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On the Block

Will Illinois let Mies's spectacular Farnsworth House slip through its fingers?



Although Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's landmark Farnsworth House is in the distant town of Plano, on the Fox River about 20 miles southwest of Aurora, it's as much a part of Chicago's architectural legacy as Frank Lloyd Wright's Robie House or Unity Temple. It was the first house Mies built in America, the forerunner to his great glass-and-steel towers (such as the 860-880 N. Lake Shore Drive apartments), and the specific inspiration for Philip Johnson's own landmark glass house in New Canaan, Connecticut. Raised five feet above the ground to protect it from flooding, with walls of glass within a spare framework of white-painted steel, it seems to float in its wooded landscape. Mies biographer Franz Schulze has compared it to a temple, and architecture fans have treated it like one: from 1997 to 2002 Farnsworth House was open weekends to the public, and during that time thousands of people from all over the world made the pilgrimage.

Now the house is at a crossroads. Public access might be expanded and made permanent, or the house might be returned permanently to strictly private use. It might be altered, subdivided, or even moved. Farnsworth House's two identities--architectural treasure and trophy property--are at war with each other.

The original sin of most landmark buildings is that they were born as real estate. Unless they can turn a competitive profit they're fated to be destroyed. Houses are no different. They're built not just to shelter but to appreciate. Even in this uncertain economy, housing prices continue to climb. The pressure on owners of landmark houses to cash in is unabated.

Farnsworth House was built in 1951 for $73,000, which included the cost overruns that resulted in incredibly bitter litigation between Mies and his client, Dr. Edith Farnsworth. Today, Sotheby's in New York estimates the value of the house and its surrounding 58 acres as between $4.5 and $6 million. Sotheby's will be auctioning it off December 12 for Lord Peter Palumbo, who bought it from Farnsworth in 1971. Palumbo is an English real estate developer who in the 1960s commissioned Mies to design an office tower that would have been the architect's only London building. The proposal never overcame opposition from quarters that included Prince Charles, a dull-witted but relentless foe of modern design. Farnsworth House was Palumbo's consolation prize.

Though he was only occasionally in residence, for more than three decades Palumbo proved a stalwart custodian. When a disastrous 1997 Fox River flood trashed the place like a rock band on a rampage, Palumbo picked up the hefty tab for a full restoration. He'd fallen in love with the house, and came from London to make sure it survived.

In today's free-market frenzy, that kind of devotion is increasingly seen as a sucker's game. The fear among preservationists that the next owner would go so far as to dismantle and move Farnsworth House isn't an idle one. At least two such deals have fallen through in the last year or so.

Says David Bahlman, president of the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois, "We sort of accept as a real threat the fact that the building is worth more as a work of art than it is as a house on the Fox River."

Palumbo told London's Financial Times that recent burglaries, as well as his own serious health problems, had led him to decide to sell off Farnsworth and keep only the other landmark house he owns, Frank Lloyd Wright's Kentuck Knob in Pennsylvania--which is within driving distance of Johns Hopkins Hospital, where he's received treatment for cancer. In April 2001, after Palumbo's intentions became known, Friends of the Farnsworth House formed with a strategy of preserving the landmark by arranging for the state of Illinois to buy it. Among the Friends in Chicago were architects Helmut Jahn, John Vinci, and Mies's grandson Dirk Lohan as well as such heavy hitters as John Bryan, former chairman of the Sara Lee Corporation, and former governor James Thompson.

After prolonged negotiations, a deal was hammered out with Governor George Ryan, and the only remaining formality was approval by the Illinois attorney general. But the "formality" morphed into a death blow. In February of this year, incoming attorney general Lisa Madigan vetoed the deal, citing such inconvenient facts as the state budget's lack of a line item covering the $7 million sale price of the house (Ryan's office had contended that any of several capital funds could be tapped) and the absence of a provision for funding its ongoing operation and maintenance.

Though the last state-financed rescue (of Frank Lloyd Wright's endangered Dana-Thomas House) was more than 20 years past, the Friends seemed never to have seen the necessity of a Plan B. So it's now back to square one, with the December 12 deadline looming. "Palumbo could have sold the house three years ago," says Bahlman. "I think he's terribly angry that he was jerked around by the state of Illinois."

There are no restrictions on the sale. Farnsworth House could wind up being totally closed to the public. Its 58 acres could be subdivided and developed, the house itself altered beyond recognition or chopped up into the world's most expensive collector toothpicks. Palumbo has already removed the sculpture he'd assembled on the grounds. The grim possibilities galvanized the Landmarks Preservation Council board into action. "We had an emergency board meeting," says Bahlman. "We decided that as a statewide preservation organization, if we couldn't come forth and actually make something happen here to protect this extraordinary international resource, then what are we in the business to be doing?"

The LPCI decided to engineer the purchase of Farnsworth House. It's kicked in the first million dollars itself and enlisted the National Trust for Historic Preservation to contribute another million. A Friends of the Farnsworth House list has been pulled out of mothballs and its members are being aggressively courted for contributions.

And if the campaign is successful? "We are going to have a partnership," says Bahlman. "The National Trust will assume ownership, and we will have an arrangement with the National Trust where we will hold an easement on the property and manage it. So there will be local management and local control."

