The Farnsworth House is renamed to honor Edith Farnsworth

What's In A Name?

The Farnsworth House is renamed to honor Edith Farnsworth

The Edith Farnsworth House as it stands today, a single-story vacation home intended to melt into its woodsy surroundings. (Mike Crews)

For the 70th anniversary of the (formerly known as) Farnsworth House, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s first realized home in the United States and a National Historic Landmark, is being rebranded to better recognize the contributions of its commissioner: Edith Farnsworth.

This morning, the National Trust for Historic Preservation and managing organization of the house jointly rededicated the Edith Farnsworth House to shine a spotlight on her role in the design. The Plano, Illinois, home, a single glass-wrapped room that appears to float between two slabs, is a touchstone of modern architecture but is often wholly attributed to the mind of Mies. Rather than being an object of desire for Mies caught in his singular gravitational pull as “the genius artist,” Edith played a larger role in the house’s conception than architectural canon gives her credit for. Far from a passive client, Farnsworth was an active patron of the arts and advocate for innovation.

black and white photo of the edit farnsworth house and poodles
Edith Farnsworth outside of the house with her poodle during construction. (David W. Dunlap)

“We hope this seemingly simple act of inserting her first name has the larger effect of inserting her into the ongoing history of modern architecture,” said Scott Mehaffey, executive director of the Edith Farnsworth House in the announcement today. “Without Edith Farnsworth, Mies van der Rohe’s American career might have remained stalled and his stature usurped by his contemporaries. Edith was fully aware that she was both a client and a patron, and she played an active role in the design of her house, which has become a celebrated milestone in the evolution of modernism.”

The recentering is part of the National Trust’s Where Women Made History campaign, an ongoing attempt to raise awareness of the efforts of women in realizing sites of historic mettle in the public’s attention. (America’s “commemorative landscape” is sorely lacking public art or other testaments to the historical achievements of women, according to a new Monument Lab survey of more than 50,000 memorials.)

“From the moment of its completion, Edith Farnsworth’s home was publicly and primarily associated with its architect, Mies van der Rohe,” said Christina Morris, leader of Where Women Made History, in the announcement. “Rededicating the site enshrines her role in the creative process and ensures that the original patron and owner of this modern icon—an independent woman, medical professional, and artistic spirit—will be squarely at the center of the story, where she belongs.”

Two women on a porch
Edith Farnsworth and Beth Dunlap in 1951. (William Dunlap)

The renaming comes on the heels of last summer’s sprawling Edith Farnsworth Reconsidered, an exhibition that humanized its subject by translating Edith’s inner life, upbringing, and legal tussles with Mies through furniture, recreating how she would have actually lived in the building. That show is still running, alongside a complementary second initiative; through December 19, 2021, visitors can take a guided tour through Edith Farnsworth’s Country House, a recreation of how the home would have appeared in 1955.

An official rededication ceremony will be livestreamed through the Edith Farnsworth House’s social media channels on November 17, Farnsworth’s birthday, at 2:00 p.m. CST.

Meanwhile, work on better exposing the history of the Edith Farnsworth House is running concurrently with attempts to restore and weatherproof the physical structure. Sited on a 60-acre parcel of woods in the Fox River floodplain, the home was besieged by floodwaters after historic rain hit Illinois last May. The $700,000 Lower Terrace Restoration Project to restore and replace the damaged travertine lining the building’s lower deck was successfully funded in July of this year and work will also wrap up on November 17, but that’s just one small part of a broader  National Trust plan that includes improving the waterproofing and drainage at the site.