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Honoring and celebrating the official name change of the Edith Farnsworth House November 17, 2021 NATIONAL TRUST FOR HISTORIC PRESERVATION

THE EDITH FARNSWORTH HOUSE On November 17, 2021, the name of the Farnsworth House (Mies van der Rohe, Plano, Illinois, 1951) will offically change to the Edith Farnsworth House. With this name change, the house is defined as belonging to Dr. Edith Farnsworth, the Chicago-based nephrologist, professor, physician, poet, and translator who met architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe in 1945 and asked him if he might be interested in designing a weekend house for her. This name change occurs at a moment that is unlike any other in the history of the house since it has opened for public tours. The exhibition Edith Farnsworth, Reconsidered invites us to imagine a different history of the house: one in which inhabitation is a form of authorship. With this name change, despite the eventual removal of Dr. Farnsworth’s Bruno Mathsson chairs and the inevitable return of those ubiquitous Barcelona chairs, the house will remain Edith’s. In a country in which capital and legacy typically flow along patrilineal lines, this name change marks an important turn in the history of modern architecture in the United States. It confirms Dr. Farnsworth’s right to be acknowledged for her role in the realization of this transformational modern house. Left: Edith Farnsworth and Beth Dunlap. Photograph by William Dunlap, c. 1951. Courtesy David W. Dunlap


EDITH FARNSWORTH, RECONSIDERED The history of the Farnsworth House has long been organized around a narrative of Dr. Farnsworth as the “spurned lover,” a woman who occupied the very house she commissioned out of vengeance. This is largely based on the rumor, repeated throughout architectural history books and the popular press, that Dr. Farnsworth didn’t want the house as much as she wanted the architect who designed it, Mies van der Rohe. The work of correcting this narrative to reclaim Dr. Farnsworth’s voice, her desire for the house, and her inhabitation of it as legitimate aspects of its architectural history has been the project of many feminist scholars and artists including Alice T. Friedman, Beatriz Colomina, Paul B. Preciado, Nora Wendl, Gerard & Kelly, and others. Transforming these new narratives into an exhibition is no small feat. For this project, Scott Mehaffey, Rob Kleinschmidt, and Nora Wendl reviewed and collected archival photographs and accounts of Dr. Farnsworth’s inhabitation of her house. Mehaffey and Kleinschmidt sourced replicas and commissioned recreations of Farnsworth’s furniture with the support of the Graham Foundation and NTHP. Edith Farnsworth, Reconsidered opened in March 2020, at the start of the United States’ response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and will close in December 2021, in a world forever changed by the events that unfolded over the course of this exhibition. As the authorship of history is an ongoing endeavor, future transformations of this historical narrative are inevitable; this exhibition and this name change mark just one turn in that continuum.

Edith Farnsworth, 1938 Courtesy Northwestern Memorial Hospital Archives



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Edith Farnsworth, Reconsidered Drawing by Naomi Nagurski



Stone Lions c. 1800, Northern China, limestone


Daybed originally designed c. 1952 (designer unknown), white-painted steel, vinyl coated ropes, upholstered mattress (custom replicated for exhibition by Economy Iron, Von Dreele-Freerksen, and Walter E. Smithe)


Rug Living Area contemporary, Moroccan Wool (Turkish, designer unknown)


Lounge Chairs (contemporary, originally designed 1943), designed by Jens Risom, maple wood and woven cotton-blend straps


Cocktail Table (contemporary, originally designed 1952), designed by Florence Knoll, painted steel with white laminate top


Slipper Chairs (contemporary, originally designed c. 1951), designer unknown, bamboo and rattan frame with woven cotton straps (custom replicated by Fong Brothers, Los Angeles)


Draperies in exhibition fabricated by InDecor 1997, woven wool-synthetic blend, (originally raw shantung silk, fabricated by Watson and Boaler, 1951).

