Farnsworth House History


Farnsworth House, one of the most photographed works of architecture in the twentieth century, inspires and challenges architects and the public. The house is a National Historic Landmark and internationally recognized as Mies van der Rohe’s residential masterpiece as it is the first domestic structure designed with glass walls on all sides and with a clear span interior without supporting internal walls. The house represents the search for architectural order and truth based on a rational approach to design. The transparent walls emphasize the complicated relationship between man and nature and the immediacy of the river heightens the awareness of the natural world. Designed between 1946-49 and constructed between 1949-51, as a retreat house for Dr. Edith Farnsworth, the house remained as a private residence until 2003, at which point it was opened to the public as a museum.

As worded in the Historic American Building Survey documentation:

In this, the Farnsworth House is the most succinct expression of the design philosophy Mies perfected in his American period; the creation of a legitimate modern architecture by fusing new industrial materials with enduring, universal principles of scale, proportion and balance. Mies’ highly individual expression, codified by a generation of American students and admirers into a ‘style’, came to dominate downtowns across the world in the second half of the twentieth century. The Farnsworth House, therefore, serves as a primer, a pellucid statement of the idea at the core of the global modern architectural movement.

Location and Property Development

The Farnsworth House is set within a meadow-like clearing on the edge of the Fox River near Plano, Illinois. Plano is a small city located approximately an hour and a half southwest of Chicago. The original site was a 9-acre floodplain and prairie parcel bounded by River Road to the north, Plano-Millbrook Road to the west and the Fox River as the southern boundary. A line of trees near the service drive marks the eastern boundary of the original site. In 1969, as part of a county improvement project, two acres of Dr. Farnsworth’s original parcel were acquired by the county through eminent domain. This land was used to construct a new, wider road and bridge across the Fox River 175 feet closer to the Farnsworth House than the earlier bridge and road had been. At this time, Edith Farnsworth purchased approximately 55 acres of property to the east as a protection measure. But she found that the new road location brought cars, noise and tourists too close to the house, disturbing the serenity that she had sought as a refuge from the stresses of her work in Chicago. Very soon afterwards she put the house up for sale. Lord Peter Palumbo, a British property developer and collector of fine arts and architecture, purchased the property in 1972 and kept it for 30 years before selling it in an auction in 2003. During his ownership he hired Lanning Roper a landscape architect to improve the grounds. Together they planted several hundred trees and thousands of flowering plants, generally following the British informal garden tradition. Lord Palumbo and his family used the Farnsworth House and site primarily for recreational purposes. Over time he installed a boat house for access to the Fox River, an in-ground swimming pool and a tennis court all of which are still located on the property. Palumbo and Roper also created a sculpture walk that included eighteen acres of the additional land purchased by Dr. Farnsworth. Here he installed part of his collection of large outdoor art objects.

The Design and Construction of Farnsworth

Edith Farnsworth (1903-1978) was a prominent Chicago nephrologist and an Assistant Professor of Medicine at Northwestern University. She commissioned Mies van der Rohe, after meeting him at a dinner party, to build a retreat home on a rural floodplain parcel of land she purchased the year before. Her desire was to use the house during time off of work to pursue her personal interests – her dogs, enjoying nature, playing the violin and translating Italian poetry. Mies first visited the site in 1946 and the design was completed in 1947. It was famously included in the Exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art that same year, curated by Philip Johnson who used the Farnsworth House as the inspiration for his own Glass House (New Canaan, Connecticut, 1949). Construction did not start until the fall of 1949 and Mies’s office served as the general contractor.  During construction there were cost overruns and when Farnsworth did not pay the final invoice, Mies filed a suit against her for non-payment. Farnsworth counter-sued for damages and the court ruled in favor of Mies, leading to a settlement. Although their legal dispute was settled, the relationship between Farnsworth and Mies was irreparably damaged. They never spoke to each other again and Mies never saw his iconic house completed. Even after Dr. Farnsworth put the house up for sale, he refused to go out to look at it.

The Original Site

The surrounding landscape determined the orientation of the building, which was set ten feet behind a large Black Sugar Maple tree (it died due to old age; but the wood has been salvaged) and facing the river. Mies intentionally set the finish floor elevation to be one foot higher than the highest recorded flood of the Fox River. While the house was designed for the lower deck (terrace) to flood, the main portion of the house was designed on pilotis to float above the cresting river.

