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Thread: Sex and Real Estate - Sale of Farnsworth House

  1. #1

    Default Sex and Real Estate - Sale of Farnsworth House

    June 1, 2003

    Sex and Real Estate


    Is less more?

    As far as Mies van der Rohe and the state of Illinois are concerned, it will have to be, if only for budgetary reasons.

    For sale by its current owner, Lord Palumbo, the glass-and-steel aerie completed by Mies in 1951 and known as Farnsworth House is one in a trinity of landmark 20th-century houses that also includes Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater and Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer's Gropius House. Farnsworth House is also the setting for one of the juiciest tales in real estate, a story of how great architecture and perfectionism can be hijacked by love -- and by the need (banality of banalities!) for closet space. Enshrined on 58 acres of prairie on the banks of the Fox River, it was built as a weekend retreat for Dr. Edith Farnsworth in Plano, Ill., about 60 miles southwest of Chicago. And it became the glass house that begat all glass houses. When Philip Johnson saw Mies's plans, it inspired him to build his Glass House in New Canaan, Conn., in 1949. Because of the house's inestimable value as a cultural destination, George Ryan, Illinois's former Republican governor, planned for the state to buy it for $7 million and run it as a museum. But the deal fell apart. The current Democratic leadership cites the purchase as being imprudent in light of the state's $5 billion budget deficit.

    ''Nothing really protects the house now from uncertainty -- it could even be taken down and moved,'' said Palumbo, a British patron of the arts, who bought the house from Farnsworth in 1968. A man who collected modern architecture the way others might collect Rembrandts, Palumbo also owns Kentuck Knob, a 1956 Frank Lloyd Wright house in Chalk Hill, Pa., and last year sold the Maisons Jaoul, two Le Corbusier buildings outside Paris.

    After Palumbo learned of the state's decision to abandon Farnsworth House, which he considers ''a timeless work of art . . . the 20th-century equivalent of a Greek temple sitting in a meadow,'' he retained the art advisers Nancy McClelland and Lars Rachen to help him sell it either privately or by auction. ''Three years ago I was quite ill,'' Palumbo said by way of explaining. ''I felt I had to make a choice between here and Kentuck Knob. Pennsylvania has one overriding advantage. It is in striking distance of Johns Hopkins, in Baltimore, which has looked after me fantastically.''

    Spring came late to Plano this year. When I visited, buds were still negotiating their holdings on trees, but despite cold rain and river winds there was absolute quiet. With views that would send a feng shui expert to nirvana, the house hovers about five feet above the ground. Inside, looking out, nature becomes everything, from pageant to decoration. It is the house's religion.

    Farnsworth House is sparsely furnished, of course. At its center is a core faced in exquisite primavera wood that contains the kitchen and bathrooms. The space surrounding the core is encircled by glass. A Barcelona bed near a fireplace makes one area the living room; a table with chairs is the dining room; a bed and storage closet make the sleeping area.

    ''The house is like a lotus flower,'' Palumbo said. ''It floats on the water and never seems to get wet. A month in this house,'' the minimum amount of time his wife, Hayat, and he have tried to spend there each year, ''is incredibly therapeutic. You can sit in a thunderstorm here, with lightning crackling all around you, and you are sort of part of the storm and yet not.''

    Lord Palumbo's father, Rudolph, having left school at age 12, eventually made his fortune in real-estate development. He collected 18th-century things, porcelains and furniture. His mother, Elsie, however, was a musician with a penchant for modern music. ''As a result,'' Palumbo recalled, ''the shock of the new never bothered me.''

    He was first acquainted with the work of Mies, and his philosophy of less-is-more, while a student at Eton, and it was like a thunderclap. (Mies's oft-quoted expression, according to the architectural historian Franz Schulze's guide to Farnsworth House, was actually ''bienahe nichts,'' or ''almost nothing'' -- as in the best is almost nothing.)

    After graduating from Oxford, and working for a time in the mid-60's in the drawings department of the Metropolitan Museum of Art -- ''a fabulous time,'' he recalled -- Palumbo returned to London and joined his father's business. One of his first efforts was to try to persuade Mies to design a building for the Palumbos to develop in London. Mies accepted, but after years of debate, plans to build a 290-foot office tower next to Mansion House, the official residence of London's lord mayor, were rejected. ''Another giant glass stump better suited to downtown Chicago than the City of London,'' Prince Charles famously opined of the building.

