Farnsworth House

Quick Stats

  • LOCATION: 14520 River Road, Plano, Kendall County
  • STATUS: Saved
  • BUILT: 1951
  • SITE TYPE: Residential, Home
  • ARCHITECTURE: Modern/International Style
  • GEOGRAPHY: Downstate
  • THREAT AT TIME OF LISTING: Future of house was uncertain, as owner put the house up for auction and bidders were looking to move the structure out of state.
  • CURRENT USE: Museum
  • DESIGNATIONS: National Register of Historic Places (2004)
  • LI PROGRAMS & AWARDS: $1,000,000 contribution to purchase of home
  • TAKE ACTION: The National Trust for Historic Preservation is raising funds to employ a plan to help protect the home from future flooding. To donate, visit: https://farnsworthhouse.org

(Credit: Liz Chilsen)

Historic Significance

The iconic white steel-and-glass house, which was completed in 1951, is located on the banks of the Fox River, 60 miles southwest of Chicago. An example par excellence of the International Style of architecture, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s famous glass box residence juxtaposes sleek Modern with the surrounding nature. The architectural significance of the home has long been recognized—even before its completion, when a model of the Farnworth House was exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The Farnsworth House is one of the most significant of Mies’ works and is one of only three houses he designed in the United States. The house was originally built as a one-room weekend retreat on a 60-acre wooded estate along the river for Edith Farnsworth, a successful Chicago physician and researcher. In 1972, Farnsworth sold the home to Peter Palumbo, a British arts patron who had restored several other historic properties.

Since its completion in 1951, the Farnsworth House has been meticulously maintained and restored several times. The most important restoration took place in 1972, when then owner Palumbo hired the firm of Mies van der Rohe’s grandson, Dirk Lohan, to restore the house to its original 1951 appearance. A second restoration by Palumbo took place in 1996, after a devastating flood damaged the interior. Although the house was built to resist floods in 1951, development in the surrounding area has caused higher flood levels in recent decades.

(Credit: Liz Chilsen)

Threat at Time of Listing - 2003

In 2003, Palumbo listed the building for sale at Sotheby’s auction house in New York City. Several potential buyers inquired about dismantling the structure and moving it out of state.

(Credit: Liz Chilsen)

Preservation Efforts

Faced with this imminent threat, Landmarks Illinois and the National Trust for Historic Preservation each put up $1 million to purchase the building at auction. Thanks to the support of several generous donors, the organizations were able to secure an additional $5.5 million to become the successful bidders and ultimately establish it as a house museum. Contributions to save the historic structure in its original location came from a wide variety of sources, including an additional $1 million loan obtained by Landmarks Illinois, 30 contributions of more than $25,000 (including $100,000 from the American Institute of Architects), and 350 smaller donations from a wide variety of contributors. The smallest donation was $3; other contributions included a high school German class, an entire architectural firm in San Francisco as well as donors from China and France. Devoted preservationists and philanthropists Richard Gray and John Bryan were also instrumental in saving the Farnsworth House.

After the purchase, Landmarks Illinois staffed the historic site until 2010, when it turned over operations to the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Since then, the Farnsworth House has served as a house museum offering tours and programs to visitors from all across the world to appreciate one of the country’s most significant architectural masterpieces. In 2018, the American Institute of Architects selected the Farnsworth House as one of the Illinois 200 Great Places in honor of the state’s bicentennial. It has also been recognized as one of the “20 must-see attractions in Illinois” by the Chicago Tribune and named one of the 25 Must-See Buildings in Illinois by USA Today


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