Edith recalled that the German-born architect sat through almost the entire dinner like a massive immobile piece of granite, saying nothing while the women carried on a lively conversation. Edith was telling her friends about a piece of property she had purchased from Chicago Tribune publisher Col. Robert McCormick not far from the tiny town of Plano, Illinois, about 60 miles west of Chicago. It was only 9 acres, but the secluded site along the bank of the Fox River would be ideal for weekend get aways. The Farnsworths and the McCormicks moved in the same social circles. Edith’s grandfather George had come to Chicago in the late 1830s, left, and discovered the wooded acreage of Wisconsin and Michigan. After returning to the city in 1868, he went on to became one of Chicago’s wealthiest lumber barons. Edith’s father, also named George, took over the reins of the family business and after his death in 1941 Edith, her mother, sister, and brother were beneficiaries of the bountiful Farnsworth estate. The house she shared with her mother and two servants at 1448 N. Astor Street was large and comfortable enough, but she told Georgia and Ruth that she wanted a retreat from the city and her very busy medical practice. When she asked the brooding architect if there might be a young man in his office who would be interested in a small house project he replied, “I would love to build any kind of house for you.”
Ludwig Mies van der Rohe had come to Chicago in 1938 to head-up the architecture program at the Armour Institute. In 1945, when the architect told the doctor he would be happy to design a house for her, his private architectural practice consisted of a handful of young men who were working primarily on the campus buildings that van der Rohe was designing for the recently merged Armour and Lewis Institutes, now known as the Illinois Institute of Technology. When a young architect named Myron Goldsmith came to work in Mies’s Wabash Avenue office in 1946, he was handed a pencil and watercolor sketch that Mies had done of Farnsworth’s house the year before, and was given the project. It took another three years however before things really started to take off.
Mies, Edith and Myron took many a picnic trip out to Plano, and by 1949 the glass enclosure Mies had designed for his dynamic client was ready to be built. The house was unlike anything anyone had ever seen along the Fox River, the Chicago area, the United States, or anywhere else in the world for that matter. Almost. In 1945 Mies had shown architect Philip Johnson the Farnsworth watercolor but because the project had taken so long to reach construction, Johnson was able to complete his version of a glass house in 1949. But once the Farnsworth project was completed, critics saw that the glass dwelling in New Canaan, Connecticut lacked the uncompromising clarity of purpose and intense attention to detail that Mies had provided for his doctor friend.
Early in their discussions Mies had mentioned that the house could probably be built for around $40,000, but by the time construction finally got underway in 1949 the budget had grown to an agreed upon $65,000. Edith’s 2,200-sqaure-foot weekend retreat was not exactly small when considering that the average single-family home in America measured 950-square-feet. Slabs of travertine marble and enormous sheets of polished plate glass didn’t come cheap, neither did steel or copper electrical wire in post-WWII America. Sorting through every single piece of marble to make sure they were laid correctly, matching the primavera wood veneer to perfection, working side-by-side with welders on the steel joins, the hawk-eyed architect left nothing to chance – which can be expensive. As construction drew to a close in 1951, and the budget climbed above $65,000, tensions rose between the architect and his client. In a 1986 oral history with the Art Institute of Chicago, Myron Goldsmith said that Mies didn’t want to discuss the issue with the haranguing Edith any longer, and that from that point on Myron would have to handle the bothersome doctor. Hurt, and feeling cut-off and shunned, Edith stopped sending checks to cover costs.
When the house was finished in 1951, Mies was still owed money so he sued for payment. Edith counter sued and said that not only had the architect gone over the original $40,000 budget, but that the house she had paid for was uninhabitable – it was like living in a terrarium. In 1953 Mies was awarded over $12,000 in judgments, and settled for $2,500. Edith retreated to her “uninhabitable” glass container for another 19 years before deciding to sell the property because the county had decided to build a new bridge over the Fox River within 180 feet of her now world famous summer retreat, and Peter Palumbo, a wealthy London real estate developer purchased the property for $120,000 in 1972. In 1996 the five foot above grade platform that Mies had designed to keep the house free of flood level river water proved to be no match for the changing topography of the formerly rural area. Suburban development meant there was less ground surface to absorb rain and after a record-breaking 17 inch rainfall the Fox River rose higher and higher, engulfing the large plate glass windows. Under intense pressure one of them finally gave way, broke open, and water inundated the interior. The platform built in the hinterlands in the early 1950s was no longer a match for 1990s urbanization. In 2003 Palumbo was ready to sell and put the Farnsworth house up for auction at Sotheby’s. After a nail biting eight minutes of bidding an offer – put together by Landmarks Illinois, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and beneficent individual donors – brought the gavel down at $6.7 million. Then in 2008 another record high flood filled Edith’s terrarium with water once again. Now there is a proposal on the table to build a system of hydraulic lifts under the house that could raise it as much as nine feet above the ever rising river.