Preservation Magazine, Fall 2020

President's Note: Uncovering Forgotten History

Paul Edmondson.

I started out in historic preservation many years ago as an archaeologist. One of the reasons I was drawn to that part of the field was the sheer excitement of unearthing parts of history that had been hidden for decades, or even centuries. But uncovering history is not just for archaeologists. Digging deeper into the history of any historic place can uncover forgotten stories that provide a more complete understanding of our own narrative.

The Farnsworth House in Plano, Illinois, featured in this issue, is a good example. A masterwork of Modernist architect Mies van der Rohe, the spare and simple rectangular form of the Farnsworth House seemingly floats above its rural setting. Its interior design, equally spare, is a reflection of the Miesian “less is more” philosophy. Since well before its 2003 acquisition by the National Trust, it has been furnished with Mies-designed furniture as well—steel-framed Barcelona stools, a matching daybed, Brno chairs, and other pieces that complete the package.

What has been largely missing from this perfect Miesian picture, however, is the voice of Edith Farnsworth.

Farnsworth, a talented Chicago physician, musician, translator, and writer, commissioned the house and famously fought with Mies over its cost. But she also furnished it according to her own needs and her own taste—not the architect’s—with Italian and Scandinavian furniture. Still modern, still sleek, but warmer and more comfortable, these items worked together with pieces from her collection of Asian art. A far more accurate portrayal of how Edith actually lived at the Farnsworth House has now been re-created based on research by architecture professor Nora Wendl and interior architect Rob Kleinschmidt, and curated by Farnsworth Executive Director Scott Mehaffey. Supported by the Graham Foundation and the Tawani Foundation, the exhibition, “Edith Farnsworth Reconsidered,” reveals a voice that has been sidelined for too long. (Appropriate to our current times, the exhibition can be seen virtually through a link at farnsworthhouse.org.)

The Farnsworth House is not the only place where a woman’s side of the story has not been fully told. Far from it. Sites associated with women’s history on the National Register of Historic Places reflect but a very small percentage of the Register’s total listings. Women’s stories, and their contributions, have been sorely neglected, their voices unheard.

We are committed to remedying this, starting with our campaign Where Women Made History. This past year, through an online crowdsourcing campaign, we collected more than 1,000 submissions of sites across America that illuminate and celebrate women’s roles in history. There will be more to come on Where Women Made History in future issues, and we are committed to uncovering this part of our history that should not be forgotten.

Paul Edmondson is the president & ceo of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

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