House Struck by Gavel
Fax (Rich Miller)
- Friday, December 12th, 5:53 P.M.
Preservationists Purchase Farnsworth House
Despite reports as late as yesterday that fundraising efforts were falling short, a trio of preservation groups were the successful bidders at today's auction at Sotheby's in New York for the sale of Mies van der Rohe's historic Farnsworth House in Plano, Illinois. According to a press release from PR newswire, the group - consisting of the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois, The National Trust for Historic Preservation, and Friends of the Farnsworth, together bid of $7,511,500, which was enough to beat out several other parties. Sotheby's had estimated the value of Farnsworth House and its 58 acres as between $4.500,000 and $6,000,000. David Bahlman, President on LPCI had said on Wednesday that the groups had only raised about $4,000,000.
Friends of Farnsworth President John Bryan specifically praised Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich, a Democrat, and Illinois House Minority Leader Tom Cross, a Republican, for "their commitment and interest in keeping Farnsworth House in Illinois."
of the plans for Farnsworth House are to be unveiled at a press conference
Although Mies van der Rohe's landmark Farnsworth House is in the distant town of Plano, on the Fox River about 20 miles southwest of Aurora, it's as much a part of Chicago's architectural legacy as Frank Lloyd Wright's Robie House or Unity Temple.
It was the first house Mies built in America, the forerunner to his great glass-and-steel towers (such as the 860-880 N. Lake Shore Drive apartments) and the specific inspiration for Philip Johnson's own landmark glass house in New Canaan, Connecticut. Raised five feet above the ground to protect it from flooding, with walls of glass within a spare framework of white-painted steel, it seems to float in its wooded landscape.
Franz Schulze has compared it to a temple, and
Now the house is at a crossroads. Public access might be expanded and made permanent, or the house might be returned permanently to strictly privateuse. It might be altered, subdivided, or even moved. Farnsworth House's two identities - architectural treasure and trophy property - are at war with each other.
The original sin of most landmark buildings is that they were born as real estate. Unless they can turn a competitive profit they're consigned to the wrecking ball. Houses are no different. They're built not just to shelter but to appreciate.
After the dot-com collapse and the exposure of Enrons energy-trading scams, real estate is the last surviving economic bubble. Even in this uncertain economy, housing prices continue to climb. The pressure on owners of landmark houses to cash in is unabated.
Farnsworth House was built in 1951 for $73,000, which included the cost overruns that resulted in incredibly bitter litigation between Mies and his client, Dr. Edith Farnsworth. Today, Sotheby's in New York estimates thevalue of the house and its surrounding 58 acres as between $4.5 and $6 million. Sotheby's will be auctioning it off December 12 for Lord Peter Palumbo, who bought it from Farnsworth in 1971.
Palumbo is an English real estate developer who in the 1960s commissioned Mies to design an office tower that would have been the architect's only London building. The proposal never overcame opposition from quarters that included Prince Charles, a dull-witted but relentless foe of modern design. Farnsworth House was Palumbo's consolation prize.
Though he was only
occasionally in residence, for more than three decades
In today's free-market
frenzy, that kind of devotion is increasingly seen
Palumbo told London's
Financial Times that recent burglaries, as well as
In April 2001, after Palumbo's intentions became known, Friends of the Farnsworth House formed with a strategy of preserving the landmark by arranging for the state of Illinois to buy it. Among the Friends in Chicago were architects Helmut Jahn, John Vinci, and Mies's grandson Dirk Lohan as well as such heavy hitters as John Bryan, former chairman of the Sara Lee Corporation, and former governor James Thompson.
After prolonged negotiations, a deal was hammered out with Governor George Ryan, and the only remaining formality was approval by the Illinois attorney general. But the "formality" morphed into a death blow. In February of this year, incoming attorney general Lisa Madigan vetoed the deal, citing such inconvenient facts as the state budget's lack of a line item covering the $7 million sale price of the house (Ryan's office had contended that any one of several capital funds could be tapped) and that no provision could be found for funding ongoing operation and maintenance.