Upper Terrace Chairs Four c. 2003, Four c. 2015 (originally designed c. 1950-1951), designed by Harry Bertoia, steel B

Rug Entry Area contemporary, Moroccan Wool (Turkish, designer unknown)


Chaise Lounge Chairs (contemporary, originally designed c. 1933-1936), designed by Bruno Mathsson, birch wood frame, woven synthetic straps


Occasional Table/Stool (contemporary, originally designed 1933), designed by Alvar Aalto, laminated birch wood


Planters Indoor/outdoor use, popular c. 19501980, cedar or redwood


Violin & Music Stand contemporary, Hamilton Classic Folding Stand



Floor Lamp c. 1970s (originally designed c. 1947), designed by Angelo Lelli, metal in various finishes



Writing Desk (contemporary, originally designed c. 1928), designed by Franco Albini, introduced to U.S. by Knoll, Inc. (1949), white painted steel frame with glass top and painted drawer unit; for chair, see X. Wardrobe/Hi-Fi Cabinet (contemporary, originally designed c. 1952), Wardrobe designed 1951 by William Dunlap with Office of Mies van der Rohe consulting, fabricated by Carl Freund


Carved Wood Object c. 1870, China, architectural element/fragment, carved from camphor wood


Rug Sleeping Area contemporary, Moroccan Wool (Turkish, designer unknown)


Bed contemporary (linen sheets and matelassé coverlet from Lands End, throw pillows and lap blanket from Room & Board)


Floor Lamp c. 1970 (originally designed c. 1947), designed by Gino Sarfatti, metal in various finishes


Bedside Table contemporary, designer unknown, cast aluminum with chromed finish


Folding Chair contemporary, designed by Gae Aulenti, aluminum and cast metal


Dining Table (contemporary, originally designed 1952), designed by Florence Knoll, painted steel with teak veneer top


End Chairs originally designed by Hans Wegner in 1949 (chairs in exhibition made c. 1960s), teak with woven rattan seat


Side Chairs (contemporary, originally designed c. 1957), designed by Gio Ponti, ash with woven rattan seat


EDITH FARNSWORTH: A HISTORY & AN EXHIBITION From the moment that Dr. Edith Farnsworth took ownership of the Farnsworth House in March 1951, her inhabition was contested. In October 1951, with the house’s debut in Architectural Forum, Farnsworth was described as a “temporary tenant.” The house would continue to exist generation after generation, the review stated, “long after such striking clients as Dr. Edith Farnsworth are gone.” And, indeed, the house has long been exhibited as if she never existed. Since it was opened to the public for the first time in the 1970s under its second owner, Lord Peter Palumbo, the house has been staged with furniture that the architect, Mies van der Rohe, designed in the 1920s for houses and pavilions in Europe. The exhibition Edith Farnsworth, Reconsidered, on view March 2020 - December 2021, gives visitors an opportunity to experience the house as Dr. Edith Farnsworth inhabited it during a three-year period between 1951, when she took ownership of the weekend house upon its completion, and 1954, when a flood damaged the interior furnishings and original silk curtains. This is a significant shift toward interpreting the actual, lived history of the house for public audiences. In place of Barcelona chairs, ottomans, and glasstopped tables, the house holds contemporary versions and replicas of furniture Dr. Farnsworth selected for this house from womanowned Chicago furniture store Baldwin Kingrey: modern pieces by Bruno Mathsson, Jens Risom, Florence Knoll, and others.


Edith Farnsworth, Reconsidered Courtesy William Zbaren, 2020


Photograph by Bill Hedrich, 1951 Courtesy Newberry Library

The first published photographs of the Farnsworth House appeared in Architectural Forum in October 1951. Edith Farnsworth, Reconsidered Courtesy William Zbaren, 2020


Edith Farnsworth, Reconsidered Courtesy William Zbaren, 2020


Edith B. Farnsworth

Stepping into this exhibition, it is as if Dr. Farnsworth has just left to go for a walk: the table has been set for lunch with two guests. This calm interior negates the idea that she hated the very house that she commissioned.dddddd Though the received architectural history imagines an embattled Dr. Farnsworth clashing with her architect, Mies van der Rohe, and ultimately embroiled in a lawsuit and countersuit with him, the two began this project on comfortable terms. Mies van der Rohe had been in the United States since 1938 and since arriving in Chicago, he had produced a campus master plan and architecture for the Illinois Institute of Technology (then the Armour Institute), where he was head of the architecture school. To transform this phase of his career, he required a client who would hire him to produce a private commission. At the time that Dr. Farnsworth met Mies at a dinner party in 1945, she was employed at Passavant Memorial Hospital and on faculty at Northwestern University Medical School with a research lab dedicated to curing a then-fatal kidney disease, nephritis. The year before, she had begun the process of purchasing a 9-acre parcel of land west of Chicago which had once been an experimental Tribune Farm owned by Robert “Colonel” McCormick, the long-time editor and publisher of the Chicago Tribune. In her memoir, she describes seeking a place in the country where she could find a reprieve from work, take important calls and, if necessary, return to Chicago within an hour.

