Farnsworth House Goes to Hollywood

In honor of last night’s Oscars, let’s talk Hollywood. It’s not very often that architecture gets the movie treatment (unless we’re talking about the occupation of the male love interest of seemingly every rom-com made in the 1990s). And it’s even rarer to see a Historic-with-a-capital H property as the subject of a feature film.

America's next Best Supporting Actress? Image via urbnblog.com.

America’s next Best Supporting Actress? Image via urbnblog.com.

That’s why I was so tickled when I saw that the story of the Farnsworth House, a glassy Mid-Century Modern dream tucked in its own rural riverside clearing, is rumored to be the subject of a big Hollywood picture. It will supposedly star Jeff Bridges as architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, one of Chicago’s best-known residents and the father of modern architecture. Maggie Gyllenhaal will play opposite Mr. van der Bridges as Dr. Edith Farnsworth, the Chicago-based nephrologist who commissioned the exquisite structure as her weekend retreat.

Maybe if they make Jeff a little jowly?

Mies near the end of his life. Maybe if they make Jeff a little jowly?

Those are just about the only details; we don’t even know when this film might be released. I, for one, can’t quite imagine quintessential “dude” Jeff Bridges playing an uptight, demanding, brilliant, rotund German architect, but maybe that’s just me. I also kind of suspect this will be total Oscar bait – Bridges’ and Gyllenhaal’s last venture together, Crazy Heart, earned Bridges the 2009 Academy Award for Best Actor.

Lacking any more information about the film, I got to thinking about its three main characters: Mies, Edith, and the house. There had to be something good and juicy in the Farnsworth story that they just don’t cover in grad school Modernism lectures if they’re going to make a very expensive movie about it, so I got to Googling. And now I can’t wait. to see. this. movie.

First, it’s worth noting that architecturally speaking, Farnsworth House is sexy enough to carry a movie on its own. It’s a tiny thing, with two massive white-painted horizontal slabs forming the floor and ceiling of the residence, with all 1500 square feet of living space sandwiched in between and wrapped in floor-to-ceiling glass. The cantilevered floor slab rests on eight delicate steel columns, making the house look like it’s floating serenely in the middle of the clearing. This isn’t just for effect, as the adjacent Fox River was and is extremely prone to flooding. Mies put the house on stilts to allow the floodwaters to pass right under the structure.

I do get a Gyllenhaal vibe from Miss Doctor Edith, though.

I do get a Gyllenhaal vibe from Miss Doctor Edith, though.

The house was commissioned by Miss Doctor Edith, who seems very much like the kind of gal who would object to being called “Miss.” She was a high-powered, smart-as-hell doctor who met Mies at a dinner party in 1945 and was lounging in her glassy vacation home by 1951. It’s been rumored (and is likely true) that she and the architect also had an affair somewhere in there, and I’m sure that the upcoming film with dramatize this to great effect. Our two probable lovers didn’t have such a happy ending, though, and this is where it really gets juicy.

Mies ended up taking Edith, his former lover, to court in 1953 for unpaid fees related to the construction of the house. He claimed that Edith owed him about $3,000 in outstanding construction costs, plus an additional $27,000 in architect’s and supervisory fees. That’s quite a chunk of change for the time, especially when you consider that Edith maintained that Mies’ original estimate was $58,000, and she’d already paid that plus an additional $33,000 when the project went way overbudget. Edith countersued Mies for malpractice, but ultimately she lost both cases, and was forced to pay Mies his due. The two never spoke again.

Not only was Mies overbudget, he was overbearing, too – insisting that Edith maintain the home in an an incredibly austere way. There could be no furniture other than that which Mies had designed or approved, no site improvements, and no clutter whatsoever. The stress of adhering to these demands likely negated the house’s original purpose – a place to escape from the anxieties of Edith’s Chicago life.

And while we now look at Farnsworth House as the paragon of Modernist living, the truth is that Edith wasn’t all that jazzed about her new home, in the end. She was essentially living like a fish in a meticulously-designed bowl. In a profile that appeared in House Beautiful in 1953, Edith had this to say about Mies’ creation:

 As undoubtedly annoying as it is to maintain, that's a sexy sight line. Image via archdaily.com.

As undoubtedly annoying as it must have been to maintain, that’s a sexy sight line. Image via archdaily.com.

