A pair of glass and black steel apartment buildings on Lake Shore Drive in Streeterville are so strongly identified with their architect they are often simply called “the Mies buildings,” but Ludwig Mies van der Rohe designed another famous building that year sixty miles southwest.
In Plano, a long, serene pavilion of glass and white painted steel located at 14520 River Road sits on stilts above the ground so it appears to be floating near the banks of the Fox River.
The house, designed in 1951 to be the weekend getaway of a Chicago physician, has recently undergone a subtle change. Long known as Farnsworth House, it officially became the Edith Farnsworth House on Nov. 17, 2021. That date would have been the 118th birthday of its namesake, the omnivorously intellectual woman who commissioned Mies to build it and later battled him in court.
The name change emphasizes that “this was one woman’s place of her own,” said Scott Mehaffey, executive director of the Edith Farnsworth House, a site of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
Mehaffey, who’s been on the job since 2018, has been nudging along a shift in the narrative about the house. The change is being done with no disrespect to Mies, who designed a sublime, ethereal place to watch wildlife and the river drift past. Instead, something that used to be a secondary part of the story, Edith Farnsworth’s fundamental role in getting this special place built, is being lifted up.
For anyone who hasn’t been to the house, a trip to Plano to see it is worth the effort. The tour starts in a separate building, with a film and exhibits that whet your appetite. Then you walk about half a mile through the woods along the banks of the Fox River until you come to a broad, grassy clearing where the house floats like a barge over the ground. The home looks like one long bar of glass between the steel roof and floor, with travertine marble steps cascading down.
When you go inside the four walls of glass, the natural setting suffuses the interior. The home really is a transcendent place.
That’s what Edith Farnsworth wanted for the riverside land she bought in the 1940s from Col. Robert McCormick, the owner of the Chicago Tribune, who had operated a demonstration farm there.
Born in 1903 to a wealthy Chicago family and brought up on Astor Street, she got her medical degree from Northwestern University in 1938, at a time when very few women were doctors. In 1942, the Tribune wrote of her and one other woman doctor, saying it was “a curious thing that purlieus of upper Astor Street [would] burst the bonds of social life” to go into medicine, a man’s profession.
A kidney specialist, Farnsworth eventually had her own research lab at Passavant Hospital, which later became part of Northwestern, and also saw patients.
Single by choice, according to Mehaffey, Farnsworth “was a proto-feminist.”
“She was so far ahead of her time, self-actualized and self-fulfilled, traveling and writing poetry and running a research lab,” he said.
That was in addition to a volunteer gig.
“She writes in her diaries about her volunteer midwife assignment, birthing babies on filthy kitchen floors in the slums of Chicago,” Mehaffey said.
Clearly, the woman was a force.
But this is not how Farnsworth used to be described. After she sued Mies in the 1950s over cost overruns and was quoted in House Beautiful magazine saying that Mies’s attitude about everything from furniture to the kitchen trash can was very controlling, she came to be thought of as a frustrated spinster who either loved Mies and lost him or loved him and didn’t get him.
Mies, according to Mehaffey, “did what he could to keep that story going about her.” Because he was one of the great architects of the 20th century — and a man — his version of the story prevailed.
The narrative got cemented in 1986, nine years after she died. That year, Franz Schulze, a Lake Forest College art professor and freelance Chicago Sun-Times art critic, published a book in which he wrote that “most witnesses to the Mies-Farnsworth friendship agree that it was a romance of some sort.” He quoted Farnsworth’s estranged sister, Marion, saying she was “mesmerized” by Mies. Schulze also included a photo of Farnsworth and noted that she was “no beauty. Six feet tallk, ungainly of carriage and rather equine in features.”
She was, Schulze wrote, “sensitive about her physical person and may very well have compensated for it by cultivating her considerable mental powers.”
The misogyny of it is startling to read now.
Mehaffey said elevating Edith Farnsworth in the story of her house is part of “telling the whole story of a woman who made history, who built this house.”
The later story of the house is also being expanded. From 1971 to 2003, the British real estate tycoon Lord Peter Palumbo owned the house. Exhibits and materials about those years now also talk about Hayat Palumbo, who married Lord Peter in 1986 and often came to Plano, according to Mehaffey.
Dennis Rodkin is the residential real estate reporter for Crain’s Chicago Business and Reset’s “What’s That Building?” contributor. Follow him @Dennis_Rodkin.