Above Photo: The Farnsworth House. Located in Plano, Illinois it was designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and completed in 1951.
“The essentials for living are floor and roof. Everything else is proportion and nature. Whether the house pleases or not is inconsequential.”
– Ludwig Mies van der Rohe
Sitting quietly on the banks of the Fox River in Plano, Illinois is a home that has become an icon of American Modernism. But despite its rather bucolic surroundings the Farnsworth House is a home of tumult – both manmade and naturally occurring.
In the summer of 1945 Dr. Edith Farnsworth was having a dinner party and in attendance was Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Mies was quite taken by the articulate and intelligent Dr. Farnsworth and not long after she had commissioned him to build a weekend retreat on a piece of riverfront property she had recently acquired. The only proviso Farnsworth had insisted upon was that Mies design the house as if he were designing it for himself.
Rumors about Mies and Dr. Farnsworth having more than a professional relationship had floated about in their social circles but whatever the true cause, their relationship had soured during the building of Farnsworth House. What should have been an ideal commission for Mies was marred by a very publicized dispute between he and Farnsworth with the trouble beginning almost immediately after construction had started. With escalating costs and budget overruns, by 1951, as construction neared completion, the total cost of the home was close to $74,000 ($650, 000 in today’s money), nearly 16,000 ($150,000) over estimate.
Farnsworth held back on the final payment of the home citing – oddly – that she was awaiting an inheritance from an ailing aunt. Mies, who acted not only as architect but general contractor on the project, filed a lawsuit for non-payment of $28,173 in construction costs. Upping the ante Farnsworth countersued Mies, alleging malpractice claiming she had not approved the cost increase and plan changes. However, Mies’ attorneys proved that Farnsworth had approved the plans and budget increases, and the court ordered her to pay her bills. It was a bitter victory for Mies that came with painful publicity and a site that was unfinished when he left with the remaining work on the house being finished by architect William Dunlap. Mies never communicated with Edith, nor spoke about their rumored relationship again.
For the next 21 years Edith Farnsworth continued to use the house as her weekend retreat. But in 1968 the local highway department condemned a two-acre portion of the property adjoining the house with the intent of building a new raised highway bridge over the Fox River. Farnsworth sued to stop the project but lost the court case and shortly afterward sold the home and retired to her villa in Italy.
Shortly after completion, the Farnsworth House received numerous accolades in the architectural press but perhaps one the oddest turn of events for the home was a result of the national social conflicts of the McCarthy era. The Farnsworth House became a lightning rod for anti-Modernist publications notably with a 1953 House Beautiful magazine article attacking the home as, “communist-inspired effort to supplant traditional American styles.” Even Frank Lloyd Wright denounced the house as un-American. But the accolades outweighed the accusations with the Farnsworth house now acclaimed as a masterpiece of the modernist style. Mies himself went on to receive the presidential Medal of Freedom for his contribution to American architecture and culture.
But the Farnsworth House is not without its problems; incredibly energy inefficient, leaks, and perhaps the most problematic of all being flooding. Aware of the home being built on a flood plain Mies Van der Rohe had it elevated on ‘stilts’. This would keep the main floor of the home above the water line during spring floods. However, in recent years the floodwaters have risen considerably and on three occasions the floodwaters broke through the glass walls of the home causing extensive damage to the interior. Restored each time the current owners, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, are taking measures to prevent further flood damage.
The Farnsworth House still sits resolutely on a flood plane just outside of Chicago. Critics praise it as a timeless masterpiece modern architecture – which it is. Others call it an exercise in the relationship between the individual and his/her environment, which it also is. Some have called it ‘un-American – which is it most decidedly not. The Farnsworth House is a small, one-room weekend house that bore silent witness to a small slice of Modernist history. It is a testament that despite the clash of philosophy and exercise, of emotion and pragmatism, of even ration and fear beauty can be born.