Glass House Struck by Gavel
-by Lynn Becker

Will Illinois let Mies's spectacular Farnsworth House
slip through its fingers? (originally published in somewhat different form under the title "On the Block"
in the Chicago Reader, October 31, 2003)



Related Links

  Capitol Fax (Rich Miller)
  Capitol Fax Pork List (pdf)
  Farnsworth House web site
  Friends of the Farnsworth House
  Landmarks Preservation Council
    of Illinois

  London Telegraph talks to Peter     Palumbo
Mies van der Rohe biography at

  National Trust for Historic

  Philip Johnson Glass House
    -Photographs by Michael Moran

  Press Release - Attorney General
    Lisa Madigan nixes Farnsworth

  Sotheby's Farnsworth House


Bulletin - 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."

Details of the plans for Farnsworth House are to be unveiled at a press conference next week.

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.

Mies biographer Franz Schulze has compared it to a temple, and
architecture fans have treated it like one: from 1997 to 2002 Farnsworth
House was open weekends to the public, and during that time thousands of
people from all over the world made the pilgrimage.

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 Enron’s 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
Palumbo proved a stalwart custodian. When a disastrous 1997 Fox River flood trashed the place like a rock band on a rampage, Palumbo picked up the hefty tab for a full restoration. He'd fallen in love with the house, and came from London to make sure it survived.

In today's free-market frenzy, that kind of devotion is increasingly seen
as a sucker's game. Farnsworth House's next owner could decide to dismantle the landmark and move it closer to their own home base. It's not an idle fear. At least two such deals have been proposed; the last falling through only recently. Says David Bahlman, president of the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois, “Although this one cart-away deal didn't materialize, we sort of accept as a real threat the fact that the building is worth more as a work of art than it is as a house on the Fox River.”

Palumbo told London's Financial Times that recent burglaries, as well as
his own serious health problems, had led him to decide to sell off
Farnsworth and keep the other landmark house he owns, Frank Lloyd
Wright's Kentuck Knob in Pennsylvania - which is within driving distance of Johns Hopkins Hospital, where he's received treatment for cancer.

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
Dana-Thomas House) was more than 20 years past, the Friends seemed never to have seen the necessity of a Plan B. So it's now back to square one, with the December 12 deadline looming like a ticking gavel. “Palumbo could have sold the house three years ago,” says Bahlman. “I think he's terribly angry that he was jerked around by the state of Illinois.”

There are no restrictions on the sale. Farnsworth House could wind up being
totally closed to the public. Its 58 acres could be subdivided and developed, the house itself altered beyond recognition or chopped up into the world's most expensive collector toothpicks. Palumbo has already removed the sculpture he'd assembled on the grounds.

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
in a lot better shape than the average nonprofit's. “We have five different
funds that we maintain from an accounting point of view,” says Bahlman. “We basically have done well in the last couple of years, not only in events that we've run but also in contributions, foundation grants, some of which are restricted and some of which aren't. Basically, the bottom line is that we currently have approximately $3 million in liquid assets.”

Bahlman doesn't see the effort as setting a precedent. “Almost every major
preservation organization in the country has a revolving fund which they
use to buy properties to protect them,” he says. “Ten years ago, LPCI
bought Frank Lloyd Wright's Waller Apartments. We actually rehabilitated
them and sold them.” What's different today is scale. Price inflation has
placed preservation projects such as Farnsworth House far beyond the reach
of any one organization. Salvaging something like Woodlawn's embattled
Saint Gelasius Church could cost millions, the Uptown Theatre tens of

But if the fight to save Farnsworth House succeeds, it must become a
precedent. If every new battle for a landmark has to stand alone, more and
more will end in failure. A new model is needed, one that brings together
preservationists, donors, public officials, and civic-minded developers to
forge private/public partnerships that can save and secure endangered
landmarks-not on an ad hoc basis but in an ongoing process that learns and
grows more capable with each battle.

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
inevitability of massive load-bearing walls, the window wall marked our
escape from the idea of buildings as fortresses shielding us from a relentlessly hostile external world. The optimists of 20th-century democracy dared to dream of a world that no longer had to be feared and an architecture that was, in the words of Mies's associate Peter Carter, “mysteriously diminishing the boundary between man-made habitat and the natural world.”

Like all dreams, this one has been subverted by time, by the ever more
massive floor plates that cram workers deeper and deeper into cubicles in
windowless interiors and by the ever larger sealed and artificial spaces of our shopping malls. If you don't love the tumult of the city, living in a glass skyscraper may not seem a plus. “Aren't the disadvantages of the exterior - ozone depleted, carbo-charged, globally heated - by now well established?” architect Rem Koolhaas has asked.

At Farnsworth House, however, the virtues of transparency endure, pure and
powerful. The house dissolves the alienating division between outside and
inside, letting nature and the change of seasons become a seamless part of
the experience of the building.

“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.”

Palumbo made this higher unity available to anyone willing to make the
drive to Plano. The auctioning off of Farnsworth House threatens to
restrict it to a single pair of eyes.

Update - Wednesday, December 10th

With 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.

December 18th - After the Victory, What's Next?

“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 Rohe’s glass and steel Farnsworth House at an auction held at Sotheby’s last Friday. “We didn’t 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. It’s 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 what’s 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 we’re going to need to raise something approaching $5,000,000 to really make sure the future of the house is secure in all ways.”

“What we do know is that there are now a number of people, principally in the Chicago area, but also around the country who care passionately about this house, and we’re eager to have further conversations with them and to find new friends. We’re not going to need this $5,000,000 tomorrow. We’re going to need some money in the very near future to begin operating,”

That near future will entail arranging to open the house on an appointment only basis for “academic and technical tours,” but also, says Bahlman, “We’ll be working on a plan to have it open to the public as soon as possible, probably sometime in the early to late Spring. We have to work out many details first.”

Under its previous owner, British real estate developer Peter Palumbo, no more than 7,500 people were able to tour the house in any given year. “We hope to do much better than that,” says Bahlman, who expects to be working closely with officials in Plano and Kendall county to more effectively market the house as a tourist destination.

Bahlman adds that Palumbo hired “a group of paid tour leaders and property managers who took meticulous care of the property. The house is in pristine condition. We are going to be working with those people. As a matter of fact, we have a meeting already scheduled for tomorrow morning to keep in place what has been so beautifully managed out there. We actually crawled under the house and found a couple of tiny little areas where there is a bit of rust, but that’s a wire brush and ten minutes of work.”

Both LPCI and the National Trust contributed $1,000,000 to the effort. Moe also cited the efforts of former Sara Lee chairman John Bryan, who spearheading an earlier, unsuccessful attempt to have the State of Illinois purchase the house. “John Bryan is an extraordinary leader, and as chairman of Friends of the Farnsworth House, he rallied the community in Chicago and beyond to bring support to this effort that made it possible.” Bryan’s reported doubling of his own $500,000 contribution in the closing hours of the campaign was crucial in putting the bidders over the top. Altogether, donations were received from more than 300 people.

Now that they’ve taken title to the property, the National Trust will be applying to get the property on the National Register of Historic Places. “We think that it should be designated as a national landmark,” says Moe, “which is the highest designation that the Interior Department can give to an historic structure.”

Moe sees the success of the group’s effort as a turning point that “really confirms the significance, not only of the Farnsworth House, but of the best of post-war architecture in this country, which has not, frankly, always been recognized as worth preserving. I think this was a seminal moment in recognizing the importance of modern architecture.”

May 13th, 2004- Farnsworth Reopens to the Public

"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 www.farnsworthhouse.org. 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.