November 16, 2021

What’s in a Name? Becoming the Edith Farnsworth House

On Nov. 17, 2021, the Farnsworth House officially becomes the Edith Farnsworth House. On what would have been Dr. Edith B. Farnsworth’s 118th birthday, the weekend house that she commissioned of the architect Mies van der Rohe in 1945 is granted her first name. Wealth and legacy are typically passed down patrilineal lines in the United States. The name “Farnsworth” carried along with it the wealth that gave her a very comfortable upbringing on Chicago’s Gold Coast made possible by the profits from family-owned lumber companies. Last names can also obscure difference: to call this structure the Edith Farnsworth House recalls and names the complicated forces that almost prevented Farnsworth from commissioning this structure and living in it for nearly 20 years.

Two women sitting on the front steps of a modernist home that has glass walls.

photo by: William Dunlap/Courtesy David W. Dunlap

Edith Farnsworth and Beth Dunlap sitting in front of Farnsworth House c. 1951.

Who Was Dr. Edith B. Farnsworth?

Making its debut in the October 1951 issue of Architectural Forum, her house is introduced as “Mies van der Rohe’s house” before her last name is attached to it: the Farnsworth House. The photographs that accompany this article are strikingly plain: the glass front door is propped open by an invisible hand, and we peer through the west-facing glass wall of the house into a room with a few chairs facing each other at odd angles. In another photograph, Farnsworth’s bed sits directly on the floor—a nod to how she occupied the house informally after she first moved in—while her poodle waits outside the house, standing impatiently at the door. The review describes Farnsworth as a “temporary tenant” who would, soon enough, vanish.

And, in fact, on Aug. 26, 1951—weeks before the article was published—Farnsworth had been served a summons to court. This was the beginning of a legal battle that would last for four years, and had high stakes: if the architect could prove that she indeed owed him a contractor’s fee and an architect’s fee (despite their lack of any contract), then she would be required to pay it outright or to sell the house in order to redeem this amount. If the house could not be sold to redeem this sum—around $30,000, on top of the $70,000 she had already paid (an equivalent of over 1 million U.S. dollars today)—the ownership of the one-room house and 9-acre property would be transferred to Mies, and she would be barred from the premises. Farnsworth fought this legal battle for the house from 1951 to 1955 in order to retain what she referred to as the “Fox River Project,” an experimental one-room house for an unmarried woman in mid-20th century America.

Exterior of a modern house with white ceilings and a glass entryway.

photo by: Bill Hedrich/Newberry Library

The west facade and entrance of Farnsworth House c. 1951.

Everything about this project and its namesake was iconoclastic for its time. Having graduated from Northwestern University Medical School in 1938—one of five women in a class of 140— Farnsworth went directly into a fellowship at Passavant Hospital. In a 1942 Chicago Tribune article, her achievement is described as a “curious thing,” and she is depicted as “a tall, handsome girl with a splendid physique and much enthusiasm for her chosen avocation.”

She was, by this time, 39 years old. By 1944, she was promoted to Instructor at Passavant Hospital. With many of her male colleagues being sent to Europe to aid in the WWII efforts, Farnsworth inherited their patients and began her own experimental research into treating what was then a common and often fatal kidney disease, nephritis. She developed a method of using ACTH (adrenocorticotropic hormone) sourced from the pituitary glands of hogs (provided by Armour & Company, in Chicago) to treat patients. This became so successful that she began making national headlines, and her patient list grew exponentially.

Interior of a home with glass walls. A small bed with four modernist chairs and a wooden structure in the center that includes a doorway.

photo by: Bill Hedrich/Newberry Library

Interior of the Farnsworth House c. 1951.

In Search of a Weekend House

Her desire for a weekend house was no less experimental. Rather than a house for a family, which would have been the mid-century American norm, Farnsworth chose to live independently, and she wanted a weekend house that would be both a quiet respite from her life as a physician and researcher, and a place where she could entertain friends, write poetry, and garden. Farnsworth drove 50 miles west of Chicago to find a former Tribune experimental farm—a 9-acre plot of land bounded on the south side by the Fox River—full of maple trees, lindens, and herons. To design and build the structure, she chose Mies van der Rohe, who had not yet built a house in the United States since arriving from Germany in 1938.

How Mies van der Rohe came into Edith’s orbit is unclear. Some historical accounts suggest that she had spoken with Philip Johnson at MoMA, who as Mies’ champion in the United States knew that the German architect was desperate for a private commission that would build his career in the U.S.; however, Farnsworth maintained in her memoir that they simply met at a dinner party hosted by close friends.

The process of designing the house was quite slow. The two would visit the site frequently for picnics with the young architects who worked in Mies’ office, and even the office accountant, Felix Bonnet, from 1946, when design began, through 1949, when construction started. And, as Farnsworth became busier, publishing and presenting her research at conferences, the architects in Mies’ office would draw her charts and visualize her data for her. Farnsworth, in turn, acted as Mies’ physician. The two shared a friendship and an intimacy that, from a historical perspective, is difficult to define.

Three people standing in front of a modern hope. A single level with glass walls.

photo by: William Dunlap/Courtesy David W. Dunlap

Lora Max, Beth Dunlap, and Myron Goldsmith at the Farnsworth House, 1950.

