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Edith Farnsworth: A Legacy of Restlessness

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By all accounts, Edith was an extraordinary woman – a cosmopolitan woman of intelligence, talent, and persistence. A gifted violinist, a world traveler, a medical doctor, a poet, and a lover of nature, Edith’s dreams and passions would lead her down a twenty-year path of tremendous disappointment, expense, brokenness and bitterness.

All she desired was to be with nature – her place of solitude – to indulge in a respite from her stressful city life of service. Something went wrong. Where did her expectations and dreams fail her?

Edith Farnsworth was born in 1903 to Mary Alice Brooks Farnsworth and George James Farnsworth, a Wisconsin and Chicago lumber manufacturer, and a family of means. Educated at the University of Chicago and the American Conservatory of Music, Edith continued her musical studies with Mario Corti in Rome during the 1920’s. Rare air. While in Italy for a decade, she learned Italian and studied the country’s literature. She traveled Europe extensively; a single woman in post-World War 1 Europe.

In the 1930’s Edith returned to America and turned to medicine as her life’s work, graduating from medical school at Northwestern University. At the beginning of World War II she joined the staff of the Passavant Hospital in Chicago and specialized in diseases of the kidney. Dr. Edith Farnsworth had it all, except peace, which constantly alluded her.

From 1945 until her retirement from medicine in 1967, and her subsequent final move to her estate near Florence, Italy, Edith would embark on a personal journey that would leave her bitter and add to her restlessness. What occurred in this dynamic woman’s life that detoured her dreams and passions in such a dramatic and public way?

Well, Edith Farnsworth lived in a glass house.

Literally, she built a glass house in the woods – a beautiful architectural landmark made of glass and steel. Her fervent desire was to be one with nature and pursue her dream of peace and perfect rest. She never found it.

“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. I can rarely stretch out and relax,” she disparaged.

“I don’t keep a garbage can under my sink. Do you know why? Because you can see the whole ‘kitchen’ from the road on the way in here and the can would spoil the appearance of the whole house. The architect talks about his ‘free space’, but his space is very fixed. I can’t even put a clothes hanger in my house without considering how it affects everything from the outside. Any arrangement of furniture becomes a major problem, because the house is transparent, like an X-ray.” Dr. Edith Farnsworth felt exposed rather than at peace in her house of glass.

Mies van der Rohe is a legendary German-American architect, known in architectural circles simply as Mies. Along with Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius and Frank Lloyd Wright, he is widely regarded as one of the pioneers of modernist architecture. It was Mies who conceived and birthed the notorious glass Farnsworth House.

Related: A Legacy of Damaged Dreams

An innovative architect in 1920s and 1930s Germany, Mies was the last director of the Bauhaus, a seminal school in modern architecture. After Nazism’s rise to power, and with its strong opposition to modernism, leading to the closing of the Bauhaus itself, Mies fled to the United States. He accepted the position to head the architectural school at the Illinois Institute of Technology, in Chicago.

Edith’s house was designed by Mies in 1945 but not constructed until 1951, due to difficulties in obtaining materials after the War. The Farnsworth House is a vital part of American iconography, an exemplary representation of both the International Style of architecture as well as the modern movement’s desire to juxtapose the sleek, streamline design of Modern structure with the organic environment of the surrounding nature. Mies constructed this glass box residence of “almost nothing” for Dr. Farnsworth as a country weekend retreat along the Fox River in Plano, IL, 58 miles southwest of Chicago.

The Farnsworth House was the epitome of his modernist ideals. With a steel structure surrounded entirely by glass walls, the building perfectly connected the inhabitant with an idyllic natural setting, and it was – and is – venerated as a masterwork.

The significance of the Farnsworth House was recognized even before it was built. In 1947 a model of the Farnsworth House was exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York. Describing it, along with the un-built Resor House, as a “radical departure from his last European domestic projects,” Philip Johnson noted that it went further than the Resor house in its expression of the floating volume. “The Farnsworth house, with its continuous glass walls, is an even simpler interpretation of an idea. Here the purity of the cage is undisturbed,” Johnson said. “Neither the steel columns from which it is suspended nor the independent floating terrace break the taut skin.”

In the actual construction, the aesthetic was progressively refined and developed through the choices of materials, colors and details. While subsequent debates and lawsuits sometimes questioned the practicality and livability of its design, the Farnsworth House would increasingly be considered, by architects and scholars alike, one of the crystallizing and pivotal moments of Mies’ long artistic career.

It did not, however, serve the needs of its original owner. Tremendous cost overruns during the construction of the Farnsworth House led Edith to sue the architect.  Edith, so disappointed with so many aspects of her dream home, did not make final payments to Mies, and he subsequently sued her.  The court battle was long and public.

The final straw for Edith came, however, when she sued the town in the late 1960s for planning to build a new bridge near her property, to allow for more than horses and buggies to cross the Fox River. She lost again. She finally had enough of her dream retreat.

The home’s notoriety made it far from the private retreat Edith had envisioned. Her growing disillusionment with the famed architect had reached its conclusion.  Finally, her restlessness could not be overcome. In 1968 she began the process of selling the house to Lord Peter Palumbo, a London real estate developer and collector of architects’ houses and famous artwork. His friend, Mies, told Palumbo of the house and its availability.

Farnsworth house continued to be a private residence for over 50 years, until Landmarks Illinois and the National Trust for Historic Preservation purchased it at auction in 2003. Today it is owned and managed by the Trust and the site is open as a public museum.

As you consider your next journey or your perfect place of rest, consider Edith Farnsworth. Her quest for peace derailed her entirely, resulting in the chronic restlessness she meant to escape.

To the architectural community, the Farnsworth House remains a legacy of innovation. To Edith Farnsworth, the house was a scourge.

So often, we are terrible at predicting future happiness. The rest we seek may not look like we think it ought. How do we measure the cost of pursuing perfection, and are we prepared to alter the quest to save ourselves?

And this is why, Legacy Matters…

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