    In the intervening years, Palumbo visited Mies in Chicago, where the architect moved from Berlin in 1938. Checking into the Drake Hotel a few hours before they were meant to have lunch, he opened a copy of the day's Chicago Tribune, and there, to his amazement, in the real-estate section, was an advertisement placed by Edith Farnsworth: house for sale.

    It is understood that Mies and Farnsworth first met at a dinner party in the winter of 1945. Sparks sparked, as they say. He was 59 and in all his architect-as-emperor glory. She was 42, an intellectual and independent woman, who, as a nephrologist at Passavant Memorial Hospital in Chicago, was attaining national renown for her research work. She said she had a stretch of land about 60 miles outside Chicago where she wanted to build a weekend house, but not just any house. Might Mies recommend an architect?

    Indeed, he might.

    Palumbo excitedly dialed the number in Plano; the lady of the house answered. As she was leaving soon for Italy, Farnsworth invited him to lunch that day. Palumbo next rang Mies and explained the circumstances, asking to reschedule their meeting for later that day when he returned from Plano.

    ''Will she be there?'' Mies asked.

    Palumbo answered yes.

    ''Well, good luck,'' the grand man said.

    As the philosopher Groucho Marx duly noted, love flies out the door when money comes innuendo. The glass house in Plano meant one thing to Farnsworth and obviously another to Mies, who saw it as his intellectual property. When in love, you believe that the house will ''give a purpose to our plans and days,'' Marjorie Garber writes in ''Sex and Real Estate.'' ''The house as beloved.''

    By the time construction was nearly completed, the architect and the doctor were suing each other. Mies claimed that he was owed $75,000 for the house; she said $65,000. Farnsworth eloquently defended herself in court, but lost: Palumbo says he heard that Mies had recorded their conversations.

    ''My Mies-conception,'' Farnsworth wrote in her unpublished memoirs.

    But this battle was not simply about money -- sex never is. Always a purist, the architect had designed the house without screens; Farnsworth was devoured by mosquitoes. Eventually, she screened in the upper deck -- a screened-in porch! -- which to this day brings a shudder to Mies devotees. To protect herself from curiosity seekers who turned up regularly on her lawn -- ''I would prefer to move as the women do in the Old Quarter of Tripoli,'' she wrote, ''muffled in unbleached homespun so that only a hole is left for them to look out of'' -- Farnsworth installed unbecoming blinds and planted mumsy rosebushes. Then there was the all-important fashion issue.

    ''Edith had asked for a closet for her dresses,'' Palumbo said, ''and Mies told her: 'It's a weekend house. You only need one dress. Hang it on the hook on the back of the bathroom door.'''

    Either Mies was ''simply colder and more cruel than anybody I have ever known,'' Farnsworth observed, or ''perhaps it was never a friend and a collaborator, so to speak, that he wanted but a dupe and a victim?''

    Finally, the architect gave in and provided a closet, but to make his point, he did it in teak rather than the more rarefied primavera used everywhere else.

    Their animosity begat plenty of publicity. In April 1953, House Beautiful ran an article about the ''Less Is More'' movement in architecture. Written by Elizabeth Gordon, with the unnamed help of Farnsworth, ''The Threat to the Next America'' was, in its flag-waving homage to domesticity, a nod to the McCarthy era. More recently, the stormy relationship of Mies and Farnsworth has inspired two plays written by Chicago-area playwrights, ''The Glass House,'' by June Finfer, and ''Jessie and the Fat Man,'' by Alanah Fitch.

    Farnsworth went out of her way to mask any Miesian touches. When Palumbo took occupancy of the house, he did everything he could to restore the house to the architect's vision, including removing the porch and installing furniture almost exclusively of Mies design.

    ''I asked Mies how to decorate the house,'' Palumbo recalled, ''and he responded, 'Do whatever you like.' A typical Mies answer, but of course it was not that simple.''

    Palumbo asked the landscape designer Lanning Roper to reimagine the grounds, to give them a more poetic, countryside feeling.

    ''It is really a perfect house for two,'' Palumbo said. ''Very intimate, yet very private. As for decorating, very few things work. You want nothing to compete with the views. 'What about pictures?' I asked Mies.''

    The minimalist master answered slowly, ''There's always an easel, I suppose.''

    Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company

    Set on the shores of the Fox River, in Plano, Ill., Farnsworth House is the glass house that begat all glass houses.

  2. #2


    October 4, 2003

    Celebrated Mies House Up for Auction


    Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's Farnsworth House in Illinois will be auctioned.