Edith Farnsworth, Reconsidered Courtesy William Zbaren, 2020

Dishes and flatware by Russel Wright: his “Casual” line from 1951 and “Pinch” flatware from 1952.


Edith and her sister Marion, undated Courtesy Newberry Library Edith Farnsworth, Reconsidered Courtesy William Zbaren, 2020


There is no doubt that Edith Farnsworth managed an independent life due to family circumstances. Born November 17, 1903, she spent most of her childhood on Astor Street, on Chicago’s Near North Side, and her father’s family owned two lumber companies: the Oconto Lumber Company of Wisconsin and the Bay de Noquet Lumber Company of Michigan. Generational wealth meant that Edith could attend university. She studied English and Zoology at the University of Chicago and during the early 1920s—when she was just entering adulthood—she moved abroad, studying in Rome with Mario Corti. While she described having hopes of becoming a concert violinist, what she instead discovered is that the opportunity to travel opened up a completely new understanding of herself. She described being released “from dimensions that I was used to thinking of as mine. So wide, so long, so thick, with certain traits thrown in, but always through the refractions of other people’s eyes. But now that description was no longer binding, and there was nothing to limit one’s transcending.” She described her time in Europe from approximately the ages of 19 to 28 as her “years of vague expansion.” One winter, she and her friend Katharine Butler Hathaway (1890 - 1942) rented what she described as “studio rooms” on the Left Bank in Paris. The two would remain close and spent time together years later, after Hathaway purchased a large, historic house in Castine, Maine, where Edith’s family spent summers at “Gray Gables,” the house her father, George Farnsworth, inherited from her aunt. Edith would read the first drafts of Hathaway’s memoir, The Little Locksmith.


Edith Farnsworth and friends Courtesy Castine Historical Society


This book, which would be published posthumously in 1943, details Hathaway’s lifelong experiences with spinal tuberculosis and the transformation in her life that occurred after she purchased the house in Maine: a place where she dedicated herself to writing while inviting visits from guests, artists, and lovers. It is possible that this may have informed Dr. Farnsworth’s decision to build her own house, or laid the groundwork for her to realize the transformative potential of doing so.

“It’s a curious thing that two distinguished young women physicians should have emerged in the past decade from the purlieus of upper Astor Street... Miss Farnsworth is a tall, handsome girl with a splendid physique and much enthusiasm for her chosen avocation.”

On her summers in Castine, Edith befriended other young women from similarly privileged backgrounds. Many had unconventional lives for the time: they lived as independently as the economic situation of their generational wealth allowed. Here, she met and befriended Mary G. “Polly” Porter (1884 - 1972), the American social worker whose family had a summer home in Castine as well. Polly Porter was partnered for fifty years with Mary William “Molly” Dewson (1874 - 1962), a prominent figure in the suffrage movement, a feminist, and a political activist. As Paul B. Preciado and others have written, non-heteronormative relationships were a part of the suffrage movement, yet by the time Dr. Farnsworth began her medical career in mid-century America, homosexuality was pathologized. Writing her memoir at the end of her life, Edith herself eschews any direct language about the nature of her friends' relationships. Instead, she hints at her (humored) awareness of the speculation on these women’s personal lives when she writes: “nobody could understand why Miss Porter never married...But she didn’t, and finally the old people died and then Polly went overseas in the First World War and when she came back again Miss Dewson was with her and they’ve been together ever since.”

Chicago Tribune Society Section, February 1, 1942

Gray Gables (1980) Courtesy Castine Historical Society


Northwestern University Medical School Class of 1938

Edith Farnsworth’s portrait is fourth column from left, and fifth row from bottom.

