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Less Was Less

Edith Farnsworth's housing problems

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I'd seen so many pictures of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's Farnsworth House over the years, I wasn't sure I needed to see the real thing. So I wasn't expecting any surprises when I backed the car out of the garage one recent morning, drove southwest on the highway forever (OK, an hour and a half), pulled up in front of a big ugly shed that said "Visitors' Center," plunked down $15, and, in the company of an architect from Berlin and her boyfriend, followed a guide down a long grass-and-gravel path to a riverbank where the icon suddenly appeared. It was like meeting a movie star on the street--the little white steel-and-glass box looked at the same time exactly like, and vitally different from, its photographs.

The house is named for the woman who commissioned it: Edith Farnsworth, a respected nephrologist who practiced at Chicago's Passavant Memorial Hospital. As Mies's biographer Franz Schulze tells it, Farnsworth and Mies met at a dinner party in late 1945 or early '46, just after she had purchased land on the Fox River, 60 miles west of Chicago, for a weekend retreat. Would someone in his office be interested in designing a house for it? she asked. Mies, who had come to Chicago from Nazi Germany seven years earlier and was better known in Europe than in America, took the assignment himself. It was doubly appealing: he had not yet had a chance to build a house here and--more important--because Farnsworth was single, the design would not be shackled to the oh-so-boring demands of family life. Farnsworth was, according to Schulze, an ungainly woman looking for love, whose "formidable intellect compensated, but never enough," for her appearance. Mies, who had left his wife and children in Europe, was a charmer looking for a client. They visited the property, picnicked on the riverbank, communed over poetry, and, in a frenzy of infatuation (hers) and inspiration (his), decided it was a go.

By the time the house was completed, five years later, things had soured. Schulze guesses this was due more to disappointment with their relationship than to problems with the house, but there were plenty of those. Mies's famous dictum--"less is more"--apparently didn't apply to budgets. Farnsworth was planning to spend $40,000 on construction; when the bills reached $70,000, she balked. Besides, the roof leaked, the window walls were obscured by condensation, and there wasn't a real closet in the place. There was no air-conditioning, which wasn't unusual at the time, but only two small windows in this fish tank of a dwelling had been designed to open. She demanded that the deck be screened for protection from the hordes of mosquitoes and assigned the job to someone else in Mies's office. When she refused to give Mies any more money, he sued her. She sued back, charging that he had falsely represented himself as a skilled architect. There was a long, nasty legal battle in which he eventually prevailed. To add insult to injury, although Mies had made a grand show of gauging the maximum height of the Fox River and built the house to be flood proof, three years after Farnsworth moved in she was engulfed in four feet of standing water. Then the county announced that it was building a road and bridge across the northwest corner of her property, ruining the view in that direction and bringing the rumble of traffic within earshot of the house.

Still, Mies had been able to bring his idea of "almost nothing" to its most beautiful realization in this one-room, "clear span" rectangle--a house reduced to eight vertical steel supports, glass walls, a marble floor, a flat roof, and a wood-clad utility core. (While still in drawings it inspired the Glass House architect Philip Johnson built for himself in Connecticut.) The juxtaposition of this spare, white geometric form with the lush natural surroundings is magic, but what really makes it work is something incorporated out of necessity: the five-foot elevation that failed to protect the house from flooding but succeeds in making it float above the landscape like an apparition--graceful from the outside and glorious from within. Mies's comment that "when one observes nature through the glass walls of the Farnsworth House it takes on a deeper significance than when one stands outside" sounds like megalomania, but he was right.

Farnsworth lived in the house till '71, when she sold it (and 60 acres) to former British Arts Council chairman Lord Peter Palumbo for $125,000. She moved to Italy, where she worked with Nobel Prize winner Eugenio Montale, translating his poetry. She died in '77. Palumbo equipped the house with Mies-designed furniture, installed air-conditioning, and commissioned Lanning Roper to tinker with the landscape. In 1996 the Fox River rose ten feet and crashed through two window walls of the house; when it peaked, the muddy water was five feet deep inside. Palumbo hired architect Dirk Lohan, Mies's grandson, to restore the house at a cost of half a million dollars.

Except for the Shaker rocker, teddy bears, family portraits in the bathrooms, and sculptures dropped like so many tchotchkes on the grounds, Farnsworth House probably now looks more like Mies intended than it did when the disappointed doctor lived there. It's open to the public Wednesdays through Sundays, 11 to 3, through Thanksgiving (winter tours by appointment). Admission is $15. The address is 14520 River Road in Plano; call 630-552-8622 for directions and reservations. An exhibition, "Mies van der Rohe's Farnsworth House," continues through August 30 in the Chicago Architecture Foundation's Atrium Gallery, 224 S. Michigan in Chicago. CAF gallery hours are 9 to 6 Mondays through Saturdays, 9:30 to 5 Sundays. Admission is free; call 312-922-3432.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/courtesy Farnsworth House (Bernard Newman, Lambros Photography, Tom Blanchard); courtesy Northwestern Memorial Hospital Archive.

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