"We have our work cut out for us," says National Trust president Richard Moe. The trust already owns a number of historic homes, including the Philip Johnson house and Frank Lloyd Wright's home and studio in Oak Park, but those were bequeathed to it. Acquiring a landmark in a public auction would be a first for the trust, and it's scrambling to raise its $1 million and beyond, to the full purchase price. If the effort fails, that money will go back to donors, but Moe says he's feeling "pretty confident" about the outcome.

The LPCI could cut its $1 million check tomorrow because its finances are in a lot better shape than the average nonprofit's. "We have five different funds that we maintain from an accounting point of view," says Bahlman. "We basically have done well in the last couple of years, not only in events that we've run but also in contributions, foundation grants, some of which are restricted and some of which aren't. Basically, the bottom line is that we currently have approximately $3 million in liquid assets."

Bahlman doesn't see the effort as setting a precedent. "Almost every major preservation organization in the country has a revolving fund which they use to buy properties to protect them," he says. "Ten years ago, LPCI bought Frank Lloyd Wright's Waller Apartments. We actually rehabilitated them and sold them." What's different today is scale. Price inflation has placed preservation projects such as Farnsworth House far beyond the reach of any one organization. Salvaging something like Woodlawn's embattled Saint Gelasius Church could cost millions, the Uptown Theatre tens of millions.

But if the fight to save Farnsworth House succeeds, it must become a precedent. If every new battle for a landmark has to stand alone, more and more will end in failure. A new model is needed, one that brings together preservationists, donors, public officials, and civic-minded developers to forge private/public partnerships that can save and secure endangered landmarks--not on an ad hoc basis but in an ongoing process that learns and grows more capable with each battle.

As for the role of government, the very concept of a public interest in the arts is under assault. Support now takes the form of favors from legislators. Six months after Lisa Madigan's high-profile cancellation of the state's deal to acquire Farnsworth House, Rich Miller's Capitol Fax newsletter reported that Governor Blagojevich had released, without fanfare, nearly $200 million for various "members' initiatives" sponsored by individual lawmakers. Miller was quick to brand the spending "pork," but what exactly was in the barrel? House speaker Michael Madigan secured $5.5 million for the Springfield Center for the Arts. Senate president Emil Jones arranged $10 million for the new Chicago Music and Dance Theatre, $4.5 million for the Muntu Dance Theatre, and $1.5 million for the Little Black Pearl Workshop, a gallery-studio-classroom complex on the south side. Even the Chicago-hating former senate president, Republican Pate Philip, sponsored $1.9 million for the city's Museum of Broadcast Communications. Laudable causes all, and saving Farnsworth House is at the very least their equal.

The idea that supporting culture is the cause of, say, draconian cutbacks in mental health care is a con of Yellow Kid Weil proportions. Most major initiatives are funded not by an immediate lump-sum hit to general revenues but by selling bonds. If history is any guide, prosperity will at some point return; state finances will recover. But for Farnsworth House there may be no second chance.

When Attorney General Madigan wondered why the state should pick up the entire $7 million tab if saving Farnsworth House was so important to so many people, she asked a valid question. The LPCI and the NHTP answered by putting $2 million where their mouths were. But though Bahlman insists that the state is completely and irretrievably out of the picture, it shouldn't be let off the hook so easily. The state could guarantee bonds in an amount equal to the purchase price of Farnsworth House, giving preservationists several years before the bonds mature--not just the weeks until the auction--to raise the funds required. The Department of Natural Resources could contribute by arranging to buy the 38 acres of the Farnsworth grounds that aren't in sight from the house and merge them with Silver Springs State Park, which borders the property on three sides. Preservationists could agree to maintain this acreage.

What makes Farnsworth House worth all the fuss? Why has it been called Mies's most perfect building? In a word, transparency. To critics of modernism such as novelist Tom Wolfe, the transparent glass wall is just another arbitrary stylistic mannerism. In truth, it's the idealistic flash point of modern architecture.

Just as steel-frame construction liberated buildings from the historical inevitability of massive load-bearing walls, the window wall marked our escape from the idea of buildings as fortresses shielding us from a relentlessly hostile external world. The optimists of 20th-century democracy dared to dream of a world that no longer had to be feared and an architecture that was, in the words of Mies's associate Peter Carter, "mysteriously diminishing the boundary between man-made habitat and the natural world."

Like all dreams, this one has been subverted by time, by the ever more massive floor plates that cram workers deeper and deeper into cubicles in windowless interiors and by the ever larger sealed and artificial interiors of our shopping malls. If you don't love the tumult of the city, living in a glass skyscraper may not seem a plus. "Aren't the disadvantages of the exterior--ozone depleted, carbo-charged, globally heated--by now well established?" architect Rem Koolhaas has asked.

At Farnsworth House, however, the virtues of transparency endure, pure and powerful. The house dissolves the alienating division between outside and inside, letting nature and the change of seasons become a seamless part of the experience of the building.

"Here I am, Philip, am I indoors or am I out?" gibed Frank Lloyd Wright--whose own buildings tended to shut themselves up from the outside world--when confronted by Philip Johnson's glass house. "Do I take my hat off or keep it on?" Wright had begun to sour on Mies and his kind of modernism. But in this instance Mies was the one who got it right.

"Before you live in a glass house you do not know how colorful nature is," Mies said. "We should attempt to bring nature, houses, and human beings together in a higher unity."

Palumbo made this higher unity available to anyone willing to make the drive to Plano. The auctioning off of Farnsworth House threatens to restrict it to a single pair of eyes.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Stephen Longmire.

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