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Cutting Edge: Illinois is poised to buy a glass house

It can be described as a fishbowl on stilts or a jewel set in a forest. 

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe designed the Farnsworth House as a place of solace where the elements of nature meet the ideals of modern architecture. And in many regards his house has always been a place where opposing forces meet. 

Even architects love it or hate it. That heated response reflects a clash of aesthetics and ideology. Frank Lloyd Wright, for example, America’s most famous architect, attacked the house and similar projects as the work of “totalitarians” who “were not wholesome people.” 

Mies’ house also reflects the tension between artistic vision and more practical considerations. Mies once led a German art school founded on the principle that “form follows function.” Yet this steel-and-glass building came with huge heating bills, swarms of bugs and precious little privacy. In fact, Edith Farnsworth was so disillusioned with her retreat home, she sued Mies. When she lost in court, she resorted to attacks in the press.

Others lined up behind Mies’ bold project, though. “To acclaim him for the monumental purity of his form and yet deplore his buildings’ malfunction in some pragmatic details, is rather like praising the sea for being blue while chiding it for being salty, or admiring the tiger for the beauty of his coat while urging him to become a vegetarian,” opined the architectural scholar James Marston Fitch.

Now the state of Illinois is poised to spend at least $6 million to buy a house whose very appeal rests on such contradictions. Illinois would become the proprietor of what is known in architecture circles as one of the most revolutionary buildings of the last century. But, of course, this mission presents yet another contradiction: a building commissioned as an inexpensive weekend retreat for a single person used as a museum for visitors from across the globe.

That was the idea of a group of leading patrons, artists and critics who urged the state to buy the residence. The group included famed architect Helmut Jahn, John H. Bryan, who chairs the Art Institute of Chicago and the Sara Lee Corp., and former Gov. James Thompson. They joined forces last spring to persuade the state to jump at the chance to buy the house, the only Mies house in the United States. 

They succeeded. But even in this there are complications. The dollars to buy the house aren’t readily apparent in the new state budget. Staff in the governor’s office will only say that the administration inserted enough money for the purchase in the final budget agreement — somewhere. And there are other hurdles to overcome before the property can pass from private to public hands: two appraisals and an acceptable price. 

Still, architecture buffs are ecstatic. If the state successfully acquires the property from Lord Peter Palumbo, they argue, the integrity of the site can be maintained. Visitors will always have access to one of Mies’ most famous works, located 50 miles west of Chicago along the Fox River in Plano.

“[The house] raises the question of what makes a great house: one that is admired by everyone else or one that makes the client happy,” says Donald Hallmark, site manager of the state-owned Dana-Thomas House, which was designed by Wright.

Thus far, the Dana-Thomas House in Springfield is the only house museum operated by the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency that was acquired solely because of its architectural merit. The Farnsworth House would put the agency in charge of two of the most famous houses built in the 20th century.

Nancy Schamu, executive director of the National Conference of State Historic Preservation Officers, says Illinois’ willingness to take over the Farnsworth House is unusual because the property is so modern and because its sole importance is its architectural value. She hopes Illinois citizens are proud of the proposed purchase. “In another 50 years, they’ll be even prouder. It’s a cutting edge thing for the state to do.”

Indeed, Thompson lobbied hard on behalf of the Friends of the Farnsworth House to promote the acquisition during the spring legislative session. He also was responsible during his own administration for the state’s purchase of the Dana-Thomas House 20 years ago last month.

Wright designed that Springfield mansion for Susan Dana in 1904. Today, the state owns more than 95 percent of all the pieces Wright designed for the house — the most complete example of Wright’s prairie-style houses around. Thompson says it’s important for the state to preserve the properties. “It’s part of our culture, part of our heritage.” 

Mies fans admire the Farnsworth House because of its simplicity.The bare-boned structure is considered an icon of the International Style, which Mies helped define with his mantra, “Less is more.” After World War II, architects abandoned traditional trappings on the premise that a building’s structure should be ornament enough. The philosophy marked a turning point in architecture. It was the genesis of the steel and glass skyscrapers that dominate city skylines today.

Nothing is hidden in the Farnsworth House. It’s a glass box hovering above a meadow between two platforms. It wears its steel skeleton outside the exterior walls, exposing both structure and inhabitants. 

The state’s plans for the house, on the other hand, are anything but straightforward. Nowhere in the 1,173-page budget passed by lawmakers last spring is there a specific outlay for the purchase. Still, Gov. George Ryan stands behind the project and has vowed to find the money. “There are a number of capital project funds from which it could come,” explains Ryan spokesman Dennis Culloton. “The administration is committed to this project.”

According to Culloton, the state will fund the initial purchase, but the private sector will be asked to provide operating funds. But Thompson disputes that. He says the agreement also calls for the state to allocate money for operating expenses, while a not-for-profit group would support the house museum by acquiring artifacts and providing equipment, much as it’s done at the Dana-Thomas House.

Whoever ends up paying the upkeep of the Farnsworth House will be charged with maintaining a rectangular structure almost 29 feet wide and more than 77 feet long. Eight steel supports hold up twin steel decks that run parallel to the ground. The floor is a little more than five feet off the ground; the ceiling is 9.5 feet above the floor. An open patio and glassed-in living quarters sit between them. Steps and a terrace lead up to the all-white house from the clearing where it sits. There are no doors or partitions inside the house, except for the bathrooms and maintenance area at its core. One area runs freely into the next, much as the boundaries between the house and the surrounding woods are nearly erased.

