August 15, 2022

Every Line is a Decision: Honoring Lord Peter Palumbo at the Edith Farnsworth House

In a 2021 interview about his first encounter—as a student at Eton—of the Edith Farnsworth House, Lord Peter Palumbo said, “I was absolutely speechless. I’d never seen anything as beautiful as this—or as historic.”

Starting in the spring of 2022, the Edith Farnsworth House, a National Trust Historic Site, opened “Every Line is a Decision: The Life and Legacies of Peter Palumbo,” a two-year focus on the former owner who restored the house and prepared it to be open to the public. This focus is the last chapter of the “Farnsworth Founders Series,” launched in 2018 with a two-year programmatic focus on Mies and Bauhaus100. In 2020-21, “Edith Farnsworth Reconsidered” explored the fascinating life of Dr. Edith Farnsworth.

photo by: William Zbaren

Interior of the Farnsworth House during "Edith Farnsworth, Reconsidered."

With this final phase in the series, the historic site chronicles the thirty-year period of Palumbo’s ownership (1972-2003), the exhibition and programs are anchored by a refurnishing of the iconic house to its 1999 appearance. Peter Palumbo, who received a Lordship from Margaret Thatcher in 1991 for his service to the arts and preservation in the United Kingdom, developed those interests through the purchase, restoration, art collecting, and promotion of the Edith Farnsworth House.

The exhibition’s name pays homage to the care and attention to detail Lord Palumbo put in his restoration of the house—“every line,” piece of furniture, art piece, anything involving the house he decided with great consideration and input from Mies van der Rohe or van der Rohe experts when possible.

photo by: Edith Farnsworth

Peter Palumbo at the Edith Farnsworth House, 1968.

photo by: James Zanzi

Vacant Edith Farnsworth House in disrepair, c.1971.

Tracing Ownership: From Dr. Farnsworth to Lord Palumbo

This remarkable Modern home sprang from the creative partnership of the well-educated, trailblazing nephrologist, Dr. Edith Farnsworth, and the pioneering Modernist architect, Mies van der Rohe. The resulting weekend house quickly became a cornerstone of the Modern movement and an emblem of post-war residential design. The glass and steel structure of restrained simplicity is often cited as the epitome of van der Rohe’s “less is more” mantra and entered the classroom through architectural and design circles—which is how a young Peter Palumbo first came across the house.

In 1954, Palumbo never dreamed he would someday own the iconic house, and had no knowledge of the rancorous relationship that had evolved between client and architect. By the time the house was completed in 1951, Farnsworth and van der Rohe were suing each other and no longer spoke. Although Farnsworth used the house for the next 17 years, she resented its characterization as a “Mies masterpiece,” including the prying eyes and occasional trespass of architecture students and aficionados.

I was absolutely speechless. I’d never seen anything as beautiful as this—or as historic.

Palumbo the Preservationist

Upon gaining title for the house and surrounding 60 acres in 1972, Lord Palumbo embarked on restoring the house to its former glory. He commissioned architect Dirk Lohan, van der Rohe’s grandson, to restore and furnish the house and landscape architect Lanning Roper to begin improving its acreage.

Through his work, social connections, and public service commitments in London, New York, and Chicago, the not-yet-forty Palumbo traveled in a heady circle of modern architects and artists. Visits with Philip Johnson at his Connecticut Glass House—now also a National Trust Historic Site—especially inspired Palumbo to begin adding art at “Farnsworth” (as it was then referred to). Works by post-war Modern artists Henry Moore, George Rickey, Alexander Calder, Claes Oldenburg, and then-emerging artists like Jim Dine and Andy Goldsworthy were among the early acquisitions.

In a 1999 interview, Peter said, “I don’t know what makes a collector, really, but I know I’ve always collected. When I was very small, it was butterflies or matchboxes—it’s been with me all my life and I suppose it will be with me until I die.”

photo by: Edith Farnsworth House Archive

Edith Farnsworth House during the 1996 flood.

photo by: Edith Farnsworth House Archive

Interior damage after cleanup but prior to restoration following the 1996 flood.