Courtesy Northwestern Memorial Hospital Archives


Edith Farnsworth’s decision to dedicate her own life to medicine was inspired at the conclusion of her years in Europe. Sailing back to the United States on the SS Berlin, Edith met Dr. Elis Berven, a pioneer in radiotherapy and clinical oncology with whom she had many conversations during weeks of travel across the Atlantic Ocean. She joined the Northwestern University Medical School Class of 1938, one of only five women out of 140 medical students. Making of the Edith Farnsworth House

Dr. Farnsworth and Mies van der Rohe shared an intellectual curiosity. When asked, during his deposition for van der Rohe vs. Farnsworth, about the nature of their conversations during the process of designing the house Mies explained that “we talked for years about God and the world.” Visiting her 9-acre parcel of land along the Fox River in either the winter months of 1945 or early in 1946, Edith described Mies’s love of the harsh midwestern landscape. When she asked what materials he might propose for the house, he reportedly told her that “I would think that here where everything is beautiful, and privacy is no issue it would be a pity to erect an opaque wall between the outside and the inside. So, I think we should build the house of steel and glass.” Rather than the typical conversations between client and architect, Dr. Farnsworth seemed to trust Mies’s vision enough to agree to this unconventional solution. In fact, Dr. Farnsworth became familiar enough with Mies’s approach to design that he invited her to re-write an essay originally written by James Speyer (and eventually published) for an issue of ArtNews that was timed to coincide with the opening of Mies’s 1947 MoMA exhibition, where the house would be exhibited for the first

The Fox River Photograph likely by Edith Farnsworth Courtesy Newberry Library


time as a model and watercolor drawing. In this unpublished essay, Dr. Farnsworth writes: “Here then is a kind of art which is difficult to classify. It is classic and romantic, mediaeval and modern. Its imagination is directed not to selfexpression and exuberance but to the perception of underlying relations of space and line, thought and feeling, which relations have the aspect of simplicity, finality, and a great serenity. Concealed in these simple structures are some of the most memorable innovations of modern architecture, but they are innovations not in subjective fancy but in human experience.”

Edith Farnsworth on site, 1950 Photograph by William Dunlap Courtesy David W. Dunlap


Dr. Farnsworth was friends with many artists, architects, and designers, including interior designer Kitty Baldwin and her husband, architect Harry Weese, and was close friends with the sculptor Hugo Weber. Far from being naive in choosing Mies to design her weekend house, she understood Mies’s designs as necessary and creative cultural contributions. Edith was exhilarated from the experience of seeing a model of her house on view at MoMA, calling it the “pivotal point of the exhibit,” and believed that the house would become the prototype of new and important elements in American architecture. During construction, the house became a social and cultural center, with Dr. Farnsworth driving Mies and the various architects whocame to visit out to the construction site in Plano, and with Sunday picnics at the site with the architects and staff (including the accountant, Felix Bonnet) becoming a fairly regular occurrence.

Lora Marx, Beth Dunlap, and Myron Goldstein on site, 1950 Photograph by William Dunlap Courtesy David W. Dunlap


Installation of screens at Edith Farnsworth House Photograph by William Dunlap, 1951 Courtesy David W. Dunlap


Meanwhile, Dr. Farnsworth had arguably never been busier. She was credited with the first clinical use of ACTH (adrenocorticotropic hormone) in the treatment of nephrotic syndrome in 1948. Her experiments with a synthetic version of ACTH—produced from the pituitary glands of hogs, which in 1949 were solely sourced from Chicago’s Armour and Co. meatpackers—were successfully treating patients with the kidney disease nephritis, and by 1949 her research was beginning to make national headlines. From 1949 to 1951, the number of her private patient admissions to Passavant doubled from 60 to 116, and she received substantial donations to fund her research and experimentation with ACTH. This period of frenetic research activity perfectly aligned with precisely the years that the Office of Mies van der Rohe worked on translating the model and watercolor drawing proposal from the MoMA exhibition into an actual structure. In May 1949, Dr. Farnsworth received an inheritance of $24,847.92 to put toward the construction of the house, which began in September. The office did both the design work and the general contracting, with Myron Goldsmith acting as structural engineer and Bill Goodman consulting on mechanical systems. Mies attended to every detail. This was the first American house commission that he would complete, and the one that contained what Phyllis Lambert has described as the DNA of his American architecture: a free-standing, clear-span, steel-frame building with little divisionon the interior—an open, one room house—and little boundary between inside and outside. Though Dr. Farnsworth had trusted many design decisions to Mies, disagreements revolved around specific choices she wanted to make

Notwithstanding a few disagreements and tension, the summer of 1949 was brilliant and exciting…For me that summer was marvelous because it fulfilled my ideal that persons trained in different fields of the arts or the sciences should seek to understand the ideals and the principles common to all fields of advancement and to lend their loyalty and support. Edith Farnsworth, Memoir