    A landmark of 20th-century domestic architecture — Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's Farnsworth House on the Illinois prairie — is heading for the auction block, Sotheby's announced yesterday.

    The house, a 1951 glass-and-steel design on 58 acres of prairie land in Plano, Ill., about 60 miles southwest of Chicago, belongs to Lord Palumbo, a British arts patron and former chairman of the Arts Council of Great Britain. He bought it in 1968 from Edith Farnsworth, a prominent Chicago doctor, who had commissioned Mies to design it for her as a weekend retreat.

    Lord Palumbo said health problems had persuaded him to sell the house. Two years ago he struck a deal with the state of Illinois, which agreed to buy it for $7 million and open it to the public. But state officials pulled out of the deal early this year, saying $7 million was too much to spend at a time when Illinois was facing a budget crisis. "We have a $5 million budget deficit," said Becky Carroll, a spokeswoman for Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich's office of management and budget. "It's impossible to fund this project when we're trying to find money for education, health care and public protection."

    When it first became known that the Farnsworth House was for sale, leading members of Chicago's architectural and cultural community formed an organization called the Friends of the Farnsworth House who tried unsuccessfully to buy it.

    Phyllis Lambert, director of the Canadian Center for Architecture and the Bronfman family member who chose Mies to design the Seagram Building, said in a telephone interview yesterday that she was speechless that the house was going to auction.

    "I cannot believe that Chicago cannot organize itself to save one of the greatest houses that's ever been," she said. "It's putting civilization on the block."

    While there had been "quite a lot of interest" in the house, Lord Palumbo said, he was unable to find a buyer. So he asked Sotheby's to sell it for him. Sotheby's plans to offer the house and its sparse furnishings — designed by Mies and his grandson — as the last lot of an auction of 20th-century design that will be held on Dec. 12 at its York Avenue headquarters in Manhattan. The price has been substantially reduced. Sotheby's now estimates that the house will bring between $4.5 million and $6 million. (Dr. Farnsworth paid $75,000 for the house when it was built, $10,000 over its original budget.)

    "I have two houses, a Frank Lloyd Wright home in Pennsylvania and the Farnsworth House in Illinois," Lord Palumbo said. "Three years ago I was quite ill with cancer and heart problems, and while I was being treated at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, it became clear to me that it was too much to have to worry about the responsibility of owning a house in Chicago."

    Over the years Lord Palumbo has collected modern architecture the way that others collect Chinese porcelains. Besides the Farnsworth House and Kentuck Knob, his 1954 Frank Lloyd House in Chalk Hill, Pa., he has also owned Maisons Jaoul, two 1954 Le Corbusier houses in Neuilly-sur-Seine, on the outskirts of Paris, and an apartment in the glass tower complexes on North Lake Shore Drive in Chicago that were also designed by Mies. In the 1960's he commissioned Mies to build a tower in London; although it was designed, it was never built.

    A glass pavilion 77 feet long and 29 feet wide on the banks of the Fox River, Mies's Farnsworth House is considered one of the great examplars of residential architecture, along with Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater in Bear Run, Pa., and Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer's Gropius House in Lincoln, Mass.

    The design, which was completed years before the house was actually built, was also the inspiration for Philip Johnson's 1949 Glass House in New Caanan, Conn. After Mr. Johnson's first visit to the Farnsworth House in 1951, he wrote his impressions of the design to Mies: "There is no way I can tell you how much I admire the architecture. Your brilliant solutions of the problems that have been plaguing all of us for years are breathtaking. The steel connections are so inevitable, so clean, so beautifully executed, that I believe no one will ever improve on them."

    This is not the first time that either Sotheby's or Christie's have auctioned works of important architecture. In 1989 Sotheby's sold a 1950 town house at 242 East 52nd Street, which Mr. Johnson had designed as a guest house for Blanchette Rockefeller, the wife of John D. Rockefeller III. Anthony d'Offay, the London art dealer, paid $3.5 million for it. Eleven years later Mr. d'Offay sold the house at Christie's in Manhattan for $11.1 million to Ronald S. Lauder, the cosmetics magnate and chairman of the Museum of Modern Art.

    James Zemaitis, director of Sotheby's 20th-century design department, said selling a house like the Farnsworth at public auction made sense. "Since it's been on the market, people have been taking a wait-and-see attitude," he said. "While there's been a lot of discussion about the house in the Chicago area, we will be putting it on the market worldwide for all sorts of contemporary art and architecture enthusiasts to see it."

