April 25, 2024

An Emerging, Evolving, Energized Edith Farnsworth House: A Q&A with Scott Mehaffey

On the banks of the Fox River in Northeast Illinois is a one-room house on a 60-acre property near Plano, approximately 56 miles southwest of Chicago. Built by Dr. Edith Farnsworth as a weekend home and getaway from her life as a physician-scientist, the house has, since its inception, been known for its Modernist design. While the property has had many owners in its lifetime, it is now a National Trust Historic Site.

In 2021, the historic site formally became known as the Edith Farnsworth House, part of a long overdue recognition of the site as the home of Dr. Edith Farnsworth rather than singularly as the architectural marvel designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.

A group of staff members at the Edith Farnsworth House standing in front of some interpretive panels.

photo by: Edith Farnsworth House

Staff gathered during a recent strategic planning meeting. Scott Mehaffey is in the purple sweater, second from the right in the front row.

Today, visitors can experience the home through in-person tours and walk the site to experience innovative art installations within the naturalistic landscape of fields, woodlands, and meadows that surround the house. The site also offers virtual programs during the winter months (January-March). For those who love a good virtual tour, you can see it the house as it was furnished by Dr. Farnsworth and later by the home’s second owner Peter Palumbo.

In June 2024, the National Trust celebrates the 20th anniversary of the Edith Farnsworth House opening to visitors as a part of our portfolio of historic sites. To mark the occasion, we interviewed Executive Director Scott Mehaffey about what he loves at this remarkable site that he describes as “emerging, evolving, and energized.”

What first inspired your love of history?

I’m the eldest child in my family and grew up knowing my great-grandparents, great aunts and uncles, et al. My mother’s family arrived in North-Central Illinois in the early 19th century and my hometown of Princeton was once known as “the Boston of the Middle West” as it was founded by sodbusters from Massachusetts. When my grandparents became empty nesters in the early 1960s, they embraced “Americana” and collected a variety of antiques and family heirlooms, so from a very young age, I learned how people, places, and objects are tangible connections to the past–and that fascinated me.

What's your earliest memory of experiencing a historic site?

Back in the day, my mom and her girlfriends would pile us kids in the car and we’d take daytrips to historic sites like the state capitol in Springfield, Abraham Lincoln’s home, our county museum, etc. I do remember a trip to Robert Allerton Park with my extended family (grandmother, uncle, aunt, and cousins) because there was a large Georgian Revival mansion and formal gardens—quite unlike anything in our little Victorian Era farm town. I later worked at Allerton while I was a student at the University of Illinois.

A group of people gathered for a tour at Edith Farnsworth House.

photo by: Edith Farnsworth House

Student tour of the Edith Farnsworth House in 2023.

View of a green field with bales of hay spread out across the landscape.

photo by: Edith Farnsworth House

The Farnsworth hayfield in Fall 2023.

When people visit Edith Farnsworth House, what do you want them to see, do, and feel while they are there?

A connection to the Rural Midwest and an understanding of why Edith Farnsworth built such an important modern house, how and where she did. It all starts with the landscape. Our visitors from Europe, Asia, and even the Americas often comment how large and open the landscape feels this far west of Chicago and certainly that attracted Dr. Farnsworth and her architect, Mies van der Rohe. Our increasingly urbanized lives make reconnecting to nature more important now than ever before. Visitors may come to see the house but come away with a deeper understanding of place and purpose.

Dr. Farnsworth chose a site that is located at a point where the Fox River bends southwest towards the Illinois River, which is several miles away. From November through April, when the leaves are down, you can sometimes watch the sunset reflected on the river. I also enjoy spring evenings looking over the hayfield outside the visitor center, while the kestrals swoop and chatter and the shadows grow long across the field. We’re located along a flyway and surrounded by nature preserves and farms, so there’s a lot of wildlife at any time of year.

A distance view of two people sitting on a bench before a river. Next to them is a stone art installation with a circle cut out. There are chimes in the tree.

photo by: David Wallace Haskins

One of the installations by David Wallace Haskins at the Edith Farnsworth House in 2023. Stone Landing was part of a show called Landscape + Light.

Located in the garage at the Edith Farnsworth House, this video installation is a view of honey moving over different textures and materials.

photo by: Joshi Radin

View of an installation called "Danaë nos jardins de górgona ou nostalgia da pangeia" in the garage at the Edith Farnsworth House's 2023 Last of the Animal Builders curated by Alberto Ortega Trejo.

What project at the site is energizing you today?

2024 marks the 20th anniversary of opening Farnsworth to the public and we have a new, comprehensive history written by Michelangelo Sabatino. Edith Farnsworth House: Architecture, Preservation, Culture puts the world-famous house into a richer physical and historical context – which is something we’ve prioritized since 2018. We’ve expanded our tours, exhibitions, and programs beyond architectural history to include social and natural history, enlivened by the arts. Our current interpretive focus, NATURE+CULTURE, makes new connections to people we haven’t previously invited in. Building bridges to larger and more diverse audiences–that’s what I find most energizing!

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While her day job is the associate director of content at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Priya spends other waking moments musing, writing, and learning about how the public engages and embraces history.

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