14 Fascinating Facts about The Farnsworth House

A Fabulous Mid-Century Modern with Many Tales to Tell 

If every building tells a story, the Farnsworth House has more than its share of captivating tales.

The architect, Mies van der Rohe, met his client, Dr. Edith Farnsworth, at a dinner party given by a mutual acquaintance. No doubt that introduction turned into more than either could have expected.

While the two certainly had a love-hate relationship, there is some question as to whether they actually had an affair. (He had a wife in Germany.) Ultimately, the romance didn’t stand a chance in the face of their many design disagreements and the project’s significant cost overruns. After construction was complete, they sued each other.

See what we mean? The Farnsworth House has so much backstory, it’s hard to believe a book was only very recently published. The Random House title Broken Glass was released in March of 2020; a movie is reportedly in the works. You don’t have to check out the book or wait for the movie, though - we’ve compiled some pretty interesting tidbits below.

Imagine how impressed your friends will be when you regale them with a few of these stories – and show off your beautiful, completed scale model of The Farnsworth House! 

Farnsworth Facts

1. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe was born in 1886. An esteemed architect in his native Germany, he was the last director of the Bauhaus, a seminal school in modern architecture, before emigrating to the US in 1937. His birthname was Maria Ludwig Michael Mies.

2. Born in 1903, Edith Farnsworth was a gifted musician who chose to pursue a career in medicine. After graduating from Northwestern Medical School in 1941, Dr. Farnsworth specialized in Nephrology (the study of the kidney), dividing her time between private practice and doing research for the university. 

3. The Farnsworth House was featured in a MOMA exhibit in 1947, four years before construction began. The home was built between 1949 and 1951.

While construction of the Farnsworth House took about two years, you can build the scale model in just a few evenings!

4. The entire home consists of just one room. While living without so much as a closet made Mrs. Farnsworth rather fussy, the design awed architecture professionals immediately. It’s been called “probably the most important house of the 20th Century,”

According to Atomic Ranch Magazine, the 1:150 scale model “a museum-worthy miniature.”

5. The steel-and-glass house located in Plano, IL, is one of only three van der Rohe houses in the US. Like the Farnsworth, the other homes invite nature inside via continuous glass walls that are anchored directly to their wooden floors. The other two van der Rohe designs, the Robert McCormick house in Elmhurst, IL (now incorporated in the Elmhurst Art Museum) and the Morris Greenwald house, located in Weston, CT, are both beautiful examples of Mid-Century Modern architecture.  

6. Glass houses look cool, but apparently, they also can be hot and stuffy. Farnsworth told Newsweek she felt as if she was “in a car in the rain with a windshield wiper that doesn’t work.”

7. In spite of her many complaints (and that pesky lawsuit), Farnsworth evidently enjoyed the house; she spent nearly every weekend there for 20 years.  

8. The house, perched along the Fox River, is also situated in a floodplain. It has flooded at least 7 times in 70 years. Several projects have been completed to mitigate the problem, more are frequently proposed.

9. A large sugar maple tree was the inspiration for the home’s placement on the property. Unfortunately, the tree succumbed to age and the elements and was removed in 2013. Noted woodworker Mike Jarvi was commissioned to fashion seven turned bowls from some of the tree’s wood. The remaining wood was placed in climate-controlled storage for future projects.  

Farnsworth Model Maple Tree

The tree that inspired the architect’s building placement is included in our Farnsworth model.

10. The Chicago Architecture Center includes the Farnsworth House in its Mid-Century Modern tour.

11. Because of the Corona virus pandemic, 2020 was the first time visitors to the storied house have been encouraged to explore the grounds.  

12. Annoyed by the complete lack of closet space, Farnsworth commissioned a very large wardrobe to hold her clothes. Alas, the wardrobe was seriously damaged by a flood in 2008. Seeking a safe spot for the large wardrobe, the Farnsworth House organization turned to Professor Frank Flury, design-build professor at van der Rohe’s own Illinois Institute of Technology, to design a solution. Flury and several of his students designed a new building on the property. The Barnsworth Gallery hosts a variety of artistic exhibits throughout the year. 

13. The home’s second owner, architecture aficionado Peter Palumbo bought the home from Farnsworth in 1972. In 2003, he considered putting the house up for auction, but happily the National Trust for Historic Preservation and Landmarks Illinois purchased it to preserve it as a museum. 

14. Not quite ready to visit in real life? You can enjoy a stunning virtual tour of house, as it was furnished by Edith Farnsworth, here. Then, build your own Farnsworth House model to display with pride. We daresay you’ll be happier with yours than Mrs. Farnsworth was with hers.   

Want More Mid-Century Modern Material?

Find more (yes, more!) about Mies van der Rohe and The Farnsworth House on our model description page. For a model of one of the most iconic homes in America (or anywhere, really), the building process is fairly straightforward. Detailed instructions and easy-to-follow diagrams make completing your own masterpiece a real pleasure.

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