Armour and Co., Chicago Hog pituitaries frozen in dry ice Courtesy Northwestern Memorial Hospital Archive


Another contested point was the “open plan” of the interior, according to which a guest would have a bathroom but no bedroom. He, or she, could sleep on a sofa or I would spread out a mattress on the travertine floor. Edith Farnsworth, Memoir

...I wrote to Mies that I was unable to underwrite any further expenses in connection with the Fox River project. I remember he did not acknowledge my communication either in writing or by word of mouth, and I felt that a refusal to authorize further expenses should not involve a rupture of friendship between us and therefore made efforts to continue all of our cordial customs unchanged. Edith Farnsworth, Memoir 26

as the person who would inhabit the house. She wanted to choose her own furniture, and in September 1950, when Mies manufactured chairs, a stool, and a table for her she asked for them in a different finish, and for the frames only, so she could upholster them as she wished. She was deeply concerned about having only one way in and out of the house. And, she asked for brown curtains on the advice of Harry Weese before agreeing to the raw shantung silk curtains that were eventually installed and unfortunately damaged by the flood of 1954. This was an experimental structure for Mies, too. As late as July 1950, he proposed an interior divided by several curtains to indicate the locations of different zones, or “rooms” in the house. And there was the core issue that the expense of the house had increased significantly from the first informal estimate of the project in 1946, which Dr. Farnsworth later alleged was around $40,000. In 1949, Mies had allegedly told Dr. Farnsworth that it seemed possible to build the house for approximately $50,000. In August 1949, Goldsmith had prepared an estimate of construction costs in the amount of $61,300.00. By August 1, 1950, she learned that the orders yet to be given in completing the house would cost a total of $69,686.80; one week later, she wrote to Mies to tell him that no further expenses should be made on the house. And, by September 2, 1950, Dr. Farnsworth had paid just over $70,000 toward materials, construction, and fees. Complicating matters was their process, proceeding with building the experimental house bit by bit, ordering labor and materials as they went, and the inflation in steel prices caused by the Korean War. In Dr. Farnsworth’s words on trial: “I was not aware that we were on a cross country trip without knowing where we were going."

Undoubtedly, Mies’s decision to base the estimate of the house on materials and labor, and not to account for his own fees, was problematic. And, of course, Dr. Farnsworth’s expectation that an architect would design a house and oversee its construction without adequate compensation—she made “voluntary contributions” totaling $3500—was equally problematic. In February 1951, Goldsmith estimated the final cost at $74,167.95. On March 1, 1951, Dr. Farnsworth turned the matter over to Randolph Bohrer, a lawyer, friend, and former patient of hers. She received the keys to the house on March 29, 1951, when the work was confirmed to be finished; there was still, however, the question of the remaining cost of the house.

Edith Farnsworth, Reconsidered Courtesy William Zbaren, 2020

Contested Inhabitation of the Edith Farnsworth House

As the house was completed, many people were visiting and photographing it without Dr. Farnsworth’s permission, much to her annoyance. And, throughout the summer of 1951, the Office of Mies van der Rohe was in correspondence with Wayne Anderson, an architectural historian who wanted to photograph the house for his forthcoming book on American architecture. Mies argued that it was too soon to photograph the house because “the problem of furnishing [it] is far from resolved.” The first published photographs of the house were taken by Bill Hedrich of Chicago-based photographers Hedrich Blessing. These photographs were only made possible with an intervention by the editor of Architectural Forum who wrote a letter to Dr. Farnsworth, and carbon copied Mies and photographer Hedrich. In the letter, dated

Photograph by Bill Hedrich, 1951 Courtesy Newberry Library


Edith Farnsworth, Reconsidered Courtesy William Zbaren, 2020

Photograph by Bill Hedrich, 1951 Courtesy Newberry Library


August 7, 1951, editor Doug Haskell wrote to Edith that he “under stands undergoing architectural photography is like undergoing major surgery,” but asked Dr. Farnsworth if she would allow it anyway. In these photographs, the house was nearly empty. A few simple pieces of her furniture were arranged at odd angles, and a poodle waited patiently outside the front door—a sign that Dr. Farnsworth was there, as well. This moment of uncertainty and tenuous inhabitation of the house was no doubt compounded on August 26, 1951 with the delivery of her summons to court. With this, she learned that she was being sued by Mies for an unpaid electrician’s fee of $3,673.09, plus the architect’s fees as contractor and architect—amounting to around $30,000. But more was at stake: if Mies won, she would lose her entire $70,000 investment and the house and property would be transferred to Mies if it could not be sold to redeem this sum.

