steel framed mid-century modern home

Edith Farnsworth House

If someone were to ask you to close your eyes and picture a modernist house, there is a good chance your brain would conjure up something similar to the Edith Farnsworth House.

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Construction of this steel and glass house was completed in 1951 in Plano, IL, and it quickly became one of the most iconic structures of the modernist movement, exemplifying the International Style. Numerous homes designed since have taken inspiration from the Farnsworth House (including the famous Glass House by Philip Johnson in Connecticut).

In this intro, we are going to take a look at the design choices that went into the Edith Farnsworth House and what makes them so brilliant.

We will also tell the story behind the house. While the home itself is celebrated, the story of its design and construction is one of the more notorious from the mid-century period.

The Architect and the Client

© Carol M. Highsmith

The architect of the Edith Farnsworth House was Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, one of the most prominent Mid-Century Modern designers. Originally from Germany, he was the final director of the Bauhaus school of architecture. You are probably familiar with his design for the Barcelona chair as well as high rises such as the Seagram Building.

The client, Edith Farnsworth, became an MD in 1938, which at the time was quite a feat for a woman given societal constraints. Eventually, she would go on to become an associate professor of medicine at Passavant Hospital. She was also a talented violinist and wrote poetry as well.

The Farnsworth House was designed to serve as her weekend retreat from society’s expectations and demands. This post from Architectural Record explains, “A degree of sadness seems to underpin Edith’s time at the house. In an issue of the MIT architecture journal Thresholds (PDF), Wendl writes that Edith was looking for sanctuary along the Fox River; a reprieve from a world that looked askance at her for stepping outside of the compulsory roles and wife and mother, instead choosing the path of a self-actualized professional.”

Philosophically, it made sense to choose Mies for the architect for her project. He too took issue with the expectations society placed on the individual.

Mies wrote, “Architecture is the will of the epoch translated into space … The demand of our time for realism and functionalism must be met. We are concerned today with questions of a general nature.  The individual is losing significance; his destiny is no longer what interests us.”

A home in such times needed to offer the individual freedom and restore connection with nature, which is what the Edith Farnsworth House does through its design.

Farnsworth House Materials, Layout and Design

The Farnsworth House is made out of steel and glass, and measures 1,586 square feet. A welded steel frame raises it 5 feet above the landscape, which was necessary since it is located on a flood plain. Resting on its piers with its glass walls, it appears almost weightless.

There are no walls inside the home. Instead, there is a core featuring a kitchen, bathrooms, fireplace and utilities, and partitions to divide up the space into functional but flexible zones.

Kye Cardinalis at Atomic Ranch explains, “Views are unobstructed, and movement is unencumbered. The individual can move through life within their home as they see fit, even if their movements outside it are constrained by how they must fit into their industrial society.”

A Gorgeous Mid-Century Modern House with an Ugly History

farnsworth house in winter
© Jack E. Boucher

Alas, as beautiful as the house is, the relationship between Farnsworth and Mies was not so beautiful. In fact, it turned into a tragic mess.

The original budget Farnsworth approved for her home was $58,400. Mies did not stick to this budget, however. The home’s final cost was a whopping $74,000. That is a difference of $15,600. That might not sound massive, but you need to translate it into today’s dollars to understand. That amount of money in 1951 is the same as $182,017.80 today. Talk about overshooting.

As you might imagine, Farnsworth was not keen on paying the difference. Actually, she contended that $28,173 of the cost was unfair. In fact, the original estimate for the build was actually even lower than the budget she approved—just $40,000 or so. This accounts for why she didn’t want to pay $28,173.

Mies, of course, wanted to collect what he felt was his due, so he sued Farnsworth. In return, she sued him right back, and said that he had committed malpractice while working on her home. Mies won his suit. Farnsworth’s counter-suit was dismissed. Nevertheless, they ended up settling, so it would seem there was perhaps some merit to her claims.

The final work on the project was completed by architect William Dunlap, who had been one of Mies’ employees. Mies himself was no longer working on the home by that point.

It is likely that Mies and Farnsworth’s dispute went beyond the money.

According to author AliceT. Friedman, the two also probably clashed over differences in opinion regarding design choices. Both parties seemed to assume that the other would concede to their vision.

Their conflict led to bad press for the home in the 50s. Additionally, Cold War tensions were high, and at that time, some people associated the International Style with communism. This only increased the criticism of the Farnsworth House.

What did Farnsworth herself think of the house after it was complete? Not surprisingly, she didn’t love it. Nor did she put any Mies furnishings in the house, and who could blame her?

As explained here, she once told House Beautiful, “The truth is that in this house with its four walls of glass I feel like a prowling animal, always on the alert. I am always restless. Even in the evening. I feel like a sentinel on guard day and night.” She sold it in 1972, and died in 1977.

We wonder to what degree it was the design of the house that created this feeling of hypervigilance, or whether it was after-effects from the fight with Mies. It is hard to imagine one would feel comfortable living in a house that had turned out to be so much trouble. One imagines that the ill feelings from the dispute would linger in the home for many years afterward. It would be hard to feel truly settled and at home.

Perhaps had circumstances been different, Farnsworth would have been able to fully enjoy the stunning views offered by the glass walls of the solitude and tranquillity of nature.

The Present and Future of the Edith Farnsworth House

The Edith Farnsworth House
©Victor Grigas

Of course, the reputation of the Farnsworth House in our current times is very different. It is widely considered to be one of the best examples of modernist homes ever built.

Lord Peter Palumbo, the home’s owner after Farnsworth, sold it in 2003. It was purchased by the National Trust for Historic Preservation together with Landmarks Illinois for $7.5 million in an auction. The National Trust remains the home’s owner today.

Restoration efforts have proven necessary. While Mies tried to protect the home from floodwaters by raising it up, he did not raise it quite high enough. Rain has also caused damage to the framing and piers. The travertine has cracked due to temperature fluctuations throughout the year as well.

In winter of 2022, an article in Preservation Magazine reported that restoration work was completed successfully on the Lower Terrace of the house. We are glad to see that the house is in good hands, and feel confident the National Trust will continue to remain dedicated to preserving the home as the decades march on.

How to Visit the Edith Farnsworth House

If you find yourself in Illinois, you can pay a visit to the Farnsworth House yourself to experience it in person. You will find the house at this address:

P.O. Box 194 14520 River Road Plano, IL 60545

The home is not open year-round; you will need to check the schedule for the year you want to visit. In 2023, the season runs from March 22nd through November 26th.

You do need tickets to tour the home. You will need to visit the official Edith Farnsworth House website to buy them, or call 630.552.0052. Be aware that you need a ticket to even see the outside of the house, since it is not visible from the road. Your ticket will allow you to explore the grounds and enter the home.

While you are at the house, you will also be able to visit the Barnsworth Gallery, which is located on the grounds and which was designed by Professor Frank Flury. The gallery hosts exhibits related to architecture, landscaping, design, the house’s history, and similar topics.

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