Floods Threaten the Farnsworth House Every Year—Now, a Plan to Save It
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Floods Threaten the Farnsworth House Every Year—Now, a Plan to Save It

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By Amy Dvorak
We visit Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s famed residence to learn how we can help save a major piece of Modernist architectural history.

It’s one of the most suspenseful, yet serene, walks you’ll ever take. ­Some 60 miles outside of Chicago in Plano, Illinois, you’re a world away in the woods, anticipating one of the best-designed homes in the world: Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House.

To learn more about the Miesian masterpiece, long endangered by the Fox River, we toured the home and caught up with the team behind the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which owns and manages the steel-and-glass sanctuary. Read on to learn about its storied inception, acquisition, and—without intervention—its potentially perilous fate. 

Pictured is the rear of the Farnsworth House, designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. The home's structure is based on three horizontal steel planes lifted out of nature. 

Pictured is the rear of the Farnsworth House, designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. The home's structure is based on three horizontal steel planes lifted out of nature. 

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The year was 1945 when German architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, widely known as Mies, began to design the weekend retreat for Edith Farnsworth, a Chicago nephrologist. Yet long before it was built, the home already began to gain acclaim after a model appeared at the Museum of Modern Art in 1947. "The house was causing a stir," says Scott Mehaffey, executive director of the Farnsworth House. "There were knockoffs, but many were inspired. It was very early. For what constituted modern architecture at that time, you would see how strikingly different the design was."

That design was one of three selected by Farnsworth, whom Mehaffey describes as a researcher—thorough, linear, and heavily involved in the design and construction early on. She selected the scheme with the smallest footprint, as it least disrupted the surrounding nature, which was once home to a vegetable garden. The secluded, quiet setting throws into relief the International-style home that looks as though it belongs anywhere else but here. 

The Farnsworth House is devoid of ornamentation: even the entry stair does not have a hand rail, and not a bolt or weld can be seen. 

The Farnsworth House is devoid of ornamentation: even the entry stair does not have a hand rail, and not a bolt or weld can be seen. 

Heavy glass seals behind you as you step into the home, muffling all sound. It’s disorienting, yet enchanting, to stand in a glass box and stare into the silent woods. The birds chirping, leaves crunching, and river faintly running continue to play in your head, but in here, pure quietude. It’s no wonder Farnsworth made this her place of respite each weekend for some 20 years. But to achieve that serenity required precision that could never compete with, but would rather complement, Mother Nature. In this, Mies was a master.

Inside the Farnsworth House, an eight-inch gap lines the perimeter and keeps condensation at bay. The area pictured between the desk and the dining table serves as the entry. 

Inside the Farnsworth House, an eight-inch gap lines the perimeter and keeps condensation at bay. The area pictured between the desk and the dining table serves as the entry. 

Radiant heated travertine floors from Italy fill the home. The original design called for sourcing from nearby Indiana, and the upgrade was one of the many elements that caused the home to go over budget.

Radiant heated travertine floors from Italy fill the home. The original design called for sourcing from nearby Indiana, and the upgrade was one of the many elements that caused the home to go over budget.

It was post-World War II when construction began on the home. Materials and contractors were hard to come by, but that did not deter Mies from using the best he could find. Although it would double the cost, he sourced travertine floors from Europe (instead of a much more affordable option from the neighboring state of Indiana) along with generous amounts of steel, which had soared after the war. Adding to the expenses was this entirely new form of engineering. "Architects and contractors or people who build admire most his quality of the construction, because it’s so well done," says Mehaffey. "God is in the details. Keep them simple and clean, and execute properly." 

At the Farnsworth House, you won’t see bolts. You won’t see any welds. By using a meticulous method called plug welding, seams were erased, resulting in what appears to be an effortless dialogue between positive and negative space. Yet, one cannot achieve that sense of simplicity without paying attention to every single nail, bolt, and screw. It is a pure work of art, but the Farnsworth House did not achieve such acclaim through its design alone.

While the home sits five feet and three inches above ground, the home continues to experience devastating floods. The planned flood mitigation solution involves raising the house via a hydraulic lift system when needed.

