Sitting close to the Fox River in Plano, Illinois, just fifty-eight miles southwest of Chicago, is the Farnsworth House, designed by renowned architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. The property was a weekend retreat for Dr. Edith Farnsworth, a prominent Chicago physician.
Friends Cecille, Kathy O., Missy, Barb, and I recently met in Plano for a tour. Barb’s son, Scott Mehaffey, is currently the executive director at the Farnsworth House so it made us all proud to see a hometown boy doing well.
Our guide, Richard, gave us an excellent tour. We learned about Dr. Farnsworth, Mies van der Rohe, and the construction of the house.
After chatting at a dinner party in 1945, Dr. Farnsworth hired Mies van der Rohe to design a house for her on nine acres she had purchased from Robert McCormick. She wanted something modern for the post-war era, and that gave Mies van der Rohe an opportunity to create a masterpiece of simplicity. He worked through 167 drawings before he was satisfied with the design.
The result was a structure of steel columns and floor-to-ceiling glass walls in the new International style.
Edith Farnsworth and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe started out as great friends with their house project. They were both intellectuals and enjoyed spending time together – at the building site and away from it. But as time went on and expenses with the house mounted, Edith’s patience and enthusiasm faded. They ended up in court with him suing for money due, and she charging him with fraud. Mies van der Rohe won the judgment, but negative publicity made it a hollow victory. They never spoke to each other again.
The house was completed in 1951. Dr. Farnsworth lived in it off and on for twenty-one years before selling the property to Lord Peter Palumbo in 1972. She then retired to a villa near Florence, Italy.
Palumbo is an art and architecture enthusiast, and modern sculptures dotted Farnsworth’s landscape during his ownership. He purchased adjoining land for a total today of sixty-two acres. When Palumbo sold the property in 2003 to the National Trust, the sculptures were moved to Kentuck Knob, a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed house in Pennsylvania that he still owns. Below is one of the sculptures I saw when I was at Kentuck Knob last year.
Visiting the Farnsworth House is a top-notch experience. The grounds and house are both lovely, and the story of the people involved is just as fascinating as the property itself. And rumor has it a big-screen version of the story may be coming to a theater near you.