The Edith Farnsworth Years

The house was instantaneously famous, and Edith Farnsworth, an introvert, constantly had architectural tourists trying to peek at the house from the land across the river, the adjacent road or by boat or kayak. The boldest, to get a better view climbed over the fence and walked up to the house . She is quoted as saying “The truth is that in this house with its four walls of glass I feel like a prowling animal, always on the alert…I can rarely stretch out and relax” (House Beautiful, May 1953). The insects on the site were unbearable, so she added bronze screens to the upper porch deck (now removed, see photo) that were painted black. She did little to cultivate the the landscape. She used the contractor’s drive (no longer extant) as her entrance and parked adjacent to the building. The surrounding landscape was naturalized but peppered with a few specimen trees and more natural growth trees and bushes lined the edge of the river. The land east, north and south of her, was owned by the McCormick family and used for experimental farming and other agricultural purposes. Mies never got the chance to design any furniture for this building. It was furnished eclectically by Dr. Farnsworth with furniture mostly from her apartment in Chicago.

The Lord Peter Palumbo Years

When Palumbo, an architecture aficionado, purchased the house, he removed the screens, constructed a more formal, curved arrival driveway lined with a variety of maple trees and retained Mies grandson, Dirk Lohan, an architect, to furnish the house in the manner he felt Mies would have if he had been given the opportunity. This resulted in the interior of the house being a close approximation of his concept of the Miesien ideal.

Peter Palumbo actively engaged the land with the assistance of landscape architect, Lanning Roper. They created a horticulture plan and trail system referred to as the sculpture walk. Palumbo commissioned and collected sculpture for this walk by Andy Goldsworthy, Anthony Caro, Alexander Calder, Richard Sera, Henry Moore, Claes Oldenberg, and Ellsworth Kelly. Palumbo also added the boathouse, the swimming pool, and the tennis court.

The National Trust and Landmarks Illinois Years

The Farnsworth House was the first architecture sold by an arts auction house, Sotheby’s, demonstrating how the house straddled between the art and architecture worlds. It was purchased by two preservation organizations and a group of supporters led by Chicago philanthropists to underscore their commitment to saving important Modernist architecture, to have a positive impact on how modern architecture is viewed, to make available to the public and to keep it from being dismantled and relocated to another site; possibly overseas.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation and Landmarks Illinois have added the bridge that spans Rob Roy Creek, the Ipe bridge over a small swale at the original eastern edge of the property, the visitor center and Barnsworth, a design-build studio project (IIT, professor Frank Flury) created to exhibit the wardrobe which was restored after the last flood, but not returned to the house.

The Landscape Today

The National Register Nomination identifies the period of significance as 1951 and the features of the property that relate to that period include the House, the garage, and the older trees. The current site is divided by Rob Roy Creek and over the years the former sculpture walk has become a forested glen between the visitors center and the Farnsworth House. The land, to the east of the current visitor center is still used agriculturally. The National Trust rents it to a local farmer who alternates bean and corn crops.

The majority of the land to the east of the site, north across River Road and south across the river is state owned park land that is used for hunting, fishing and other recreational uses. There are a few single family homes on the north side of River Rod towards the west end of the property. There is also a pasture that a local farmer uses to graze cattle.

Current Flood Mitigation

The Fox River begins in Wisconsin near Wakesha and flows south into the Illinois River, draining an area of over 2000 square miles before it arrives at Farnsworth. The Farnsworth House has been flooded by the river numerous times because the calculations done by Mies based on the information available at the time, proved to be inaccurate. Each flood, even those that do not enter the house damage elements of the building. The more serious ones destroy parts of the fabric of the building as well. Due to continuing urbanization of the Fox River watershed, hydrologists who have modeled the river have concluded that the frequency and intensity of flooding will increase over time, inundating the house on average every 7 years.

The owner of the house and the land, the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the easement holder, Landmarks Illinois are committed to mitigating the risk of the house being flooded. For more information on the flood mitigation project, visit www.Farnsworthproject.org