Though the last state-financed
rescue (of Frank Lloyd Wright's endangered
There are no restrictions
on the sale. Farnsworth House could wind up being
The grim possibilities galvanized the Landmarks Preservation Council board into action. We had an emergency board meeting, says Bahlman. We decided that as a statewide preservation organization, if we couldn't come forth and actually make something happen here to protect this extraordinary international resource, then what are we in the business to be doing?
The LPCI decided to engineer the purchase of Farnsworth House. It's kicked in the first million dollars itself and enlisted the National Trust for Historic Preservation to contribute another million. A Friends of the Farnsworth House list has been pulled out of mothballs and its members are being aggressively courted for contributions.
And if the campaign is successful? We are going to have a partnership, says Bahlman. The National Trust will assume ownership, and we will have an arrangement with the National Trust where we will hold an easement on the property and manage it. So there will be local management and local control.
We have our work cut out for us, says National Trust president Richard Moe. The trust already owns a number of historic homes, including the Philip Johnson house and Frank Lloyd Wright's home and studio in Oak Park, but those were bequeathed to it. Acquiring a landmark in a public auction would be a first for the trust, and it's scrambling to raise its $1 million and beyond, to the full purchase price. If the effort fails, that money will go back to donors, but Moe says he's feeling pretty confident about the outcome.
The LPCI could cut
its $1 million check tomorrow because its finances are
Bahlman doesn't see
the effort as setting a precedent. Almost every major
But if the fight
to save Farnsworth House succeeds, it must become a
As for the role of government, the very concept of the public interest is under assault. Support for the arts is driven underground, taking the form of favors from legislators. Six months after Lisa Madigan's high-profile cancellation of the state's deal to acquire Farnsworth House, Rich Miller's Capitol Fax newsletter reported that Governor Blagojevich had released, without fanfare, nearly $200 million for various members' initiatives sponsored by individual lawmakers.
Miller was quick to brand the spending pork, but what exactly was in the barrel? House speaker Michael Madigan secured $5.5 million for the Springfield Center for the Arts. Senate president Emil Jones arranged $10 million for the new Chicago Music and Dance Theatre, $4.5 million for the Muntu Dance Theatre, and $1.5 million for the Little Black Pearl Workshop, a gallery-studio-classroom complex on the south side. Even the Chicago-hating former senate president, Republican Pate Philip, sponsored $1.9 million for the city's Museum of Broadcast Communications. Laudable causes all, and saving Farnsworth House is at the very least their equal.
The idea that supporting culture is the cause of draconian cutbacks in mental health care is a con of Yellow Kid Weil proportions. Most major initiatives are funded not by an immediate lump-sum hit to general revenues but by selling bonds. If history is any guide, prosperity will at some point return; state finances will recover. But for Farnsworth House there may be no second chance, and once it's gone no press release, no matter how finely-crafted, will be able to spin away the scandel.
When Attorney General Madigan wondered why the state should pick up the entire $7 million tab if saving Farnsworth House was so important to so many people, she asked a valid question. The LPCI and the NHTP answered by putting $2 million where their mouths were. But though Bahlman insists that the state is completely and irretrievably out of the picture, it shouldn't be let off the hook so easily. The state could guarantee bonds in an amount equal to the purchase price of Farnsworth House, giving preservationists several years before the bonds mature - not just the weeks until the auction - to raise the funds required. The Department of Natural Resources could contribute by arranging to buy the 38 acres of the Farnsworth grounds that aren't in sight from the house and merge them with Silver Springs State Park, which surrounds the property on three sides. Preservationists could agree to maintain this acreage.
What makes Farnsworth House worth all the fuss? Why has it been called Mies's most perfect building? In a word, transparency. To critics of modernism such as novelist Tom Wolfe, the transparent glass wall is just another arbitrary stylistic mannerism. In truth, it's the idealistic flash point of modern architecture.
