The breathtaking architectural icon that is Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House narrowly avoided a grievous fate when it sold at auction to the National Trust for Historic Preservation last winter. When the house came up for sale in the fall, the developers began to circle. One prospective buyer would move the house to Pennsylvania, perhaps to a theme park. Another wanted to take it to Wisconsin. Others eyed the 61-acre parcel on which it sits with visions of a subdivision dancing in their heads.
The threat of loss galvanized John H. Bryan, arts patron and chairman of the Sara Lee Corporation, to form the Friends of the Farnsworth House, which campaigned to have then-Illinois Governor George Ryan acquire Farnsworth House for the state for $8 million. Ryan left office before the deal was done, and the house went up for sale. Bryan and the Friends of Farnsworth House engaged with the National Trust and the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois (LPCI) to mount a campaign to raise the funds to purchase the house, to guarantee that it remain on its original site and to maintain public access to the house.
Friends of the Farnsworth, the National Trust and LPCI managed to raise enough money to win Farnsworth House for $7.5 million in December at a Sotheby’s sale in New York City, but it was a very near thing. The house was estimated at between $4.5 million and $6 million, but the preservation groups had raised only $3.5 million by the morning of the auction. Devoted members dug in their heels, dug into their pockets and worked the phones like demons to come up with the additional $4 million. One anonymous Mies fan pledged $750,000; John H. Bryan pledged $500,000 above his prior $500,000 donation; Richard Gray, the art dealer who bid for the house on behalf of the preservation groups, was prepared to contribute another sizable chunk. Another $500,000 was raised even as the bidding proceeded.
Farnsworth House is now officially open to the public, owned by the National Trust and operated as a museum by the Landmarks Preservation Council. An historic easement has been put in place to prevent any inappropriate changes to the house and the property without the preservation groups’ permission in perpetuity regardless of ownership.
Commissioned as a weekend home by Edith Farnsworth, a Chicago physician, the house in Plano sits above the Fox River about 60 miles southwest of Chicago. Farnsworth House typifies Mies’s “less is more” philosophy. It measures 2,000 square feet, comprises two steel framed precast concrete slabs, the ceiling and the roof, and is suspended 5 feet 3 inches above the ground by eight steel columns in two parallel rows.
The all-glass rectangle is simple and austere. Nothing is superfluous. Form surely follows function.
Simply put, it floats. The walls are of perfectly rectangular sheets of quarter-inch floor-to-ceiling glass attached to the beams by steel mullions. Every weld in the frame was ground and polished. The interior is open except for a central core that houses the kitchen, two bathrooms, a fireplace and utilities. The columns and decks are precisely plumb and level. Heating is through radiant coils in the concrete. The interior and exterior flooring is of Italian travertine limestone. The demarcation between outdoors and the inside of the house is indistinct. A screened exterior space adjacent to the interior intensifies that absence of definition. The outdoors flows indoors, and the indoors flows outdoors as the house appears to hover above the meadow. A lower platform serves as an entry and a terrace. It, too, is suspended, about two feet above the ground. Broad steps lead from one pavilion to the other.
The elevation of the house is not merely aesthetic. Because the house was built on a flood plain, it was elevated to keep it above any flooding from the Fox River. Rampant development in the area, the fastest growing county in Illinois, since the house was completed in 1951 has contributed to higher waters each year.
Farnsworth House is one of only three residences Mies designed in the United States. It was completed in 1951 after six years of planning and construction at a cost of $73,000, which equates to about $500,000 in today’s terms. As some said then, it was a lot of money for one room, especially since it was built on land Farnsworth inherited. The recent auction price really represents a lot of money for a one-room house. It is, however, a one-room house that had a profound impact on American design.
Mies designed the Farnsworth House as a clear span building, a concept he applied to the design of the German Pavilion at the International Exposition in Barcelona in 1928-29, Tugendhat House in the Czech Republic and at S.R. Crown Hall at Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) in Chicago.
