The Past, Present, and Future of Farnsworth House
Scott Mehaffey started the workweek in a mild panic. You could hear it in his voice.
He was headed to the Farnsworth House, architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s superlative one-room, steel-and-glass house located in Plano, Illinois. Mehaffey, the house’s executive director, can usually reach the property by car. But on this mid-spring day in 2020, he needed to hop a ride on a Little Rock-Fox Fire Protection District rescue boat to get there.
That’s because the Farnsworth House—an architectural masterpiece owned by the National Trust for Historic Preservation that is also one of the most acclaimed Modernist buildings in the world—was up to its knees in water: The nearby Fox River, swollen by rains, had jumped its banks, submerging the house’s minimalist lower terrace and its nine travertine steps. The residence itself, a rectangular white pavilion built to sit high enough to let floodwaters flow underneath, seemed untouched so far.
But the water was rising. Would the Farnsworth House’s precious interior flood? It’s happened before, but not since 2008.
“We’ll see what we have when we get there,” Mehaffey said.
Ultimately, the waters held and the house stayed dry. The drama was the latest in the 75-year saga that is the Farnsworth House. From its conception until now, the little house on the Illinois prairie that began its life as a weekend residence for Edith Farnsworth has been the subject of disputes, lawsuits, and floods. It’s the stuff of lore, books, a play, museum exhibits—and even a future motion picture.
Farnsworth met Mies at a Chicago dinner party in 1945. The architect and German émigré had lived in Chicago for seven years. Most of his groundbreaking work—such as the 860/880 Lake Shore Drive high-rises and the Seagram Building in Manhattan—lay years ahead of him. But Mies, approaching 60 at the time, still enjoyed acclaim as a former director of Germany’s influential Bauhaus and as the visionary brought to Chicago to lead the architecture program at what would become the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT).
Farnsworth had just bought a tract of land near the Fox River in Plano, she told Mies, and wanted to build a small getaway there.
“I wonder if there might be some young man in your office who would be willing to design a small studio weekend house worthy of that lovely shore,’’ she told Mies, as recounted by author Alex Beam in his 2020 book Broken Glass: Mies van der Rohe, Edith Farnsworth, and the Fight Over a Modernist Masterpiece.
“I would love to build any kind of house for you,” Mies responded.
Mies was impressed by Farnsworth—and not without reason. By all accounts, Edith Brooks Farnsworth was remarkable.
Six feet tall and born into wealth in 1903, Farnsworth played the violin in her youth. By the 1920s, she was studying in Italy under composer and concert violinist Mario Corti. But the field of medicine caught her eye, and she graduated from what was then called Northwestern University Medical School in 1938. Farnsworth became an assistant professor at the medical school and served as a kidney specialist at Passavant Memorial Hospital while maintaining a private practice.
“She was kind of a risk-taker her whole life,” says Mehaffey, who has led the Farnsworth House since 2018. “She convinced her parents to let her live in Italy at age 19. And to come back and major in medicine [at a time] when Northwestern had a limit of four women per class.”
Farnsworth wanted Mies to design a simple place intertwined with nature where she could unwind and relax. The initial cost estimate for the house was about $40,000. The doctor ended up paying a lot more, and she and Mies would tussle in court over the cost of the project. Their fight spilled out into the print media. But the house created amid the chaos changed the course of modern architecture.
“It’s really revolutionary in what it is,” says Ashley R. Wilson, the National Trust’s Graham Gund Architect, who is leading efforts to restore the Farnsworth House.
“There aren’t that many buildings that you can say are a first and that they’re this influential,” Wilson adds. “It was the first well-known house to be designed with glass on all sides. That Miesian sensibility is ubiquitous now. [The house has] become the iconography of what Modernist architecture looks like. And it’s expressed perfectly.”
Completed in 1951, the Farnsworth House is a 1,586-square-foot, rectangular, single-story house built from steel and glass in a meadow approximately 100 feet from the Fox River. The house was finished two years after architect Philip Johnson’s sublime Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut, which is also a National Trust Historic Site. But while Johnson’s building sits squarely on the ground, the Farnsworth House floats more than 5 feet above its surroundings, perched atop a welded steel frame. Terraces of travertine (a type of limestone) allow access into the house.
The interior contains no walls, other than primavera wood partitions that enclose a single service core containing two bathrooms, a kitchen, heating and electrical equipment, and a fireplace. Edith Farnsworth would have seen all four seasons vividly at play outside the floor-to-ceiling glass exterior walls. From the outside, the home’s minimal profile was designed to nestle it within the surrounding natural landscape of trees and flora.
But it all came at a cost. Farnsworth and Mies fell out over the building’s escalating construction fees.
“It was one problem after another,” Mehaffey says. “And she was frustrated.”
“The house has become the iconography of what Modernist architecture looks like. And it’s expressed perfectly. ”Ashley R. Wilson
The house’s final price tag was more than $74,000, almost twice the original budget. After it was mostly completed, Mies filed a mechanic’s lien against the building in a bid to recover unpaid design and construction costs. Farnsworth countersued, alleging malpractice.
“It was a clash of two personalities of immense force and authority,” Mies biographer Franz Schulze wrote in his 1985 book Mies van der Rohe: A Critical Biography.
Mies, who argued Farnsworth had approved the changes that drove up the price of construction, won the suit. Though her countersuit was dismissed, Farnsworth eventually reached a favorable settlement.