    Mr. Zemaitis added that the house can be easily seen, since it is only an hour and a half from Chicago — "less time than it takes to get to the Hamptons." He said that besides its architectural importance, the fact that the house has had only two owners in 50 years and is in immaculate condition will also be a draw.

    The Farnsworth House is furnished with Mies furniture, designed in the 1930's but produced more recently by Knoll, and designs by Dirk Lohan, Mies's grandson, a Chicago architect Lord Palumbo commissioned specifically for the house.

    Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company

  3. #3


    October 26, 2003


    An Afternoon Amid the Glass Walls of Mies van der Rohe's Farnsworth House


    Just south of Plano, Ill., the Fox River sweeps from east to west before turning south toward its confluence with the Illinois River a few miles away. By the time it reaches Plano, the Fox is a broad, powerful river, the kind that once gave rise to milling and manufacturing in dignified towns farther upstream.

    What you notice now, however, are the new towns, a hurricane of development swirling in the direction of Plano, consuming farmland at an almost unimaginable rate. It is a storm of invented neighborhoods and instant architecture. One day soon it will roll right over Plano and past one of the great monuments of 20th-century architecture: the Farnsworth House by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.

    In its own way, the Farnsworth House, which was completed in 1951, is the perfect antithesis of the suburbs rolling toward it. Its clear-span glass walls surround a little more than 2,000 square feet of interior space: a pure rectangle raised by eight steel piers and as minimal an expression of the architect's art as has ever been built. The glass walls demand the buffer of woods and open land that surrounds the Farnsworth House. You couldn't crowd houses of this kind together in a subdivision.

    Since 1947, when a model was exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art, the Farnsworth House has been an icon of modern architecture. It looks in photographs like a theoretical solution to an abstract problem — an almost Klee-like arrangement of severe white planes and pillars. What the photographs do not prepare you for is the extraordinary sense of beauty that comes with simply being in the house. I walked through it on a perfect autumn afternoon, when the leaves on the maples had turned and the air was full of Asian lady beetles, their work eating aphids in the soybean fields over for the year.

    The real puzzle of the Farnsworth House is that a structure so severe, so machinelike in its intensity, could be so frankly and wholly committed to nature. Everyone supposes, naturally, that living in a glass house means worrying about the outside looking in, and perhaps that is so over a run of weeks and months. But to walk through the house — to imagine living in it — is to indulge in looking out, in seeing all the ways the woods and the river and the lawn to the north frame the living spaces. It is hard to explain how floor-to-ceiling glass walls could increase the intimacy of nature itself, but that is exactly what they do. The house hovers on its steel piers five feet above the ground, just high enough to isolate you from the roll of the earth. The wooded canopy seems to reach down and brush the glass walls like a constantly shifting Japanese print.

    There was never any supposing that many people would choose to live like this. Even the original owner, Dr. Edith Farnsworth, came to struggle with it. Over the years, its isolation has diminished, especially since a new highway bridge was built closer to the house. The present owner — only the second — is Lord Palumbo, and he is an infrequent visitor.

    In a sense, the Farnsworth House has become less a device for living and more a device for making people think about the ways we choose to live. It reframes the assumptions implicit in the tract houses marching toward Plano, forcing us to reconsider the intimate presence of nature. It confronts us with a thought experiment, and an exquisitely imagined one at that.

    On Dec. 12, the Farnsworth House will be put up for sale as the final lot in an auction to be held at Sotheby's in New York. The best guess of the price it will bring is $4.5 million to $6 million. There are no restrictions on the buyer, nothing to guarantee that the Farnsworth House remains intact and on its present site. How easily such small masterpieces are destroyed was made plain last year when a Richard Neutra house in Rancho Mirage, Calif., was abruptly demolished. Two preservation groups — the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois — have begun the fund-raising to purchase the house by committing $1 million each.

    The Farnsworth House began in 1951 as a private retreat, but it deserves now to become a public pavilion. Living in a glass house may seem like a radical notion, but to stand inside one, looking out, is a wonderful way to glimpse the limits of the way we assume we must live.

    Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company

  4. #4


    December 13, 2003

    Landmark Mies House Goes to Preservationists


    The Farnsworth House sold at Sotheby's on Friday for $7.5 million.

    In just seven minutes of intense telephone bidding, preservationists won the battle yesterday for Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's legendary Farnsworth House, paying $7.5 million at a Sotheby's auction in New York. They competed against only one other telephone bidder, who was not identified.

