An architect built a landmark home for an heiress — and it tore them apart

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe was one of the most prominent architects in Europe in the 1920s and 1930s, famed for his iconic steel and leather Barcelona chairs that can be found in fashionable living rooms to this day. But after he fled Nazi Germany in 1938 (leaving behind his wife, his daughters and his mistress), he took a job at the architecture school at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago and his career ended up in neutral.

Then, in 1945, he met Edith Farnsworth at a dinner party. Farnsworth, an heiress who had put herself through medical school, told Mies she’d recently bought some land an hour outside of town and was thinking about building a weekend home, with a budget of about $8,000 to $10,000 ($115,000-$143,000 in 2020 dollars). Could he design it for her?

“I told her I would not be interested in a normal house,” Mies recalled years later, “but if it could be fine and interesting, then I would do it . . . She knew that she would get a house that was not normal.”

That, as cultural historian Alex Beam recounts in “Broken Glass: Mies van der Rohe, Edith Farnsworth, and the Fight Over a Modernist Masterpiece” (Random House), out now, was an understatement.

Mies and Farnsworth spent several weekends driving out to her property in Plano, Ill., to study the landscape and decide where the building should go. When he chose his spot, a local warned him it was too close to the river, which frequently flooded. No problem; Mies was planning to raise the house five feet off the ground on steel beams. Anyway, he added, “you have a canoe there, and if it floods, you take the canoe to the house . . . It’s an adventure.”

He envisioned a single room, enclosed by glass and steel. The only things separating Farnsworth’s bed from the rest of the space would be a kitchen station flanked by bathrooms for her and her guests and a 5-foot-high wardrobe. (There was no other storage space.)

Construction on the house didn’t begin until 1949, two years after a model of the proposed design had been showcased in a Mies retrospective at Manhattan’s Museum of Modern Art. His staff referred to it as “the most important house in the world.” But it was also an expensive house, as Mies’ estimate rose to $60,000.

Although the close friendship Mies and Farnsworth had formed at that dinner party had already begun to cool, they still worked closely together as the house began to take shape. He persuaded her to let him do the floor of the house in travertine marble; although she was impressed by his “meticulous concern” as she watched him inspect each slab at the construction site, it would prove a costly decision, inflating the budget by another $12,000.

They argued over many other details, like the color of the ceiling-to-floor curtains, or the size of the stainless steel andirons Mies designed for the fireplace. She argued that they were too big to hold wood; he curtly told her to “use bigger logs.” And when it came time to discuss the furnishings, she confided to a friend, “The fact is that Mies has no taste . . . I don’t see how he could seriously think that I would go with him beyond the erection of the house itself.”

I told her I would not be interested in a normal house but if it could be fine and interesting, then I would do it.

The end result was the very definition of Mies’ “less is more” minimalism. He was so dedicated to keeping the outside surface smooth that he even had the builders grind off the plugs where the channel beams supporting the floor and ceiling were welded to the steel columns that kept the structure off the ground. One critic described it as “nothing but a glass cage on stilts.”

Farnsworth started using the unfurnished house at the end of 1950, bringing some foam mattresses out to stay overnight on New Year’s Eve, but soon grew anxious as neighbors warned her about the danger of the river flooding over. (She would, in fact, wind up fleeing the house in a rowboat with her pet dog in 1954.) She found other flaws in the design as well. There was no air conditioning, and no circulation, so summers were unbearably hot. Winters were equally bad; Farnsworth’s heating bill in the first year was nearly $700 (adjusted for inflation, more than $6,500).

She hated the lack of privacy — regularly waking up to the sound of cameras as curious architecture tourists peered in her windows and trampled her lawn and flowers. “I feel like a prowling animal, always on the alert,” she complained to an interviewer. “I wanted to do something ‘meaningful,’ and all I got was this glib, false sophistication. The conception of a glass cage suspended in air is ridiculous.”

The final cost of the house, tallied in 1951, came to $79,000 — the equivalent of $786,000 today. Farnsworth had paid Mies about $73,000 of that through the previous summer, but balked at shelling out a penny more. Mies gave a new business manager permission to try to collect. Farnsworth responded by bringing in a lawyer who had been one of her patients. After preliminary negotiations failed, Mies sued his client for the unpaid balance, and she counter-sued, claiming he’d deceived her and created an unlivable building.

“You didn’t know how to heat a house, did you?” her lawyer asked Mies during a court hearing.

“I don’t solve mechanical problems,” the architect replied.

The special master overseeing the dispute determined that Mies “made no false representation whatever” and “had always acted in good faith,” and Farnsworth eventually paid him a $2,500 settlement. It’s likely the last contact they ever had.

The Farnsworth House was controversial, but it helped seal Mies’ reputation in the United States — as did another project completed during the same time frame, a pair of landmark glass-and-steel apartment buildings on Chicago’s Lake Shore Drive. In 1954, he began work on perhaps his most famous American landmark: the 38-story Seagram Building on Park Avenue between 52nd and 53rd streets. His final project, Berlin’s Neue Nationalgalerie art museum, was completed a year before his death in 1969.

Farnsworth, meanwhile, became increasingly bitter — sharpened by a dispute with the county over plans to seize two acres of her property and build a bridge less than sixty yards from her house. She sold her “glass cage” in 1972 to Peter Palumbo, a British real-estate developer, who restored it to pristine condition (while purchasing another house nearby where he and his family actually stayed when he was in town). Three decades later, it was sold at auction for $6.7 million and is currently a museum.

In a way, that outcome is exactly what Edith Farnsworth had foreseen for the weekend getaway home she’d originally dreamed of owning.

Soon after it was completed, a nephew remembered, she complained, “My house is a monument to Mies van der Rohe and I’m paying for it.”

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