October 4, 2003
Celebrated Mies House Up for Auction
By CAROL VOGEL
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