Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House, certainly the most flood-prone site in the National Trust for Preservation’s storied portfolio, has once again found itself threatened following catastrophic rains that ravaged much of the Midwest during the first half of this week. (In Chicago, this May has been one for the books in terms of rainfall.)
Considering the glass-encased, one-room abode’s location on a 60-acre site in the Fox River floodplain near the Illinois city of Plano, precariously rising water is certainly nothing new for the nearly 70-year-old modernist masterpiece. Major flooding events, some causing considerable damage to the structure, have occurred in 1954, 1996, 1997, and in 2008 when Hurricane Ike prompted the National Trust to suspend public tours for several months while the building underwent extensive repairs.
Floodwater at the Farnsworth House, which like most National Trust properties is currently closed to the public due to the coronavirus pandemic, appears to have deluged the lower terrace. But unlike some past flood events, the water has mercifully stayed below the stilt-hoisted floor level and is continuing to recede. Flood mitigation tactics were also deployed to limit the damage. More rain, however, is forecasted for the coming days.
Katherine Malone-France, chief preservationist with the National Trust, detailed the current situation—and what needs to be done moving forward—in a statement provided to AN:
“The Farnsworth House is a Modernist icon that Mies van der Rohe designed to be inseparable from its idyllic natural setting. Van der Rohe recognized that the site was in a flood plain, and that is why it was built on stilts, however ongoing development as well as recent and increasingly more severe storms within the Fox River watershed have created an serious, ongoing to threat the structure. In the last few days the high water mark reached within 18 inches of the finished floor of Farnsworth House but are receding for now. National Trust staff have implemented their standard flood response protocols, including turning off the power, lifting furniture, raising and protecting the curtains among other protocols and they will continue to monitor the situation. This comes just as the house had been returned to the original interior design created by Edith Farnsworth herself as a part of Edith Farnsworth Reconsidered exhibit focused on the extraordinary woman who commissioned the house. The pandemic has significantly delayed plans for public viewing of the installation within the Farnsworth House but people around the world can engage with this digitally on the Farnsworth House’s social media channels.
“The lower deck of the house has been completely flooded and our conservators estimate $500,000 will be needed to repair to steel perimeter channels, interstitial concrete, waterproofing, drains and the travertine pavers. The National Trust has begun a project to repair the lower deck, but we can only continue if additional funding sustains these efforts.”
To be clear, the initiative to repair the lower deck of the Farnsworth House was instigated prior to this week’s flooding events as part of a multi-year sequence of “projects that are crucial to the stewardship of the site and ensure it endures for future generations.” This so-called Lower Terrace Restoration Project, which underwent feasibility and investigative tests in 2019 and early this year, “will be a complex and expensive project which aligns with the National Trust’s other long-term plans for the site,” explained the organization, which welcomes over 11,000 visitors to the private weekend refuge-turned-museum annually.
The National Trust acquired the Farnsworth House in 2003 after Peter Palumbo, the home’s previous longtime owner who purchased the retreat from Edith Farnsworth in 1972, put it on the market and its fate took a turn for ominous.
As mentioned by Malone-France, visitors can still virtually tour and learn more about the Farnsworth House through the National Trust’s digital platforms; an array of historic sites managed by or affiliated with the National Trust are receiving special attention in May as part of Virtual Preservation Month.