The Glass House exterior

photo by: The Glass House

May 4, 2020

Modernism: A Virtual Tour of Three National Trust Historic Sites

Frank Lloyd Wright, Mies van der Rohe, and Philip Johnson are three of the 20th century’s most well-known architects, and in this week’s virtual tour of National Trust Historic Sites we’ll visit houses designed by each of them. Unlike many of the sites we’ve toured previously, these houses are small—meticulously crafted Modernist jewel boxes that represent the mindset of each architect.

First on tour, let’s visit the Pope-Leighey House in Alexandria, Virginia. Originally located in Falls Church, Virginia, the National Trust relocated the house in 1965 when the plan for Interstate 66 routed near the property and it became threatened with demolition.

After the state government offered Marjorie Leighey $20,000 as compensation for their plan to seize and demolish her house, she contacted the Department of the Interior, which collaborated with the National Trust to dismantle the house and rebuild it. Today, Pope-Leighey House is located at Woodlawn, another National Trust Historic Site.

The second Modernist masterpiece we visit today is Philip Johnson's The Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut. Completed in 1949, it is widely recognized that the architecture of the house was derived from the Farnsworth House, designed by Mies van der Rohe for Edith Farnsworth in 1946.

In 1947, Johnson curated a Mies van der Rohe exhibit at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. The exhibit included a model of Farnsworth House, the construction of which, however, was not completed until 1951.

Today, the Glass House estate includes many buildings designed by Johnson, which together represent his lifetime of architectural experimentation in forms, materials, and ideas.

Our final Modernist National Trust Historic Site is Farnsworth House, in Plano, Illinois, which, as mentioned earlier, was completed in 1951 as the weekend retreat of prominent Chicago nephrologist Dr. Edith Farnsworth. After Farnsworth's retirement to Italy, the home was purchased by Lord Peter Palumbo, who restored the property and opened it for limited public tours.

In 2003, when Palumbo listed it for sale, several potential buyers inquired about dismantling the structure and moving it to another state, which would have destroyed Mies' thoughtfully balanced conversation between nature and architecture. Faced with an imminent threat to one of the most internationally significant residential designs of the 20th century, the National Trust worked in cooperation with local supporter and volunteer John Bryan and Landmarks Illinois to purchase the building at auction and open it to the public as a house museum on its original site.

We hope you enjoyed this week's virtual tour of houses designed by some of architecture's most significant and celebrate figures. Join us next week for "Southern History," our final virtual tour of National Trust Historic Sites.

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Dennis Hockman is editor in chief of Preservation magazine. He’s lived in historic apartments and houses all over the United States and knows that all old buildings have stories to tell if you care to find them.

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