It had started as a dream, the collaboration between Edith Farnsworth and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. She a Chicago doctor, he one of the great midcentury architects, they met in 1945, at a dinner party. When Mies agreed to design a country retreat for her in Plano, Ill., she wrote that “the effect was tremendous, like a storm, a flood, or other act of God.” Together they aspired to create an enduring work of architecture—a shared passion that reportedly spilled over into an affair. In 1951, when the house was completed, Architectural Forum was rapturous in its praise, calling it “a concentration of pure beauty, a distillation of pure spirit” that has “no equal in perfection of workmanship, in precision of detail, in pure simplicity of concept.”
By then the dream was over. Mies initially had anticipated a cost of $40,000, but after it soared to more than $74,000 (nearly $740,000 today), Farnsworth refused to settle the outstanding balance. (“My house is a monument to Mies van der Rohe and I’m paying for it,” she griped to her nephew.) Their dalliance long over, architect and client faced off in court, their private falling out becoming an ugly public feud. The house itself also ended up on trial, its critics as vociferous in their condemnation as the acolytes had been in their praise. Frank Lloyd Wright, who had been an early supporter of Mies after he had emigrated to America from Germany, eviscerated his former friend in the pages of House Beautiful, railing against “poverty-stricken glass-box architecture” that casts a “communistic shadow … over our own [American] tradition.”
Farnsworth had launched her own broadside, diligently recounting the house’s many flaws in the same magazine: the roof leaked; heating oil from the boiler collected on the windows; the fireplace vented properly only when the door was open. “The truth is that in this house with its four walls of glass I feel like a prowling animal, always on the alert,” Farnsworth said. “I wanted to do something ‘meaningful,’ and all I got was this glib, false sophistication.”
The dramatic tale of the famously taciturn architect, his disenchanted client (and spurned lover?), and the celebrated house they created together gets a new telling in Alex Beam’s Broken Glass: Mies van der Rohe, Edith Farnsworth, and the Fight Over a Modernist Masterpiece, published in March by Random House. Beam, a Boston Globe columnist, builds his narrative from archival research and countless documents, including 3,800 pages of trial manuscripts as well as Farnsworth’s journal and letters. If the book suffers from bouts of repetition, as descriptions and events are reintroduced across the chapters, a little forbearance pays off because Beam has been rigorous in his reporting (he even interviews two locals who had taken French lessons from Farnsworth in Plano). The result is an intimate portrait of the dynamic between architect and client, and how they managed to give rise to an object of refined beauty—and a backstory alive with architectural intrigue.
“Quality Control Theatrics”
Perhaps the collaboration was ill-fated from the start. Here’s Mies on client relations: “I think we should treat our clients as children.” Or, more expansively: “Never talk to a client about architecture. … Talk to him about his children. That is simply good politics. He will not understand what you have to say about architecture most of the time. … Most of the time a client never knows what he wants.”
Farnsworth, a leading kidney researcher in Chicago (she was both a clinician and a professor at Northwestern University Medical School), knew what she wanted, and giving Mies carte blanche wasn’t it. When she consulted with Chicago architect Harry Weese about what color the curtains should be (he favored brown, Mies wanted natural Shantung silk), Mies’s response, as reported by Myron Goldsmith, the project architect: “If I would have known she would be so difficult I would have never touched the house.”
If Farnsworth attributed to Mies some form of celestial power in the beginning, she soon came to regard it as pretentious sleight of hand. Consider the architect’s “quality control theatrics”: Mies, who had sourced travertine for the house’s floor and deck (no small contributor to the rising costs), sat in a blue canvas deck chair as the slabs, supplied by the Carthage Marble Corp. in Missouri, were paraded by him—“each man carrying a slab of stone like the precious painting before the eyes of a divine appraiser,” as Farnsworth recalled. After he sorted them into three categories—first quality, second quality, and reject—a debate ensued about which pile was in fact first quality, and the ceremony devolved into farce.