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. Even in the evening. I feel like a sentinel on guard day and night. I can rarely stretch out and relax…

What else? I don’t keep a garbage can under my sink. Do you know why? Because you can see the whole ‘kitchen’ from the road on the way in here and the can would spoil the appearance of the whole house. So I hide it in the closet farther down from the sink. Mies talks about his ‘free space’: but his space is very fixed. I can’t even put a clothes hanger in my house without considering how it affects everything from the outside. Any arrangement of furniture becomes a major problem, because the house is transparent, like an X-ray.

Still, Edith continued to use Farnsworth House as her weekend home until 1972, when she retired to her villa in Italy. How hard for her. Peter Palumbo, an eccentric British architectural aficionado, purchased it and made alterations that Mies, now three years deceased, would not have enjoyed. In 2001, Palumbo transferred the property to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which has been its steward ever since. You can drive on out to Plano and see it for yourself on a guided tour.

Over the past few years, preservationists have been concerned about the Fox River’s rising levels, which threaten to overtake the house each year (despite its stilts). The house was damaged by flooding in 2008. Various solutions have been proposed and designed since 2014, the most interesting among them a hydraulic jack system that would raise the house skyward during a major flood.

Hopefully, the film will raise awareness to these preservation challenges, but ultimately it’s nice just to know that architecture is taking center stage. Taking bets on what architectural subject is going to get the film treatment next – my money’s on Frank Lloyd Wright, his mistress, and the devastating arson that killed her. But that’s a story for another day.

Yeah, she's a star. Image via Pinterest.

Yeah, she’s a star. Image via Pinterest.

Chicago Common Brick

Have you ever noticed that in Chicago, no matter how interesting and high-quality the brick on a historic facade is, the brick that’s on the secondary elevations is kind of, well, not so interesting and high-quality?   What you’re seeing is a, Chicago-specific brick type. DYSV could go on and on about proper mortar, pointing, reasons for color variation, etc., but we’re not.  We’re gong to keep this one short and sweet – just a brief dispatch on what Chicago common brick is and how it came to be.

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Gold Coast: A Story About the Value of Quality of Life

Frank Lloyd Wright and Louise Sullivan's only collaboration for a residence in the world, the Charnley- Persky house shows elements from Sullivan's past designs while giving a glimpse into Frank Lloyd Wright's future. As one of Chicago's most important buildings architecturally, the building is fittingly home to the Society for Architectural Historians today. http://www.sah.org/about-sah/charnley-persky-house Image courtesy of flicr user  karaeo

As one of Chicago’s most important buildings architecturally, the Charnley-Persky House is fittingly home to the Society for Architectural Historians today.
Image courtesy of flicr user karaeo

The Gold Coast is an area of Chicago that is just about as well located as any urban dweller could imagine being. With the lake in close proximity to the east and great shopping and restaurants to the south, the historic neighborhood has something for everyone. There are almost endless experiences to be had on Michigan Avenue and along the river. The lakefront bike path is a connector to great places for exercising, relaxing and people watching.

Frank Lloyd Wright and Louis Sullivan’s only collaboration for a residence in the world, the Charnley- Persky house shows elements from Sullivan’s past designs while giving a glimpse into Frank Lloyd Wright’s future.

This historic home on the 800 block of N. Dearborn recently sold for $1.6M.

This historic home on the 800 block of N. Dearborn recently sold for $1.6M.

This 4-story limestone beauty on E. Elm recently sold for $2.45M.

This 4-story limestone beauty on E. Elm recently sold for $2.45M.

Large estates centered on Astor Street and the surrounding blocks were built just as Lake Shore Drive was extending north past North Avenue to Oak Street. The attractions that brought folks to the area then, the green space and beaches along the lake shore, remain today and have continued to drive up the value of the historic properties in the Gold Coast neighborhood. The area was settled not long after the Great Chicago Fire by some of the city’s wealthiest families who moved up from Prairie Avenue on the south side, the second neighborhood settled by the city’s most affluent. This third wave of settlement by upper-upper class Chicagoans saw the building of many large mansions in what was at that time open green space.  The Potter Palmer Mansion was built on Lake Shore Drive, however, it was demolished in 1951 to be replaced with one of the many highrises along Lake Shore Drive today.

Residence of Mr. Potter Palmer, Chicago, a 1900 photochrom print of the Palmer Mansion on Lake Shore Drive source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Residence_of_Mr._Potter_Palmer,_Chicago.jpg

Residence of Mr. Potter Palmer, Chicago, a 1900 photochrom print of the Palmer Mansion on Lake Shore Drive. source

A historic photo of Lake Shore Drive. Source: http://www.goldcoastneighbors.org/Neighborhood/GCNA-History.html

A historic photo of Lake Shore Drive. source

Many of the large mansions on interior streets of Gold Coast survive today. Some have been subdivided into condos with high end finishes throughout, however, a number of large old estates have come onto the market recently.