The absence of any contract between us made facts difficult to unravel. Edith Farnsworth, Memoir

Outcome of van der Rohe vs. Farnsworth

Dr. Farnsworth countersued Mies for $30,372.10—the difference between what she had paid, $70,372.10, and what she had claimed he promised the house would cost, $40,000. She alleged that he misrepresented the cost of the house and his ability to produce it. Randolph Bohrer acted as her attorney, and Mies was represented by Sonnenschein, Berkson, Lautmann, Levinson, and Morse. The depositions began in October of 1951, and the trial was in session from late May until early July of 1952. In place of a jury, Jerome Nelson—a judge with trial experience—acted as “special master in chancery”: he presided over the case, wrote findings, and delivered them to the judge, who would render his final decision.

The fate of a witness, let alone a litigant, in a court of law depends largely upon the identification which he is able to set up in the minds of the personnel therein...I suppose the contemporary notion of “credibility” would replace the older concept of “truthfulness.” Edith Farnsworth, Memoir

For six mortal weeks those grotesque hearings continued until at last the records had grown to such proportions that there would be no further doubt that nobody would ever read them. Edith Farnsworth, Memoir

On May 7, 1953, Nelson delivered his findings in favor of Mies. Judge Harry Daniels, who was supposed to render his decision, never did. The resolution of this case hung in the balance. In the meantime, Dr. Farnsworth was interviewed twice in House Beautiful, most notably (though anonymously) for Elizabeth Gordon’s now infamous April 1953 article “The Threat to the Next America,” which equated her house (and Mies van der Rohe) with totalitarianism and a threat to American democracy—clearly borrowing from the scare tactics of the Cold War. It was in the following month’s article by Joseph A. Barry, “Report on the American Battle Between Good and Bad Modern Houses” that Farnsworth allowed herself to be named. In this article, she critiqued the structure relentlessly—from the cost to heat it, to the single pane windows that did little to protect her from extreme temperatures, to the lack of privacy, and more: “Do I feel ‘implacable calm’? 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.” The bad press hastened Mies’s desire for the trial to end. By 1955, his attorneys reached out to Dr. Farnsworth’s and the two sides settled: Edith wrote a check for $2,500 and retained the house.


Beth Dunlap in the Edith Farnsworth House Photograph by William Dunlap, c. 1951 Courtesy David W. Dunlap


Edith Farnsworth, Reconsidered Courtesy William Zbaren, 2020


Left: chaise lounge chairs designed by Bruno Mathsson (originally designed 193336), of laminated beech wood with woven hemp straps were located in the southwest corner of the house and could move to the screened terrace easily.

Jens Risom chairs on the screened-in porch Photograph stamped with “Gorman Child Photography,” undated. Courtesy Newberry Library


Edith Farnsworth, Reconsidered Courtesy William Zbaren, 2020


Left: The front room (facing south, toward the Fox River) is full of furniture organized around a contemporary wool rug inspired by the rug that Dr. Farnsworth owned. Another Florence Knoll table is joined by contemporary versions of Jens Risom chairs—made by Knoll, originally designed 1943. Original versions of these chairs would have been made of surplus parachute straps from WWII. The slipper chairs are custom replicas made for the exhibition.

Dr. Farnsworth’s original daybed from 1952, which may have been designed by Harry Weese. The woman in this photograph unknown.