Born Ludwig Mies in Aachen in 1886, he added his mother’s name “van der Rohe” in 1921 after his first marriage ended. Mies came to the United States at the strong urging of his friend and colleague architect Phillip Johnson at a time when Chicago was where it was happening, architecturally speaking. IIT had recruited Mies, then head of the Bauhaus, as director of its school of architecture in 1938 as the political climate in his native Germany darkened. IIT had merged with another school and a new campus was in order.
Mies designed the master plan for the 120-acre campus of which Crown Hall is the jewel. The campus includes 20 Mies buildings and the school celebrates his birthday annually with a party and a cake in the form of Crown Hall.
Like Farnsworth House, the 26,000-square-foot Crown Hall has an open, flexible space that flows without the distractions of interior columns and walls. It, too, has a central core for services and utilities.
Farnsworth House took six years to design and build, during which time Mies and the owner met frequently to consult on design and execution. When the house was finally finished, Farnsworth was unhappy with the cost and the result, and their relationship ended abruptly. Lawsuits resulted that ended in Mies’s favor and unpleasant publicity followed. When Farnsworth gained no legal victory, she took to the popular press and a lot of negative print was generated about the house. One popular shelter magazine in 1953 decried Mies, Walter Gropius, Le Corbusier and the International style in general, suggesting that it was a threat to America and that communist ideology inspired the buildings. Even Frank Lloyd Wright hopped aboard the antimodernist bandwagon, calling the practitioners of the International style “totalitarians.”
Farnsworth continued to use the house although she made some changes. One of her major objections was that at night the house was like a beacon attracting all manner of bugs and moths. She engaged Chicago architect William E. Dunlap to design removable bronze-framed screens to deter the wildlife. She sold the house in the early 1970s to Lord Palumbo, who restored it to its 1951 state, bought additional surrounding acreage and added furniture designed by Mies van der Rohe.
Lord Palumbo, a British arts patron and former chairman of the Arts Council of Great Britain, was Farnsworth House’s very own angel. Without his careful stewardship, the house would certainly have passed into oblivion.
Farnsworth House was the first in the collection of significant houses that Palumbo acquired. He went on to buy Le Corbusier’s Maisons Jaoul in Neuilly outside Paris and Kentuck Knob, a 1954 Frank Lloyd Wright house near Falling Water in Chalk Hill, Penn. He also proposed a tower in London designed by Mies.
Lord Palumbo engaged American landscape architect Lanning Roper and installed a sculpture park in the grounds with pieces by such artists as Harry Bertoia, Jim Dine, Wendy Taylor, Andy Goldsworthy, Anthony Caro and Richard Serra.
After devastating floods in 1996 and again in 1997 shattered some glass and damaged the woodwork and the contents, Lord Palumbo engaged Lohan again to restore the house, this time at an estimated cost of $500,000.
After the second flood and subsequent restoration, Lord Palumbo opened the house to limited tours. He erected a prefabricated white metal visitor center on the grounds about a ten-minute walk along the river from the house. It was renovated for the recent reopening of the house to the public and houses a theater, a bookstore and a gift shop.
What is frequently described in textbooks and architectural circles as “a perfect house” is just like any other building in its maintenance requirements. Painting and rust removal are nearly constant projects, the travertine decks need weekly cleaning and stains left by falling leaves in autumn need to be bleached. Like any other property, the grounds at Farnsworth require regular maintenance.
Barely pausing for breath after their triumph at auction, the Friends of the Farnsworth, the National Trust and LPCI are working to raise $5 million to establish an endowment to support Farnsworth House. Since taking ownership the groups have renovated the visitor center, tidied up the landscape that has been neglected for several years and made minor repairs to the house that is anticipated to be an international destination.
Farnsworth House is at 14520 River Road. It is open during the summer Tuesday-Sunday, 10 am to 4 pm. It is open by appointment only from December through March. For information, 312-922-1742 or .