The day hazed as we made the one hour drive out toward Plano, Illinois, to tour one of the most historic and important Modern houses in the world, the Farnsworth House by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. After partaking in a fabulous brunch nearby (we asked Siri: "Where's a good place to eat?"), we rushed to the tour when some unexpected construction forced us to take a roundabout path.
The area around Plano (population: ~10,000) is still rural: cornfields and sulking red barns. Gray tendrils of Chicagoland (population: ~ 9.5 million) are uncoiling nearby, so who knows how long the cropfields will last. The Fox River woozes through the relatively flat terrain, its headwaters a short distance northwest of Milwaukee. The 202-mile long river merges with the Illinois River some 60 miles to the southwest of Chicago. About four-fifths of the river rests upstream of Plano, a good catchment to create a pleasantly lazy river, but also a good catchment to create the occasional monster.
It's easy to see why Dr. Edith Farnsworth was attracted to the property when she purchased it for weekend respites from the hustle and bustle of the big city. Lush trees and the ever-calming flow of water just beyond the treeline. She met Mies at a dinner party in 1945 and quickly commissioned him to design a Modern house for the site, giving him free reign to design what he wanted to. He developed the design by 1947 (in time to show it at a 1947 MoMA show in New York) and completed the 1,500 square-foot house in 1951. Due to an ultimately acrimonious relationship with Farnsworth that resulted in lawsuits (perhaps fed by a broken affair), Mies never set foot in the house again after its construction.
Total cost of the house was $74,000 (that would be $677,000 in 2014) with $15,600 of that coming in over the original budget. Unhappy with the cost-overuns, Farnsworth refused to pay for some construction costs and Mies' architectural fees. Mies sued and won, showing that Farnsworth had approved the increased costs. But the messy trial resulted in bad publicity for the architect, and subsequent articles about the house during the quicksand of the McCarthy era suggested that his architecture was rooted in communism.
Despite the acrimony steeped into the house, Farnsworth lived in it for the next 21 years, only selling it after the highway department built an elevated bridge next door to the house (a truly unfortunate event). Peter Palumbo bought the house and lived in it for 31 years before putting it up for auction in 2003, pitching how easy it would be to move the house somewhere else. The National Trust for Historic Preservation and Landmarks Illinois were able to purchase the property for $7.5 million and preserve it for prosperity and public viewing (yay!). The house joined the National Register of Historic Places in 2004 and became a National Historic Landmark in 2006.
The house is stunning, a perfect glass jewel box nestled among the trees. Similar to Corbusier's be-stilted houses, the Farnsworth House is elevated onto stilts. However, the five-foot elevation is here to accommodate occasional floods, not design dogma (Mies didn't place the house high enough: the remnants of Hurricane Ike resulted in 1.5 feet of water inside the house in 2008).
Mies is infamous for details (after all, he's the dude that said "God is in the details"), and his attention to perfection is evident here. Everything is well thought out. From the outside, the house is a sculptural art object. From the inside, the outside is everywhere, a sublime engagement with the outdoors (without the mosquitoes...).
If you go on the tour, consider the last one of the day where indoor photography is allowed (something that wasn't clear until I bought tickets for earlier in the day).
Coming over the bridge, Farnsworth barely peeks out from the trees across the Fox River.
This must be the place!
The visitor center.
The house is that-a-way!
Peeking through the trees again. The original access was from the right.
It's like a temple... The thick trunk-like silhouette underneath the mid-point of the house is where the utilities come into and exit the house. The LP tank is buried to leave the landscape unsullied.
No railings, thank gawd; but you can't invite drunks or kids over to visit...
Here you can see the I-beams providing the foundation of the house. Notice how he makes a point of showing how the house is held up and retracts the beam from being flush with the floor.
Large single panes of non-tempered glass.
Photos weren't allowed inside during our tour, but you can't have inside photo restrictions in a glass house! Looking into the office, dining room, and living room. The wood veneered volume in the center holds the fireplace, a guest bath (this side), the master bath (opposite side), and the kitchen (left side). The bedroom on the back side of the wood volume.
If you live in a glass house, you need curtains. These were designed to look good from both sides. This is looking down the entire length of the house through the galley kitchen.
Slightly different angle of the same view showing a wisp of the kitchen.
Here's a view of the kitchen from the outside.
And here's a view of the bedroom side of the house. Original parking for the house would have been off to the right and toward us.
Porch side view. Mies designed screens for the porch.
"Back" view of the house, although this would have been the original view of the house on approach.
Beautifully non-descript boathouse built later by Palumbo. Unclear who the architect was.
This structure houses the wardrobe Mies designed for the house at Farnsworth's insistence.
The wardrobe is gorgeous, but it breaks up the flow of the house. Given that it was intended to be a weekend house, Mies anticipated that minimal storage would be needed for clothes; Farnsworth had other thoughts.
Dumpster at Farnsworth.