Photograph likely by Edith Farnsworth Courtesy Newberry Library


Photograph likely by Edith Farnsworth, undated Courtesy Newberry Library


Though Dr. Farnsworth retained the house and her investment in it, she and Mies would never speak again, nor would Mies ever see or set foot in the house following these events. As if underscoring the end of one chapter and the beginning of another, the Fox River rose higher than ever previously recorded in 1954, just before the legal battle over the house concluded, flooding the interior of the house to a height of at least four feet. The house survived, but Dr. Farnsworth’s furniture and her draperies were damaged. She replaced this furniture with pieces that were pragmatic to her: bookshelves that attached directly to the primavera-paneled core, and roller blinds that kept out the light and gave her privacy. Though there is scant documentation of this period, Dr. Farnsworth would live in the house like this for 14 years— longer than she lived in it with carefully selected modern furniture. She chose furniture that kept her comfortable, including an upholstered couch, and reportedly allowed her dogs free rein. Neighbors, who were frequent guests in her house, described her warmly as someone who made efforts to know them and their families, who at times cooked using her fireplace, tried to teach the local children French, chain-smoked inside, and enjoyed a glass of sweet vermouth before lunch. Despite her part-time inhabitation of the weekend house, she enjoyed lasting friendships with many of them. And, this period of time settling into a habit of living in the house on Wednesdays and weekends allowed Edith to return to an early passion, writing and translating poetry. Between the late 1950s and early 1960s, she published several poems in Northwestern TriQuarterly inspired by the house and its landscape.

The glass house took on life and became my own home. Edith Farnsworth, Memoir

Beth Dunlap and Edith Photograph by William Dunlap Courtesy David W. Dunlap

Carl Freund’s daughter at Edith Farnsworth House, 1951 Courtesy Freund family


How is one to travel through a country without landmarks, Toward a destination so attenuated As nearly to be forgotten? There is a row of posts, but not a fence and Not a field. Now looms the shadow of a maple tree, without a landscape. On the right you see a mailbox—Hoskins is the name —And soon another, with the name J. Humphrey. No farmhouse is there to be seen; For the names, no bearer. Edith B. Farnsworth, “February Thaw,” excerpt

Photograph likely by Edith Farnsworth, undated Courtesy Newberry Library


In 1967, the Board of Supervisors of Kendall County filed a condemnation suit against three property owners: Dr. Farnsworth, Mrs. Warren Buckley, and Mr. and Mrs. Richard Feeney. The county proposed condemning a total of four acres of land in order to widen the road and straighted a dangerous S-curve leading to the existing Fox River Road Bridge. They also proposed replacing the existing 83-year-old single-lane bridge. This meant that the road and bridge would shift to the east, closer to Dr. Farnsworth’s house.

The privacy and quiet of her home will be shattered by the new bridge, Dr. Farnsworth said. “It will pass within 180 feet of the house. Just think, any of these Hell’s Angels who seem to be riding around could shoot right into the house--it’s all glass.”

Dr. Farnsworth tried several strategies to discourage the county from condemning two acres of her property: she counted bridge traffic, and had John Maxon from the Art Institute join as a witness when a hearing was held on the issue in 1968. Maxon argued that the value of Dr. Farnsworth’s house would be entirely lost if the road was widened and the bridge was visible from the house.

But Dr. Farnsworth, who has had an amateur interest in archaeology for many years, also objects to the new bridge because it will destroy pre-historic Indian sites which have been found on her land.

The other strategy Dr. Farnsworth employed was to enlist the assistance of several archaeologists from Illinois Institute of Technology and Northwestern University who confirmed for her, and for the press, that the two acres of her land that the county sought to condemn contained evidence of having once been inhabited by indigenous peoples. Since settler colonialism across the U.S. has displaced scores of indigenous people, this rings true. Improbably, however, the archaeologists did not find this to be the case for any of the other nearby sites the county had condemned, nor did they recommend that the land be repatriated but rather “preserved” for further study. Dr. Farnsworth then offered to gift both her house and the land to the county if they would wait until she passed away to widen the road. The county condemned and seized the land in 1968.

Ann McFeatters, “Fox River Bridge Issue to Be Settled by Court,” Chicago Tribune, 2 May 1968




Dr. Farnsworth began the process of selling her weekend house immediately after losing this battle with the county. She listed it for sale in the Chicago Tribune, where it was spotted by Lord Peter Palumbo, who happened to be visiting Mies in Chicago. They began a conversation that would end in 1971 with his recorded purchase of the house for $125,000 and a lifetime “scholarship” (of an unknown sum) that Palumbo paid to Dr. Farnsworth that afforded her the opportunity to buy a 15th-century villa known as Villa le Tavarnule outside of Florence. Her move to Italy was years in the making. Dr. Farnsworth had been traveling between Chicago and Italy since the late 1960s, working with the poet Eugenio Montale on her translations of selections of his work which would be published as Provisional Conclusions: A Selection of the Poetry of Eugenio Montale in 1970. Though Dr. Farnsworth found good company among the poets that she translated—Albino Pierro, Salvatore Quasimodo, and their networks—the Italy that Edith Farnsworth returned to had changed in the forty years since she had last lived there: like elsewhere in Europe, it had been rocked by protests and actions demanding better living and working conditions. Italy was on the cusp of a period of social and political unrest that would last another twenty years. Correspondence with friends and family reveal that she struggled, at times, to navigate this environment. However, she enjoyed a few years of independence in her spacious villa and then, as her mobility and health declined due to osteoporosis, she became almost entirely reliant on a young Italian family that moved in with her. Little is known about her death on December 4, 1977, except that she died at home.