And, they certainly shared a vision for the house. When a model and watercolor of her house was presented at MoMA for Mies’ 1947 retrospective exhibition, Farnsworth was convinced that the house would “become the prototype of new and important elements in American architecture.” While Mies and his office worked out the pragmatic details of the house—and here, Mies relied heavily on Myron Goldsmith, who did the structural calculations—Farnsworth understood the project as a cultural contribution.

Writing an essay for Mies at his request for this retrospective (which was never published), she described his built work as “a kind of art that is difficult to classify,” and among “some of the most memorable innovations of modern architecture…innovations not in subjective fancy but in human experience.”

“Nothing to Limit One’s Transcending”

Political forces both allowed and forbade Farnsworth the liberty of human experiences she desired, and her house is a testament to that. It is undeniable that being born white and wealthy allowed her far more freedom than most women in the United States in the 20th century. And yet, as a young woman traveling in Europe in her late teens and 20s, she felt “released from dimensions that I was used to thinking of as mine. So wide, so long, so thick and with certain traits thrown in, but always through the refraction of other people’s eyes. But now, there was nothing to limit one’s transcending.” What she meant by this is never fully revealed in her papers—though her close friendships with writer Katharine Butler Hathaway and publicly coupled feminists and political activists Molly Dewson and Polly Porter suggest that she valued independence and a life lived on her own terms.

Despite her concerns about some of the experimental aspects of the house that Mies completed by 1951—that there was only one door, that there were just two small hopper windows that were operable, and that there was no private bedroom for guests in the totally open floor plan—Farnsworth was invested in this weekend house. She furnished it with Midcentury Modern furniture when she moved into it, making a home despite the ongoing lawsuit and countersuit. She purchased tables by Florence Knoll, chairs by Bruno Mathsson and Jens Risom, many of which were likely sourced from Baldwin Kingrey, the Chicago-based furniture store owned by Kitty Baldwin Weese and Jody Kingrey Albergo. She fought to retain the house that she’d envisioned, and after years of legal turmoil, she did. The two sides settled in 1955.

Two modern lounge chairs in front of a glass with brown curtains covering some of the glass.

photo by: William Zbaren

A look at the interior of the Farnsworth House as part of "Edith Farnsworth, Reconsidered."

It is easy to imagine a history of an embattled woman, but for another 14 years after the trial ended, and until she lost a dispute with Kendall County over their condemnation of two acres of her land, Farnsworth inhabited her house on Wednesdays and on weekends. Following a flood in 1954 that damaged the furniture and the drapes, she chose pragmatic pieces for the house—the bed was placed directly on the floor, she installed opaque roller blinds that gave her privacy whenever she desired, and she brought in heavier furniture. There are only a few photographs of this period of time. However, Farnsworth’s ongoing relationship with the house is perhaps best recorded in the poetry she wrote and published.

Fragments of her experience within the structure can be traced through lines of her poem “The Quality is Lent”—luminous walls, secluded by reflection—and her drives to the house in the winter and early spring are perhaps described best in “February Thaw.” How is one to travel through a country without landmarks?, she asks, trying to identify the road to the house by counting mailboxes in an otherwise blindingly bright and empty landscape obscured by snow. Her inhabitation of her glass house corresponds with concepts of space that appear in her poetry, but nowhere else in her journals: space is dark, windless, leafless and unblooming in the micro-universe, she writes, speculating on the nature of what she sees in a slide viewed under her microscope.

A black and white image of a modern house with white flooring meeting a glass structure.

photo by: Bill Hedrich/Newberry Library

Exterior of the Edith Farnsworth House in 1951.

Exterior of a modern home. The black and white photograph is looking up at the stairs with a glass wall.

photo by: Dr. Edith Farnsworth/Newberry Library

Exterior of the Farnsworth House in an image presumed to be taken by Farnsworth.

Before she left the house in 1968 to retire to Italy, inspired by her travels there in her early 20s, and by her work translating and publishing the Italian poetry of Eugenio Montale and others, Farnsworth photographed her house. It’s unknown if it was for her own records, or for publication, or as a nod to future researchers, but the views within the photographs do seem intentional: they reconstruct the same points of view as the first published photographs of the house that appear in Architectural Forum in October 1951, just after the lawsuit began.

Those original images, taken by Bill Hedrich, show the house nearly empty and completely transparent. In contrast, Farnsworth’s photographs of the house, taken years later, show vegetation growing up the exterior columns of the house, and spiderwebs in the depth of their flanges; trees heavy with leaves, sheltering the house from view and scattered across the white travertine terrace. In her photographs, the glass walls are at times a mirror in which we can even catch a glimpse of her tripod. What is inside and what is outside is unclear. In these photographs, the glass refuses to negate itself, to disappear. The furniture is heavy, the rugs a little worn at the edges, the vegetation completely wild. It’s a version of the house before anyone thought to turn it into a museum. In renaming this structure the Edith Farnsworth House, a glimmer of this history is recalled and acknowledged.

To honor and celebrate the official name change of the Edith Farnsworth House, the site produced—authored by Nora Wendl—a new catalog. Read the digital version on Issuu.

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Nora Wendl is an associate professor of architecture at the University of New Mexico and executive editor of the Journal of Architectural Education. Her work across mediums—film, photography, installation, essay, and poetry—focuses on how the histories of our spaces are conceived and written.

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