I speed-walked across the rusty bridge spanning the rushing creek and expected to see it on the other side. Nope, just a straight path along the Fox River as far as I could see. I was already a half hour late for the noon tour, because I stopped to visit my aunt in Joliet, Illinois; took a wrong turn in Plainfield; and had to find an alternative route through Yorkville due to a closed bridge.
After a few minutes of jogging/speed walking down the path, I spotted suspended glass walls through the trees. Here it comes! But what should appear but blue tarps, plastic pennants on the roof, and grizzled construction workers. That’s the Farnsworth House?
I was warned in the visitors center that roof repairs were under way, but it was still shocking to see it so unlike how I had imagined. (For the record, anyone who visited while the roof was being fixed was offered a free return ticket by the National Trust.) But my image of the modern architectural icon would only further dissipate.
I joined the tour just as the guide was explaining the travertine marble tile porches. They showed their age. We donned socks to go inside, and I scanned the space only to find cobwebs and rust spots along the window frames. Moreover, flood damage was evident on the primavera wood paneling, and the crumbling plaster on the ceiling indicated where the roof was damaged.
I recalled a conversation we had in my Preservation of Modern Architecture class at the University of Florida about how patina is desired when visiting historic sites–except when it comes to architectural styles developed post-World War I. Art Deco, Streamline Modern, and Modernist buildings represented the future, and they are expected to look as fresh as the day they were completed. However, it’s a Catch-22 because material authenticity is nearly impossible for these buildings; their experimental components often don’t stand the test of time like wood, stone, and brick.
My critical eye next went to the design of its legendary architect, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. I get it: this house was designed to make an artistic statement–it wasn’t meant to be completely practical. But it still has to attempt to function in its intended purpose. Here are my (blasphemous!) quibbles:
- Lack of passive air flow in the (originally) non air conditioned building
- Lack of storage space even though primavera panels in “living room” appear to be hollow
- Kitchen counter space is unnecessarily expansive for a weekend house for one
- There is no need for two stoves (one since removed) in a weekend house for one
- Tub is tiny considering Edith Farnsworth was a tall woman, and shower probably came up to her eyes
- It was built 2 feet above the highest known flood level, yet it has been severely flooded at least four times since it was constructed. For such a futuristic house, someone didn’t think about its future.
Despite all I found wrong with it and hassle to find it, I’m glad I visited the Farnsworth House. It is very unique, and the stories about the house’s incarnation, Mies-Farnsworth romance rumors, lawsuits over Mies’ fees (rhyme), Farnsworth’s dissatisfaction with the result, the Peter Palumbo years, and purchase by the National Trust and Landmark Illinois (reportedly for $7.5 million) are intriguing.
Here are some things I learned about Farnsworth House:
- It’s a lot closer to the Fox River than I expected.
- It’s not very tranquil because a road and bridge were built about 200 feet away in the late 1960s.
- The travertine marble is the same both inside and out.
- The highest porch was screened-in by Farnsworth and removed by Palumbo.
- Farnsworth used her own, non-modern furniture inside. Palumbo added the Mies designs.
- Farnsworth and Palumbo essentially traded houses when he became owner in 1972.
- There’s a boathouse on the property.