“The Plano property has been sold, and I am buying a most beautiful and ancient “casa canonica” up in the hills about 7 km. from the center of Florence. And here, let me assure you that there is no question of letting nature in. Nature is definitely outside, in the form of a beautiful view, a large, sloping Italian garden, a “Pratone” and two “boschetti,” plus a number of acres of olives and vines... Edith Farnsworth letter to Marion Carpenter, April 22, 1971

Villa le Tavarnule, Florence, Italy Courtesy Greg Walla


In one of his last letters to Dr. Farnsworth, Eugenio Montale— with whom she would correspond until the end of her life— addresses her as “Rascal Edith,” and teasingly chastises her for her mistranslation of his poem, “Gli orecchini.” He writes: “The elytra that drone [outside] are not large flies but bombers: we’re at war. It is not the end of a love story because my loves never end - they rather grow stronger after the death or the disappearance of the loved one.” Below this, he drafts a spontaneous poem for her, imploring her to ignore a previous scholar’s interpretation of the same poem she is working to translate: And now forget Avalle’s rubbish, to hell with all the Carneluttis and if you hear some droning, it’s not a prying fly but the old poet of cuttlefish who now fishing for compliments can’t find the right words for a rebel Muse who, at Antella, is all the rage and rules. In this correspondence with Montale and in her translations, which trace the final days of her life, Edith seems to have found a home.


ACKNOWLEDGMENTS Chris Morris, who leads the National Trust’s “Where Women Made History” Campaign, led the effort to officially rename the house in recognition of Edith Farnsworth’s role as both client and patron—as well as her many accomplishments as a pioneering woman professional in the mid-1900s. Katherine Malone-France, Chief Preservation Officer for the National Trust, has been instrumental in promoting not only the renaming but also the Edith Farnsworth House itself, as former Vice President of Historic Sites. Rena Zurofsky, Interim Vice President for Historic Sites, and Scott Mehaffey, Farnsworth’s Executive Director and Curator, also embraced the importance of this name change and a broader vision for this historic site, reflecting Edith’s interests in the arts and humanities, nature and wellness—and of course, architecture and design. Our thanks also to Sue Sacharski, archivist at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, whose encylopedic knowledge of Dr. Farnsworth’s life benefited this project enormously, and to Jean Follett, whose support of the “Where Women Made History” Campaign enabled the publication of this commemorative booklet.


SOURCES Alex Beam, Broken Glass (New York: Random House, 2020) Alice T. Friedman, Women and the Making of the Modern House: A Social and Architectural History (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1998) “Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Farnsworth House in Fox River, Ill.,” in Architectural Forum: The Magazine of Building (Houses Issue), October 1951 Mies in America, ed. Phyllis Lambert (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2001) Jerome Nelson, State of Illinois County of Kendall, “Master’s Report,” Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Plaintiff vs. Edith B. Farnsworth, Defendant, 1953 Paul B. Preciado, “Mi(E)S Conception: The Farnsworth House and the Mystery of the Transparent Closet,” trans. Keith Harris, Society + Space, November 4, 2019 Franz Schulze, The Farnsworth House (Chicago: Lohan Associates), 1997 Nora Wendl, “Uncompromising Reasons for Going West: A Story of Sex and Real Estate, Reconsidered,” Thresholds, Vol. 43 (Spring 2015) Edward Windhorst and Franz Schulze, Mies van der Rohe: A Critical Biography (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press), 2012

ARCHIVES CONSULTED Edith Farnsworth Papers, The Newberry Library, Chicago; Myron Goldsmith fonds, Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montreal; Ryerson and Burnham Libraries, The Art Institute of Chicago

AUTHOR CREDIT Nora Wendl, 2021