Just as steel-frame
construction liberated buildings from the historical
Like all dreams,
this one has been subverted by time, by the ever more
At Farnsworth House,
however, the virtues of transparency endure, pure and
Here I am, Philip, am I indoors or am I out? gibed Frank Lloyd Wright - whose own buildings tended to shut themselves up from the outside world - when confronted by Philip Johnson's glass house. Do I take my hat off or keep it on?
Wright had begun to sour on Mies and his kind of modernism. But in this instance Mies was the one who got it right. Before you live in a glass house you do not know how colorful nature is, Mies said. We should attempt to bring nature, houses, and human beings together in a higher unity.
Update - Wednesday, December 10th
the auction only two days away, efforts by preservation groups to buy
Mies van der Rohe's historic Farnsworth House in Plano, Illinois appear
to be falling short. "The bottom line," says David Bahlman of
the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois, "is that today we
have only about $4 million. I don't know if that's going to cut it at
the auction, but who knows, miracles do happen." Sotheby's, which
is auctioning the property on behalf of current owner Peter Palumbo, is
estimating the value of the property as between $4.5 and $6 million.
It was a very close thing, says National Trust for Historic Preservation President Richard Moe, of the organization's ultimately successful purchase, for $7,511,500, of Mies van der Rohes glass and steel Farnsworth House at an auction held at Sothebys last Friday. We didnt have (more than) $3.6 million 24 hours before, but the momentum built. People increased their pledges. New pledges came in. We had an enormous boast from a wonderful NPR piece that played Friday morning that was a real catalyst to get people to pick up the phone and call us
Moe spoke on a Thursday morning conference call with reporters. We closed on the property yesterday, so the National Trust is now the official owner of the Farnsworth House. Its without question one of the two or three most important houses designed and built in America in the 20th Century.
Although owned by the National Trust, the property will be managed the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois whose President, David Bahlman, spoke of whats next. We are faced now with all the details of operation and management, and have begun to start working on that.
We still need to raise money to operate it, to convert it to a
house museum, and most importantly, to endow it, added Moe. We
think were going to need to raise something approaching $5,000,000
to really make sure the future of the house is secure in all ways.
"The Farnsworth House is the most significant house designed in America in the 20th century," says Richard Moe, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. It's a good thing he feels that way, since he paid $7,500,000 to buy the thing at auction last December. The house, 65 miles southwest of Chicago in Plano, Illinois, will be run by the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois, which was also instrumental in raising the cash.
The white painted steel frame of architect Mies van der Rohe's austerely elegant 1951 house blends softly into the surrounding 50 wooded acres. The transparent glass walls turn the landscape into living wallpaper animated by the changing seasons.
Official tours had ended after former owner Peter Palumbo put the house up for sale, but that still didn't stop the faithful. Last Christmas Day, four architecture students from Thailand, a historian from England and an architect from Munich all made their way to the gate, hoping to just get a glimpse of the internationally revered building. Fortunately, they lucked out -someone was actually on hard to give them a tour. As of May 15th, tours will again be available to the general public.
Palumbo had hosted a maximum of 5,000 to 7,500 visitors at the house each year. "We would like to at least double that number," says LPCI Executive Director David Bahlman. The house will also be available for group tours and rentals for special events. There's already been an inquiry from a producer about filming scenes for a new movie. (No Ferris Bueller moments please.)
The house is open
from 10 AM to 4 PM, Tuesday through Sunday, through the end of November.
In winter months, access will be by appointment only. Admission is $20,
$15 for groups. Visitors must be at least 12 years old. Reservations are
strongly recommended. For more information call 630-552-0052 or visit
The Chicago Architecture Foundation offers twice-monthly bus trips to
the house; tours depart at 9:45 AM from 224 S. Michigan and the round
trip takes about four and a half hours. The next three tours are on Friday,
May 21, Friday, June 11, and Sunday, June 27. The cost is $50, $45 for
students and seniors, and $40 for members. For reservations call 312-922-3432,
ext. 240. Private and group tours can be arranged at ext. 226.
© Copyright 2003-2006 Lynn Becker All rights reserved.