This is an area of the city that has, for the most part, never seen real estate prices fall. Since the city’s wealthiest families moved to the area over 100 years ago the area has grown in value due in large part to what has grown up around it. A lot is to be said for the value of quality of life, and for that reason it comes at a premium.

For more history and architectural highlights of the Gold Coast neighborhood visit Vince Michael’s blog Time Tells.

Building a VINTAGE Brand; 1.0

Building a VINTAGE Brand; 1.0

Building your vintage brand.

Blackberry just launched an overhauled operating system, the Z10 because of slumping sales and “lack of bling” according to their new spokesperson, Alicia Keys.   PepsiCo has conceded to remove brominated vegetable oil from its sports drink, Gatorade, due to a negative online campaign launched by a 15-year old Mississippi teenager.  With the Super Bowl just days away, the NFL is aggressively cracking down on the sale of counterfeit merchandise.  Speaking of, the going ad rate for Super Bowl XLVI is $3.5 million for 30 seconds and up to $4 million if you want premium placement.  How does any of this relate to historic and vintage homes? Plenty. It all plays into building, managing and maintaining our brands.

I frequently hear from homeowners and real estate brokers they feel that marketing and promoting Chicago’s vintage and Historic homes is, often, fighting an uphill battle.   How we create fresh ideas in communicating what historic and vintage homes, buildings and neighborhoods have to offer is more an opportunity than challenge.  Sounds like a chapter from “The One Minute Manager”, right?  Building a recognizable brand involves creating a relationship or a connection between a  product and the emotional perception of the customer.   In this series I will discuss how we position older housing stock as a brand to be identified, segmented,  managed and promoted.   Branding is about finding and staying consistent to a core philosophy. In the real estate industry, we frequently reference Donald Trump as a go-to icon of business acumen, and strategic thinking.   Like him or not, his brand is all about being No. 1, best of the best. Find your brand, develop it and stay on track.  Otherwise, “you’re fired!”

Branding and image guy, Donny Deutsch of Deutsch, Inc., has built his reputation on thinking outside of the box.  Donny’s leaner, meaner, faster, smarter philosophy helped build Deutsch into a leading marketing-communications company.  Deutsch’s core philosophy is a great formula when it comes to building our vintage brand.

“People think creativity is the best version of the current thing,” Deutsch writes in his 2005 book, Often Wrong, Never in Doubt: Unleash the Business Rebel Within. “I disagree. I’d rather do something fresh and put my client on the line than knowingly do derivative work. I want something with a different flavor to it, the 32nd flavor of Baskin-Robbins, the 58th variety of Heinz. I tell our people, go where tomorrow is. Let everybody else catch up.”

Buying, restoring and selling historic and vintage homes is, to some, a labor of love. Kudos to those of you that do it to quench a preservation passion.   To me, it is a business. No less passionate, more so because the process involves a focused plan of attack, execution and a final result.

Next up: Find your brand, develop it and stay on track.

Prentice Saga Continues…


As my mother-in-laws says, “yeah, it’s all about the money.”

The clock is STILL ticking and the fate of Chicago’s iconic Prentice Woman’s Hospital still teeters on the precipice of indecision.  A questionable  decision granted and subsequently revoked on November 1, 2012 on the landmark status for Bertrand Goldberg’s  Old Prentice Women’s Hospital in Chicago, leads some to speculate about legal recourse for a coalition of preservationists who have fought owner Northwestern University’s plans to tear the old girl down. Members of that coalition took their battle to court on November 15, 2012, claiming  the Commission on Chicago Landmarks “acted arbitrarily and exceeded its authority.”

Knowledge is power. Read on;


Update from Chris Bentley’s November 15, 2012 post on arch.paper.com
At an emergency hearing in Cook County Circuit Court on Thursday, November 15, Judge Neil Cohen entered a stay that restores the Commission on Chicago Landmarks’ preliminary landmark recommendation for historic Prentice Women’s Hospital and temporarily bars the city from issuing a demolition permit. The Commission unanimously voted two weeks ago to grant a preliminary landmark designation for Prentice and then–in an unprecedented move–rescinded that designation just two hours later at the same meeting based on a departmental report.
On November 15, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, joined by Landmarks Illinois, filed a lawsuit against the Commission on Chicago Landmarks and the City of Chicago. The suit argues that the Commission unlawfully rescinded the designation in violation of Chicago’s Landmarks Ordinance by improperly weighing alleged economic arguments and by usurping the authority of City Council. Judge Cohen set the next court date for December 7 and made it clear that he wanted to see Prentice protected in the interim.

