Building Time

November 3, 2005 Chicago Buildings, House Museums, Interpretation Comments Off on Building Time 1404

I had a morning meeting of the Steering Committee for the Farnsworth House, the stunning glass house built in Plano, Illinois by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe in 1951. (You can see it on the LPCI website link at right) The house was famously sold at a Sotheby’s auction in December 2003. LPCI and the National Trust hooked up and bought it for over $7 million, saving it from a potential move out of state.

The house is a marvel. Yes, its style is modernist, its materials glass and steel, its entire perimeter floor-to-ceiling glass, but the emotional effect on the visitor is a Greek temple. It is mathematical perfection sitting in the natural perfection of the Fox River floodplain, a perfect little symphony of white I-beams, travertine and spartan, sculptural furnishings. Neither too many notes nor too few. No wonder it was auctioned off like a work of art- that is what it is.

But you may know that my bias is history, and that I feel quite strongly that historic preservation is adaptive use; the repurposing of buildings for contemporary uses. Museum houses must be few and far between, and even then they need – and have always needed throughout history – strong endowments or extensive subsidy. So what of the Farnsworth House?

At this morning’s meeting we approved a mission statement that strayed significantly – and I think correctly – from the older restoration mission. The statement acknowledged the primacy of Mies’s 1951 design and the original client, Dr. Edith Farnsworth, but also included the ownership from 1969 to 2003 by Lord Peter Palumbo, which brought some changes to the site and building, as well as a massive restoration following devastating floods in 1996.

The distinction is subtle, but contrast it to the 1980s restoration of the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio – which was brought back to its 1909 appearance. I serve as Chair of the Site Council for the Gaylord Building, restored to its 1880 appearance. In these cases a more coherent interpretation was made available by choosing a “date” to return the building to, and each had been fairly extensively altered over the years.

The Farnsworth House has never had such alterations. Still, it is significant that the mission statement this morning considers the Farnsworth from 1951 to 2003 – until the time Palumbo sold it. That entire period is thus open for interpretation, an even richer story than the design and construction of an architectural masterwork.

Longer dates let more history in. Preservation is not about freezing a certain moment in time. Preservation is about letting time speak and making sure its voice is not stilled.

What a building does in time can be incredibly rich. When we say “if these walls could talk” we do not restrict their talk to architects and bricklayers, but everyone who has spent time and suffered humanity within those confines. It doesn’t make a huge difference for the Farnsworth House, that sculptural perfection perched on the prairie that attracts architects from all over the planet; but for most buildings it is the difference between an essay in design and engineering and a human epic that inspires us to invest time and energy into keeping aspects of our built environment.

blog dated November 3, 2005. Images from 2008 and 2005 added 2010.