While Dr. Farnsworth’s landscape had consisted mainly of rough turf, wildflowers, and a few climbing roses and perennials, Peter Palumbo wanted to put his Modernist gem into what he believed would be a fitting setting, inspired by the English landscape parks he and Lanning Roper admired.

Over 600 trees, hundreds of perennials and wildflowers, and countless thousands of bulbs were gradually added to the landscape. This included riding trails, and Palumbo acquired a nearby farm in the 1980s where he kept horses. A boathouse, swimming pool, and tennis court were built so the Palumbo family and their guests could more fully enjoy the property.

After marrying Hayat Morowa in 1986, and beginning a family together, a nearby late-Victorian house was purchased and renovated, freeing the Edith Farnsworth House for use as Peter’s office, for lunches after swimming, and for entertaining—principally as overnight accommodations for important guests.

Positioning the Edith Farnsworth House for the Future

As Peter Palumbo’s visibility grew, so did the prominence of the Edith Farnsworth House. Throughout the 1980s and 90s, Peter Palumbo’s influence increased greatly, with a steady stream of board commitments and leadership positions in the arts, museums, and higher education. His commitment to preservation and making cultural attractions into magnets of social and economic revitalization became well-known. Because of this, his personal collection of architecturally significant houses grew to include Frank Lloyd Wright’s Kentuck Knob in Pennsylvania and Le Corbusier’s Maisons Jaoul in Paris.

Borrowing from the great British tradition of opening family-owned estates for limited public access, in the mid-1990s Palumbo developed plans to gradually open his historic properties to the visiting public, starting with Farnsworth in 1995. He constructed a visitor center and parking area, but the formal opening was delayed due to the devastating Fox River floods of 1996 and 1997.

photo by: William Zbaren

"Every Line is a Decision", interior refurnishing c.1999

Following a thorough cleaning and restoration of the house and grounds, and prompted by a sudden health crisis, the Palumbos made the difficult decision to sell Farnsworth to the State of Illinois as a house museum and sculpture park. However, the State’s financial crisis delayed the purchase for several years, during which time Lord Palumbo reduced his commitments, including sale of the Maisons Jaoul.

When the State of Illinois canceled their purchase commitment in 2001, Lord Palumbo asked Sotheby’s to auction the property, moving his cherished sculptures to Kentuck Knob. Through the efforts of Landmarks Illinois, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the late John Bryan and Richard Gray, and contributors from around the world, the property was won at auction and opened to the public in 2004.

In addition to restoring his three iconic houses, Peter Palumbo has been recognized for his fundraising and personal support of the restoration of Painshill Park, an 18th-century English landscape park near Surrey; the restoration and improvement of the ancient Church of St. Stephen Walbrook, the Palumbo family church located in Central London; and the complete restoration of the 1930s Penguin Pool at the London Zoo.

photo by: William Zbaren

"Every Line is a Decision," interior desk view c.1999.

All these projects stemmed from the immense personal satisfaction he felt following the 1972-74 restoration of the Edith Farnsworth House and the ongoing improvements made to its site, elevating both its visibility and importance. As a result, an increasing number of cultural literati, as well as the general public, wanted to see van der Rohe’s idealistic version of modernism and its naturalistic setting during Palumbo’s period of ownership.

In a 1998 interview, Lord Palumbo said, “I think it's important to share [the House] with other people who may be interested in architecture so they can experience great works of art in the setting in which they happen to be. And I would like to think that I'm simply a steward for future generations to come… I'm very anxious to share it with as many people as want to see it, because it is very special.”

This intention on the part of Lord Palumbo is the reason the Edith Farnsworth House exists as it does today. Since its acquisition by the National Trust, the Edith Farnsworth House has continued to welcome an ever-increasing number of visitors, with year-round tours, expanded grounds access, gallery exhibitions, educational programs, and unique events. Now, “Every Line is a Decision,” which closes in December 2023, celebrates the life and legacies of Peter Palumbo—including his integral contributions to historic preservation and cultural promotion in both Britain and the United States.

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Arianna Kiriakos is the senior assistant, exhibitions and programming at the Edith Farnsworth House. She received her Master’s in modern history from King’s College, London, and two Bachelor’s degrees in history and criminology from the College of William and Mary. Her research specialties include the preservation and destruction of culture through war and other phenomena.

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