Was there a romance between Farnsworth and Mies? Schulze’s biography and other sources have hinted at it, but there’s no real proof, Mehaffey says. Farnsworth’s diaries don’t mention a relationship between the two. After the lawsuit concluded, they never spoke to each other again.
The architect died in 1969. Farnsworth, who died in 1977, kept the house until she sold it to Britain’s Lord Peter Palumbo in 1972 for a reported $120,000. She was living in Italy by then and never became a fan of the house.
“The truth is that in this house with its four walls of glass I feel like a prowling animal, always on the alert,” she said in the May 1953 edition of House Beautiful magazine. “I am always restless. Even in the evening. I feel like a sentinel on guard day and night.”
Farnsworth also complained that the home’s glass steamed up. “You feel as though you are in a car in the rain with a windshield wiper that doesn’t work,” Newsweek quoted her as saying in June of 1953.
True to form, the house was a source of drama in 2003, when Palumbo put it up for sale. The state of Illinois was poised to buy it, but backed out, citing financial woes. Palumbo then put the Farnsworth House up for auction, prompting fears that an out-of-state buyer would uproot the house and ship it elsewhere. The National Trust and the preservation group Landmarks Illinois—aided by a last-minute fundraising campaign—bought the building with a bid of more than $7.5 million. The site opened for tours in 2004. Today, the Trust owns and operates the house, while Landmarks Illinois retains a preservation easement on the property.
“The Farnsworth House was the pinnacle of Mies van der Rohe’s residential work and a seminal expression of his revolutionary ‘less is more’ design philosophy,” says Bonnie McDonald, president and CEO of Landmarks Illinois. “Its setting beside the Fox River is paramount to understanding this globally influential design. When we learned that the building would be auctioned … we took drastic and unprecedented action to protect the Farnsworth House with the National Trust on behalf of the world’s architecture community.”
The clash between a famous architect and his wealthy, strong-willed client—played against the background of what would become one of the most notable buildings in the world—sounds like the stuff of movies. In fact, it is: A feature film about Mies, Farnsworth, and the house, with Ralph Fiennes and Elizabeth Debicki as stars and Richard Press as the writer and director, is currently in the works.
Documented history of the house has typically focused more on Mies, but this year, as the highlight of the current exhibit “Edith Farnsworth Reconsidered,” the site has temporarily refurnished the residence according to the time when Farnsworth lived there. (The permanent, mostly Mies-designed furniture will be returned to the site early in 2022.) Using new replicas and loaned antiques, Mehaffey, his team, and consultants Nora Wendl and Rob Kleinschmidt re-created the interiors based on historic photographs. For the first time, visitors (both in-person and on a virtual reality tour) can experience the house almost exactly as Farnsworth did.
The doctor also gardened, walked her dogs, and enjoyed birdwatching on the 60-acre site, and Mehaffey and the rest of the Farnsworth House staff have introduced ways for visitors to share in that outdoor connection. An exterior-only tour option and a publicly accessible kayak landing both debuted this past summer, and a bike path that connects the site with downtown Aurora, Illinois (accessible by train from Chicago), is slated to open soon. The site offers bird hikes and seasonal landscape hikes, too. Picnicking is encouraged. “It has to be about more than Mies,” Mehaffey says.
The Fox River originates in southeast Wisconsin and runs south for 202 miles until it feeds into the Illinois River near Ottawa, Illinois. Along the way, the Fox gradually drops 470 feet, a plunge that gives the river enough force to have powered the mills and dams that once lined the waterway.
And when there are heavy rains, the river flows over its banks and surrounds the Farnsworth House. In recent decades, the flooding has occurred at levels higher than Mies’ design anticipated. A 10-foot wall of surging floodwaters crashed through the windows in July of 1996, when Palumbo owned the house, causing hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage. Chicago architect Dirk Lohan, Mies’ grandson, oversaw a restoration following the flood.
Even non-catastrophic rains still leave their mark on the house over time, damaging the terrace’s travertine and its steel supports and framing. Winter is also an enemy, as freeze-thaw cycles cause the uncommonly close-set travertine to buckle and crack.
“It’s got 220 pieces of travertine on it,” National Trust architect Wilson says of the troubled lower terrace. “Mies is a detail god, and he only had a 16th-of-an-inch joint between the travertine pavers.”
Bids for the terrace repair work—including both sets of steps, the internal drainage system, the surrounding steel, and the travertine—went out this past summer. And the National Trust has been continually restoring the glass window panels over the past six years. But more fixes are required. The house needs a new roof, and the radiant-heat tubing in the floor should be replaced, says Mehaffey.
The organization has also proposed a below-grade hydraulic lift system, designed by the engineering firm Silman, that would hoist the house far above any floodwaters—not unlike the way a car is lifted at the oil change shop. If built, it would provide an innovative flood mitigation solution while allowing the house to stay on its original site. “Everything about Mies’ design hinges on that,” says Wilson. “If it’s not right there on the river, you no longer understand the power of the building.”
The National Trust is looking to raise $10 million to cover the cost of needed preservation work at the house, an endowment for its long-term maintenance, and the lift project. In the meantime, the terrace conservation work will also help the house fend off future floods, as Mies intended.
“The work on the lower terrace will allow the smooth stone, steel surfaces, and interior drains to shed water as they were designed to do,” says Katherine Malone-France, the National Trust’s chief preservation officer. “Restoration and ongoing maintenance of the house is critically important.”
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