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.

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Preservation Standards: We All Have to Follow the Rules.

Perhaps the most common argument made by anti-preservationists has been that local historical commissions — the cityfolk who decide what’s a landmark and what you can do to your landmark — are inherently subjective in making their decisions.  It is very often assumed that a board of commissioners will deny a homeowner’s proposal for an addition on his or her historic house because it’s just not very pretty.  Sometimes, this has held up in court, and there’s a robust history of property owners attempting to sue the pants off their municipality for denying a building or demolition permit.

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