    The National Trust, which will operate the house along with the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois, plan to open it to the public as a museum sometime this spring.

    The sale lays to rest months of fear that the 1951 steel-and-glass house in Plano, Ill., about 60 miles southwest of Chicago, would be sold to a developer and moved from its site. Preservationists said moving the house, set on 58 acres of prairie and long considered a landmark of domestic Modernist architecture, would destroy the context for which Mies had designed it. They also worried that a move might destroy the house itself.

    "We are pleased not to have the prospect of driving to another state to see the Farnsworth House," David Bahlman, president of the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois, said at Sotheby's after the sale. "It will be taken care of and forever open to the public."

    Accompanying Mr. Bahlman was Richard Moe, president of the National Trust. "This is a very happy day for us," Mr. Moe said. "It has been a long, arduous fight."

    In October the National Trust and the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois announced a joint campaign to save the house. Each put up $1 million in seed money, and over the months, Mr. Bahlman said, about 350 people contributed funds, some as little as a few dollars, others significantly more.

    "We had about 30 people who gave over $250,000," Mr. Bahlman said. "A few were architects, some were the usual Chicago philanthropists and others were newcomers. Yesterday a man we didn't know called, offering to give $250,000. By the time the phone call was over, he had given $750,000."

    That the National Trust was able to raise the money surprised the audience of architecture lovers milling around Sotheby's York Avenue headquarters yesterday. Earlier this week the trust said it had raised only $3.5 million, $1 million short of Sotheby's low estimate. (The high estimate was $6 million.)

    Rumors of other interested buyers had been circulating for months. They included Lawrence J. Ellison, chief executive of the Oracle Corporation in Redwood Shores, Calif.

    The house was sold by Lord Palumbo, a British arts patron and former chairman of the Arts Council of Great Britain. He bought it in 1968 from Edith Farnsworth, a prominent Chicago doctor who had commissioned Mies to design it for her as a weekend retreat.

    When Sotheby's announced the sale in October, Lord Palumbo said health problems had persuaded him to sell the house.

    While Lord Palumbo did not attend yesterday's auction, he was in New York keeping close watch over the proceedings. "I think the National Trust is absolutely the right body to acquire it," he said in a telephone interview after the sale. "It will secure its legacy for all time. That was always my intention. The main thing is it will remain where it is."

    Two years ago Lord Palumbo struck a deal with the State of Illinois, which agreed to buy the house for $7 million and open it to the public. But state officials withdrew from the deal early this year, saying $7 million was too much to spend when Illinois was facing a budget crisis.

    When Sotheby's agreed to sell the property, it gave interested buyers until Dec. 5 to pay $250 for what it called a bidder's package, which included a registration form with enough financial information to assure both the seller and the auction house that the prospective buyer could pay for the house.

    Bidders were also required to give the auction house a check made out to Sotheby's International Realty for $250,000, which was to be held in escrow, pending the outcome of the sale.

    As soon as Bill Rupprecht, Sotheby's chief executive, took the winning bid over the telephone, Mr. Moe, who was watching the auction from a box above the saleroom, was spirited away by Sotheby's officials to provide a "hammer deposit" of another $250,000.

    The $7.5 million price includes Sotheby's buyer's premium: 19.5 percent of the first $100,000 and 12 percent of the rest.

    The 2,233-square-foot house shares a place in architectural history with Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater in Bear Run, Pa.; Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer's Gropius House in Lincoln, Mass.; and Philip Johnson's Glass House in New Canaan, Conn., which the National Trust also owns and operates.

    Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company

  5. #5

  6. #6

  7. #7


    Farnsworth House Will Open as a Museum

    March 31, 2004

    On Saturday, May 1, Mies van der Rohe’s iconic Farnsworth House (1946-1951) in Plano, Illinois, will open to the public as a house museum. A renowned example of the architect’s "less is more" design philosophy, the house was saved from an uncertain future last December, when it was purchased at auction from Sotheby’s in New York by the National Trust for Historic Preservation (NTHP), the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois (LPCI) and the Friends of the Farnsworth House.

    Tours are by reservation only: Tuesday-Sunday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; $18.00 per person. To schedule a tour or for more information, contact LPCI at 312-922-1742. Visit LPCI’s Web site at .

    Debra Pickrel

  8. #8

    Default Farnsworth House Screens

    Hi. Does anyone have any idea where I can find more information / drawings/ photos of the screens that were installed by Dr Farnsworth at Farnsworth House.


  9. #9

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