Randolph Bohrer represented Farnsworth at the trial (Mies filed suit for the outstanding balance; she countersued for malpractice), but given his scathing assault on the architect—and on Modern architecture—it may as well have been Tom Wolfe. Hadn’t Mies added the “van der Rohe” to his name in an attempt to suggest some relationship to royalty? Wasn’t he a publicity hound more interested in fame than functional architecture? Mies’s lawyer intervened during the worst of it: “I object to counsel shouting at this witness and badgering him. I want the record to show that he is standing within 3 feet of the witness, pointing his finger at him and yelling at him.”
Publicly, at least, Bohrer maintained that he had gotten the best of Mies: “[He] didn’t know anything about steel, its properties or its standard dimensions. Not about construction, or high school physics, or just plain common sense. All he knows is that guff about his concept, and in the Kendall County Courthouse, that doesn’t go down. I tell you, we had him sweating blood.”
Farnsworth fared no better on the stand, claiming that she never had reviewed plans of the house—until a photo emerged revealing the lie. In the end, even though the roof had started leaking during the trial, appearing to reveal a significant defect of construction, the special master presiding over the case ruled in Mies’s favor, awarding him $12,934.30 in unpaid bills and commissions and requiring Farnsworth to pay for the cost of the proceedings. The verdict required approval from a judge, and when that was slow to come, and Farnsworth launched her public offensive, the two parties finally settled, four years later, for $2,500.
A Serendipitous Second Chapter
Mies may have prevailed, but he had done Farnsworth no favors with his decision to use single-pane glass for the house, which led to predictably outlandish heating bills; the lack of air conditioning and operable windows (just two in-swinging hoppers); the absence of ducts along the glass, which caused the windows to fog up in winter—much like driving a car in a rainstorm without wipers, Farnsworth alleged. When it was time to move in, she rejected the Mies-designed furniture the architect had envisioned for the space (Barcelona chairs, a Brno chrome-and-steel coffee table, a dining room set of MR tubular chairs) and instead outfitted it with Danish furniture, wicker chairs, Chinese art, and thick-piled Moroccan rugs that covered the travertine.
Farnsworth had the misfortune of being assertive and accomplished in an age when, at best, that could earn her a reputation as difficult, and at worst—well, here’s Philip Johnson of all people on the matter: “God, who could sleep with that woman? None of us could figure it out.” As for Mies, he had the good fortune of preceding #MeToo, abandoning his wife, three daughters, and a mistress, Lilly Reich, when he came to America, then taking up with a new lover who bookended his fling with Farnsworth. Who could blame Farnsworth for feeling conflicted about the house, the unraveling of her relationship with Mies (professional and otherwise) clearly coloring that perception? “She felt it was impractical, but she loved it and she loved being out in the country,” remembered one of her French students. “In a certain way it was tainted, but she also took great pride in it.”
As Beam suggests, the Farnsworth House had a far more fortuitous second act. In the late 1960s, Peter Palumbo, a British developer, was visiting Chicago to recruit Mies to design a London skyscraper (a project that Palumbo’s former polo teammate, Prince Charles, he of the anti-Modernism crusades, would later torpedo), when he chanced upon an ad in the Chicago Tribune: For sale, Farnsworth House, Fox River. Palumbo remembered the house from an architecture lecture at Eton College, and in 1972, he purchased “the faded beauty,” as he called it, which had suffered the “ravages of time and neglect and bitterness applied to it.” Palumbo restored it, fixing the roof, rewiring it, and working with Dirk Lohan, FAIA, Mies’s grandson, to furnish the interior much as the architect had originally intended; he also added new conveniences, including electric heat and an air conditioning system.
The house had always been an aesthetic triumph. On the inside, the structure seems to all but disappear, becoming a tranquil backdrop for the contemplation of nature; from the outside, it appears to levitate above the plain through some magnetic force, an illusion created because Mies had any traces of welding removed from the connections between the supporting columns and the beams. “It was incredibly serene,” Palumbo wrote. “It was quite a wonderful place, when it rained or when there was an electrical storm it became very exciting. It was like being inside a lotus flower—you could sit in a thunderstorm and never get wet.”