Lawsuit Press Release.pd

November 1, 2012

The Commission on Chicago Landmarks (CCL) voted “yes” for a recommendation of preliminary landmark designation for Prentice Women’s Hospital, on November 1, 2012. Shortly after, the commission rescinded the vote and Prentice can now be demolished.

Over 100 Save Prentice supporters showed up at the commission meeting proudly wearing Save Prentice tees and buttons. They shared stories, expertise, and passion about Bertrand Goldberg and his iconic Prentice Women’s Hospital. Many more followed the proceeding on Facebook and Twitter, helping spread the word about this important moment with likes, shares, and retweets.

With a unanimous 9-0 vote, the Commission recognized Prentice with preliminary designation. However, all but one Commissioner voted to overturn their landmark recommendation less than three hours later. We applaud Commissioner Christopher Reed for his dissenting vote, a true demonstration of courage and independence.

The Save Prentice Coalition is considering all options in response to yesterday’s proceedings, and we will keep you updated on this page, our “Ten Most Endangered” Prentice page, Save Prentice Facebook, and on Twitter at @SavePrentice. Thanks again for all of your support.

For more, read Landmarks Illinois’ Advocacy Director Lisa DiChiera’s statement delivered at a November 1 press event with the Save Prentice Coalition, prior to the CCL meeting.

Dressing Up Historic Homes for the Holidays


With the holiday season in full tilt with all its accompanying commercialism, a comfortably decorated home can do wonders for tired soles, frazzled families and holiday cynics.  Yet, all too often the fun of decorating our vintage homes for the holidays becomes a task of epic proportion.

“Is this someone’s home, or a department store display?”

If that question pops into someone’s mind when they see your historic home lovingly decorated for the holidays, just maybe you went a wee bit over the top. Since I have been guilty of this in the past I will pass judgment here. Pine roping, cascades of ribbon, wreathes, miniature Dickensian villages, scented pine-cones…more begets more and sometimes we need a guiding hand in dolling up our homes for the season.  We put so much thought and effort into restoring our grande dames, why not give equal time to holiday décor?

One reason so many individuals seek to restore historic homes is because of their wonderful character and charm. When decorating historic homes for the holidays, it’s important to keep the timeless look and feel of the residence by using appropriate and thoughtful holiday decor. Chicago area interior designers, Tom Segal and Madeline Roth provide a few thoughts that can help you achieve beautiful holiday decor for your historic home.

“Christmas is a good time to emphasize why you loved and bought an old home in the first place,” says Madeline Roth of Pariscope Design.  “Beautiful banisters to decorate with roping, mantels for candles, pretty front doors for wreaths; I say, no rules! Christmas is the time to put the jewels on the grande dame.”

Tom Segal of Kaufman Segal Design adopts a more project-management approach to putting your house in order for the holidays. “I really like themes based on either color, or a type of ornament mixed with ornaments that have a personal connection to the home owner. I like being a bit contemporary in a vintage home too for a nice contrast, but not so modern that it clashes with the vintage detailing in the home. I’m also careful to scale the tree to the room in both height and diameter, so you can still enjoy your space during the holiday season and not have the tree or decorations overwhelm the room. “

Despite their different approaches to decoration, Roth and Segal do agree on the tree. “A real Christmas tree is the only way to go!  The fragrance, the fun of picking out the right tree each year,” says Roth.  For Segal, it’s all about the senses.  “I love the way a real tree smells,” he says. “Décor is not just about the visual information. Let your senses pick up the sights, sounds, feel, and smells of the holiday. All of these things influence how you enjoy a space and add to your memory of that space in this wonderful time of year.”

Whether you go the traditional route or move in a more contemporary direction, the options can be overwhelming.  Just like any home decorating project, pick a style, put together a budget, add water and stir.    The holidays present a special set of pressures and priorities.  Decorating you home should be a fun and exciting family event.  Not a chore, to be dreaded.   Take Roth’s and Segal’s tips to help you prioritize and plan so you can kick back and enjoy the season.
Happy Holidays!