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Art Nerd Field Trip to The Farnsworth House

This article was originally published on September 4, 2013 on Art Nerd by writer Tara Kosloski. This article is part of a series of article exchange partnerships between Sixty Inches From Center and other online blogs and journals that have missions similar to ours–to document and support the visual arts in Chicago. The goal of these partnerships is to build bridges within our writing community, help promote one another to new audiences and give more exposure to the art that keeps our Chicago experience compelling.

A few weekends ago, fellow Art Nerd Maria and I took a little sojourn out of the city to visit  Mies van der Rohe’s modernist masterpiece The Farnsworth House.  It was so striking to see a perfectly deliberate form placed in an organic landscape, and to see up close the mastery of van der Rohe. From the highest quality building materials, to the advanced building techniques, it was truly special to experience a piece of art history first hand. Also enlightening, was the story behind the home.

The Farnsworth House is named for Dr. Edith Farnsworth, who approached Mies van der Rohe at a dinner party and expressed interest in building a home designed by his architecture firm. To her delight, Mies agreed to personally design and oversee the project. It was completed in 1951 as a bucolic retreat from busy Chicago. Situated along the banks of the Fox River in Plano, Illinois, the modest 2,000 sq. foot home is an easy hour and half drive from the city, and Dr. Farnsworth spent her weekends there for many years.

The home was a drastic departure from architecture of the time, with Mies at the head of the movement towards modernism. Upon seeing a model of the yet to be built dwelling at the Museum of Modern Art in 1947, architect Philip Johnson said, “The Farnsworth house with its continuous glass walls is an even simpler interpretation of an idea. Here the purity of the cage is undisturbed. Neither the steel columns from which it is suspended nor the independent floating terrace break the taut skin.”

Dr. Farnsworth greatly admired Mies and his radical design sensibilities, however, the relationship between patron and artist, eventually turned sour. Although the original project, was budgeted at a mere $58,000, costs ballooned throughout the process and Dr. Farnsworth grew increasingly frustrated and refused to pay over budget. Mies then sued Dr. Farnsworth, and she eventually was forced to pay the higher construction costs. Allegedly, the two never spoke again after the completion of the house.

Despite the legal turmoil and disappointments, Dr. Farnsworth enjoyed the home for 21 year, until a noisy road expansion finally drove her to sell. A British art-collector, Lord Peter Palumbo, purchased the home in 1972 and brought the home back to its minimalist roots with simple furniture design and sleek landscaping. He took great care of the house, overseeing two major renovations and conservation projects.

In 2003, Palumbo put the house up for auction through Sotheby’s. The auction house advertised the home as easily transported, which caught the attention of wealthy East Coast buyers. The National Trust and the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois campaigned to halt the sale, and raised money with hopes to stop the auction. While they were unable to prevent the sale from happening, the preservationist won in the end, with the winning bid of $7.5 million. Thanks to the work of the preservationists, the home is open to the public as a museum for years to come.

The Farnsworth House is located in Plano, IL. Guided tours are twenty dollars. For more information, visit their website here.

 Header image: Tara Kosloski. Farnsworth House, 2013. Plano, IL.

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