The House as Patient
As the Farnsworth-Mies trial ended, so does Beam’s book—with a whimper: an account of Farnsworth living out her final years in Italy, in a villa she purchased outside Florence. One admires her astonishing capacity for reinvention: As an expat, she left medicine for the literary world, becoming an acclaimed translator of the poetry of the Nobel Prize–winning Italian Eugenio Montale.
Mies and Goldsmith had also wanted to reinvent the Farnsworth House, as Beam recounts, mass-producing it for the middle class. The 50 x 50 House, as the architects called it (they also contemplated 40 x 40 and 60 x 60 versions), was intended to cater to families who could adapt the open-floor plan to suit their lifestyle. Like so many prefab solutions of the era, the plans never became reality, but the need they responded to remains more pressing than ever.
It’s an unexpected ambition to associate with the Farnsworth House and its spiraling costs, and the question that lingers is how Beam’s book informs our understanding of the project’s complicated legacy. After a 2016 visit, Jacques Herzog, Hon. FAIA, delivered this appraisal: “It’s an interesting and instructive statement, containing a lot of things for which Mies became famous … but as a house for a woman living here in the wilds, in a wild and isolated piece of nature, it’s absurd. … It’s a home for ghosts.” He continued: “You cannot use this house except as a museum. It’s so expensive to maintain; it’s like a patient in the hospital.”
Too scathing an indictment, perhaps, but Herzog is not wrong about the ghosts (the spirits of Mies and Farnsworth shall forever animate the space) and about the house as patient—stable, but in need of work. The National Trust for Historic Preservation, which purchased the house in 2003 when Palumbo listed it for auction at Sotheby’s (the price: a cool $7.5 million), now operates it as a museum and has embarked on a $10 million restoration that will also build an endowment for the property. Contingent on fundraising appeals and approvals from Landmark Illinois, which has a preservation easement on the site, the project includes preservation work—replacing the roof, repairing the radiant heating system, restoring the outdoor terrace—as well as “flood mitigation” efforts. The Fox River, just 75 feet away, has inundated the house on four separate occasions, the last time in 2008, leaving costly damage in its wake.
If the house suffers from an original sin, it was the decision by Mies’s office to raise it only 5 feet 3 inches above grade—a calculation made after consulting with the Army Corps of Engineers and county flood-control officials, and measuring the high water level on a neighboring property where the swimming pool had once flooded. Mies chose a site so close to the river because he was drawn to a 200-year-old black sugar maple (he wanted the tree, now gone, to help shade the structure), and he remained adamant even though Farnsworth had argued for a spot on a nearby hill, and a contractor had warned about flooding: “That is precisely what we want to show,” Mies responded, “that we can combat that. It’s easy. You have a canoe there, and if it floods, you take the canoe to the house. It isn’t much. It’s an adventure, but that belongs to life.”
The adventure that followed defied anyone’s imagining (a 1996 flood spirited away Palumbo’s Andy Warhol silk-screen portrait of Elizabeth Taylor, never to be retrieved), and Goldsmith later accepted blame: “Certainly, had we been a little smarter, had I been smarter, because it was finally my responsibility, we could have set it above the highest flood, but there was a little casualness about this because the highest flood was just barely within memory of the old-timers around there.”
The Trust is pursuing a bold (and controversial) solution, commissioning the structural engineering firm Silman to design a hydraulic system that can raise the structure when the waters rise. The Farnsworth House appears poised to go high-tech, in the process becoming a pioneering case study in preservation. Which seems fitting given how it so perfectly encapsulates the optimism of postwar America: the fervent belief, at the rise of technological age, that man could bend nature to his will, and the equally fervent belief, as reflected by the 50 x 50 project, that elegant design could be affordable for the masses. The Farnsworth House is having a moment—a movie is also now in the works, starring Ralph Fiennes as Mies and Elizabeth Debicki as Farnsworth—and it has lost none of its cultural resonance, even if it is now a museum piece, even if it represents a dead end in a hyper-reductionist strain of glass-box Modernism. Because what a dead end it was, what a marvelous dream, even if the dream lasted but a moment.