of esoteric philosophy—Farnsworth, also, to a lesser extent—but they shared a deep commitment to the life of the mind.

Edith Farnsworth in her home Farnsworth House c 1955.

photo by: Farnsworth House

Dr. Edith Farnsworth inside her home c. 1955.

Edith Farnsworth Reconsidered is the 2020 programmatic focus of the Farnsworth House, including exhibitions, programs, and events related to Dr. Farnsworth’s life and times. What do you wish visitors today understood about Dr. Farnsworth?

Through the efforts of the Farnsworth House and many others, and hopefully including my book, efforts are being made to put Edith closer to the center of the story of the Farnsworth house, which is crucial. Historically, many people have been dismissive of Edith—saying she just lent her name to a Mies project—but now she’s going to much more fully perceived. Sadly, not enough is known about her.

The Farnsworth House had planned to celebrate the launch of Broken Glass with a fundraiser at the Knoll Chicago Showroom on Thursday, March 19, but this event has been postponed due to the coronavirus. As mentioned above, Edith Farnsworth Reconsidered is the 2020 programmatic focus of the House, including exhibitions, programs and events related to Dr. Farnsworth’s life and times. When the tour season resumes at Farnsworth (Tuesday – Sundays), there will be a special tour on the life of Dr. Farnsworth on Thursdays. Learn more about these and other programs on the Farnsworth website and follow the Farnsworth House on social media: @FarnsworthHouse on Instagram and facebook.com/FarnsworthHouse.

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