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Mies van der Rohe's Farnsworth House may be getting a needed lift

But how about a change of scene?

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For the past couple months the National Trust for Historic Preservation has been conducting a public campaign around three flood-mitigation ideas for architect Mies van der Rohe's modernist icon Farnsworth House. There's a website, farnsworthproject.org, and in May the trust held a few town-hall meetings cosponsored by Landmarks Illinois and other interested groups. The favored proposal so far? A contraption that would allow the house to be jacked up like a jalopy in a garage whenever there's a threat of seriously rising water. The estimated cost of this hydraulic lift: about $3 million.

Completed in 1951 and owned by the trust for the last decade, Farnsworth House sits near the bank of the Fox River in Plano, about 60 miles southwest of Chicago—and is already on stilts. Aware that he was building on a flood plain, Mies perched it five feet above the ground, but he failed to anticipate that increased development would make previous high-water marks irrelevant. In 1996, during the area's worst flooding since the house was built, the surging river crashed through a glass wall and rose to a depth of five feet inside the structure.

To get a look at the place, you have to trek west through the suburbs on I-88, then south through exurban sprawl and farmland to the Fox River, a drive of about an hour and a half from downtown if you hit any traffic. Once there, you're met with an open gate in a chain-link fence, a gravel parking area, a small round building recently built to shelter Edith Farnsworth's freestanding closet, and a utilitarian visitors' center where you can watch a 26-minute video. Then it's a half-mile walk down a forested path to a clearing at water's edge, where the house stands.

It's as beautiful as any photo you might have seen of it: a perfect little glass box floating on slender, white steel piers, sandwiched between the strong horizontal lines of its roof and floor, with a broad travertine deck on one end. From that deck, which sweeps right into and through the house, boundaries between outside and inside melt away; there's only the spacious green lawn, the trees, the sky, the broad, lazy expanse of river. And the roar of the occasional Harley barreling by on a road and bridge that didn't exist when Mies built the experiment he'd been dreaming of for a decade.

The famous architect and his client, the brilliant nephrologist Dr. Edith Farnsworth (a researcher as well as a physician, she was also a literary translator and an accomplished violinist) met at the home of a mutual friend at a dinner she probably engineered. She was chatty; he, elusively silent, but at the end of the evening, when she asked if he knew someone who might design a small country retreat for a property she'd recently purchased, he said he'd very much like to do it himself.

A number of ecstatic meetings between architect and client followed, but by the time the house was completed, six long years later (and after Mies's model for it had inspired an equally famous glass house by Philip Johnson), the relationship had soured. Mies's stringent minimalist aesthetic meant they were clashing over details like a total lack of closets and screens (no air-conditioning, plenty of mosquitoes). When the cost of the house ballooned from $45,000 to $74,000, Farnsworth refused to pay and Mies sued her, launching a lengthy, embarrassing court battle. In the end she got her screened porch and freestanding wardrobe—along with four feet of water inside the house just three years after she moved in. He got an initial court win and a settlement, but carried his bitterness about the project to his grave.

After commissioning several technical surveys, the trust has posted a feasibility study by structural engineering firm Robert Silman Associates that assesses three possible solutions to the ever-worsening threat of floods: permanently elevating the house by putting a nine-foot hill underneath it, relocating it to higher ground on the site, or building the aforementioned hydraulic lift, which would use a set of four steel trusses to raise the house by nine feet when needed. The study concludes that of the three, the third idea—a pop-up Farnsworth House—is best. Either of the other two options would alter the relationship of the house to the property, permanently affecting the views both inside and out, while the lift would be visible only during periods when the house is in danger of flooding.

Farnsworth House during a flood in 2008 - COURTESY FARNSWORTH HOUSE
  • Courtesy Farnsworth House
  • Farnsworth House during a flood in 2008

Since all three of these options involve lifting the house off its moorings, I wondered if any thought had been given to more radical possibilities—like moving it off the Plano site altogether and bringing it to tourist-hungry Chicago, so desperate for new attractions it's about to turn itself into a light show.

"There's been some talk of moving to a less flood-prone site on the Fox River," National Trust spokesperson Germonique Ulmer told me in a phone interview this week. As far as she knows, however, there hasn't been any discussion about leaving Plano. "We would like the house to stay, as much as possible, where it was designed to be," she said. "The design incorporates the idea that the house is floating, so the location is as much a part of the design as the home itself. And when we purchased the house a decade ago, it was to save it from a buyer who wanted to relocate it."

That's true: the idea of Farnsworth House being trucked to someplace like Long Island was appalling enough to convince a group of donors to pitch in the $7.5 million it took to buy it at auction in 2003.

But moving the house to a Chicago site closer to Mies's IIT campus and downtown high-rises could eliminate the flood threat, create an accessible cluster of the master's work, keep it open year-round (the season now is April to November), and attract many more annual visitors than the 8,100 that made it out to Plano last year.

As for the rule that buildings need to stay in their original locations, you could argue for this as an exception, not only because Mies conceived of a glass house long before he laid eyes on the Plano site, but because the integrity of that site has been compromised. Mies didn't intend the house to flood. He didn't know a new bridge would rise close enough to intrude on its view. And he definitely didn't plan on noise from the traffic rattling by on the stretch of Fox River Drive that Kendall County rerouted through the Farnsworth property in 1968. He set his glass house in a quiet spot under the spreading branches of a magnificent black maple, but even that isn't there anymore.

When people visit Farnsworth House now, both the glory and the folly of it are on full display—which may be the strongest reason to keep it where it is. The sight of this sublime icon cranked up nine feet in the air would put an exclamation mark on that experience. But in my mind's eye I can see Farnsworth House tucked into a Cook County forest preserve, nestled next to a pond in a Chicago park, or spectacularly resettled on the lakeshore, floating between our inland sea and the city that's a world-class showcase of Miesian design.

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