While the home sits five feet and three inches above ground, the home continues to experience devastating floods. The planned flood mitigation solution involves raising the house via a hydraulic lift system when needed.

Set in any other environment, the Farnsworth House would still be remarkable. But its siting along the river, nestled in the woods just an hour outside an architectural metropolis is what makes it otherworldly. Unfortunately, its siting is what also poses its greatest threat. Although it is raised five feet and three inches, the home floods just about every year. "The site has been problematic since the day it was built," says Ashley Wilson, AIA, ASID, the Graham Gund Architect for the Historic Sites at the National Trust for Historic Preservation. "That’s what so powerful—the dialogue with nature, dangerous nature."

The site has been problematic since the day it was built. That’s what so powerful—the dialogue with nature, dangerous nature.

—Ashley Wilson, architect

The worst of it occurred in 1996, when several feet of water entered the home, compromising the interior. A fallen tree shattered windows; art was swept down the river. At the time, the Farnsworth House was in the possession of Lord Peter Palumbo, who had a limited care-taking staff. He never lived in the home and instead used it as a park, with picnics and canoeing trips with his family. Since then, the Trust has acquired the home through public auction, and currently works to preserve it. Now when floods occur, the staff elevates the furniture and curtains, but the wood core and structure remain weakened, and the continuous restoration time and costs are significant.

In 2018, yet another severe flood threatened the Farnsworth House. In 1996, windows broke, and art was swept down the river during a tragic flood.

In 2018, yet another severe flood threatened the Farnsworth House. In 1996, windows broke, and art was swept down the river during a tragic flood.

The Trust has evaluated several solutions, from installing a barrier wall to relocating the home. But they are not quite ready to leave the site. "You can make pitch for it, but you lose the visual experience of it being on the edge of water," says Wilson. Instead, they have opted for a hydraulic lift system as a means to preserve the integrity of the original site. The system allows the home to be raised when water poses a threat. To install the device, the home will be lifted, and a basement will be built beneath it to house trusses supported by hydraulic actuators. The house will raise when water rises, but it will be a two-hour process to lift each time. 

"Walking the site, you won’t know it’s there," says Wilson. The only visible part of the project at grade will be a quarter inch of curbing, which she says can be covered with dirt. The project will take 11 months to complete, but they cannot begin without funding—plus plenty to support the required maintenance. "It’s a constant battle to have enough money," says Wilson. Restoration is an expensive business, and with the flood mitigation efforts, pricey home repairs would occur in tandem.

The built-in casework does not reach the floor, as the sun would cause discoloration. To the right, you can see damage from the flood water that entered the home.

The built-in casework does not reach the floor, as the sun would cause discoloration. To the right, you can see damage from the flood water that entered the home.

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's famed Barcelona collection outfits the interior of the Farnsworth home. 

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's famed Barcelona collection outfits the interior of the Farnsworth home. 

To fund the efforts, the Trust relies on donations and rents the home for private events. In addition, home tours and creative programs like holiday yoga and a laser light installation ensure fresh experiences and repeat visitors.

It’s a fine line, though: preserving one of the most exquisite homes in the world while receiving thousands of visitors every year. "If everyone came through with white gloves and booties, then you’re just preaching to the choir," says Mehaffey. "It’s an opportunity to explain why you have to treat a historic object with care and share its importance. If they’re not midcentury modern fans, that opens a course of dialogue with staff to find common ground and compare and contrast. A lot of kids have never seen anything like it."

Many adults haven’t either. Mies was far ahead of his time, yet managed to resonate with the masses when those three little words he coined became mainstream: Less is more. It leaves admirers in awe of what isn’t there—rather than what is. It is a philosophy distilled into one beautiful and divine drowning box—one that takes our efforts to save.

Private events take place on the lawn of the Farnsworth House to help raise funds for flood mitigation efforts. Public tours include late-night outings, Tai Chi, and other creative programs to fund the restoration.

Private events take place on the lawn of the Farnsworth House to help raise funds for flood mitigation efforts. Public tours include late-night outings, Tai Chi, and other creative programs to fund the restoration.