Originally, the house came without curtains for its floor-to-ceiling windows — one of the complaints Farnsworth voiced to Mies about her weekend retreat. That means visitors can see outside the house no matter where they stand. “If you view nature through the glass walls of the Farnsworth House, it gains a more profound significance than if viewed from outside,” said Mies, who died in 1969.

The house is set on a 60-acre plot and surrounded by woods. Although it is sometimes possible to see the house from the Fox River, on land the building is obscured from view by the foliage. “Here, where everything is beautiful and privacy is no issue, it would be a pity to erect an opaque wall between outside and inside,” the architect explained.

Visitors often walk away awed. Many describe the experience in religious terms. “It’s almost a shrine or a temple more than a house,” remarks Franz Schulze, a Lake Forest College professor who wrote Mies van der Rohe: A Critical Biography. “It almost has an apparitional effect, as if it’s levitating above the ground.”

Joseph LaRue, a volunteer tour director for the Chicago Architecture Foundation who leads groups through the house, says visitors, most of whom are familiar with the house before seeing it, “go through it with a sense of awesome respect.”

“It’s perfect, aside from its impracticality,” he adds. “It’s a puzzlement [to figure out] how it’s beautiful.” Hallmark says he was struck by characteristics shared by the Farnsworth and Dana-Thomas houses. “There is a great deal of similarity in feeling between them,” he says. Both houses are dominated by horizontal components, he notes, and both use layering extensively.

In fact, initially there was a great deal of respect between the two architects, says Schulze. Early in his career, Mies studied and admired Wright’s work. Wright sought out Mies when the German moved to Illinois. But slowly their philosophies shifted and the two found little in common by the time the Farnsworth House was built. 

Farnsworth first met with Mies about building the house in 1945, when he was designing the campus of the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago. 

The house was completed in 1951. The architect had already risen to prominence in his native Germany, where he was the last director of the Bauhaus, a well-known art school and laboratory dedicated to developing the “building of the future.” Mies took the reins of the school in 1930 and decided to move it from Dessau to Berlin. Shortly after the Nazis took control of Germany, police searched the school and shut it down. Mies fled the country in 1937 and came to Chicago.

His name would soon become synonymous with his adopted home. After the Farnsworth House, he would go on to shape the Chicago skyline with such structures as the twin apartment buildings at 860 and 880 Lake Shore Drive, the federal complex in the Loop and the IBM Building just north of the Chicago River on State Street.

The state is still in negotiations with Palumbo, a collector of architecture who currently owns the Farnsworth House, about the price and conditions of the takeover. Palumbo and the state must decide, for example, how much, if any, furniture will come along with the house.

The historic preservation agency is waiting for those negotiations to conclude before it moves on plans for the house, according to spokesman David Blanchette. Then the agency will be able to draw up a timetable for opening the house and proceed with possible restorations.

In 1997, floodwaters destroyed much of the interior of the building, though it stands above the ground specifically to avoid flooding. After the disaster, Palumbo restored the house and opened it to tours to cover the costs.

That restoration could prove to be a blessing to the state, Hallmark says. Even with Thompson’s personal interest, it took the agency 10 years before it finished restoration of the Dana-Thomas House. 

If the agency decides Palumbo’s restorations match its vision of how the house should be presented, the state could avoid a large bill for doing the restorations itself. But Hallmark cautions that the staff at the Farnsworth House will have to do a comprehensive study of the site before making any renovations. They’ll have to decide what stage of the 50-year-old house’s history the state wants to depict.

In his first days at the Dana-Thomas House, Hallmark faced the task of turning a former corporate headquarters into a house museum. “Everybody wanted to spruce it up ... but you shouldn’t go into fixing things if you don’t know what was there [at the time of the renovation date],” he says.

There’s another obstacle the state didn’t face when it took over Wright’s house. Because Farnsworth wasn’t talking to Mies at the time her house was completed, she didn’t fill it with furniture he designed or planned to include with the house. “We’ll simply have to go out into the market and find the best examples of mid-20th century furniture ... the kind that belongs in the house,” says Thompson, who headed efforts to buy original pieces from the Dana-Thomas House with private funds. In any event, Mies was less particular about what went into his house than Wright. He would often use pieces from previous residences to furnish later houses, says Hallmark.

Whatever the pending obstacles, Thompson says he’s grateful Ryan and the legislative leaders signed off on the takeover. “Not many states would do it.” 

For More Information

The Bauhaus-Archiv Museum of Design www.bauhaus.de/english/index.htm

Two current, major exhibitions of Miesò work at the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum in New York www.moma.org/mies/

A three-dimensional view of the Farnsworth House (downloadable plug-in required) www.GreatBuildings.com/buildings /Farnsworth_House.html

A dated but informative overview of the Farnsworth House
www.design-engine.com/news /farnsworth/index.html

Knoll Furnitureòs explanation of Miesò famous Barcelona Chair, which it produces http://www.knoll.com/news /hstory.jsp?story_id=1021

The Chicago Architecture Foundation hopes to continue offering tours of the Farnsworth House during the transition period. Call (312) 922-3432, ext. 240, for more information.

Daniel C. Vock is the Statehouse bureau chief for the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin.

Illinois Issues, September 2001

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