Posts Tagged ‘Farnsworth House’

Farnsworth House 2015

June 21, 2015

It has been 13 months since I last blogged about the Farnsworth House (Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, 1951).  In that blog I detailed the various options that had been studied to try to conserve the house despite the increased flooding of the Fox River at its location near Plano, Illinois.

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Last week.  Maybe next week too.

I have been involved in this house for a long time due to my Board service at both Landmarks Illinois and the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and for the last couple years I have also served on the Technical Advisory Panel looking at flooding mitigation options for the Farnsworth House.  I have been a cheerleader for the process the National Trust has undertaken, and I have listened especially closely to the National Park Service, since it is essential in my mind that any actions taken insure we preserve the National Historic Landmark status of this iconic masterpiece of architecture.

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I came into the process as a skeptic, not wanting to move or alter the house.  Let it flood, I said, taking a purist position.  It’s a submarine, I said.  I did not like the idea of moving it because we bought it in 2003 so it wouldn’t be moved away.  As Dirk Lohan (Mies’ grandson and an important architect in his own right) says, the house makes no sense if it is in a location that does not flood,

FH 2013 terrace hosue

I became convinced that the hydraulic option – putting the house on hydraulic jacks that would lift it out of harm’s way in the case of a flood – was the best preservation option, and I still believe that.  Doing nothing, I realized, relegated the house to the status of archaeological ruin.  But of course doing anything with a house of this international significance will cause some people to get their knickers in a twist, pressing upwards as they express objections to actions which could harm this landmark.  As all actions can.  As inaction will.

FH 2013 frontal

Doing nothing will do great harm to the building, and it is clear from the National Park Service and others that doing nothing is NOT a preservation option.  That is the archaeological ruin option.  Yesterday in the Chicago Tribune Blair Kamin reported on what has happened in the last year as some preservationists – John Vinci in particular – have objected to the hydraulic option and forced the National Trust and Landmarks Illinois to investigate a new option – moving it almost half a mile to a new site on Dr. Edith Farnsworth’s property where it will 1.  flood less, 2. allow a reinterpretation of the original landscape, which was ruined by the introduction of a highway bridge in 1970, reimagined as a manicured landscape in the 1970s and 80s,  and altered by the loss of a sugar maple tree that framed the house in 2012.

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This tree is no more

Doing anything dramatic – and dramatic options are all that remain – will upset or excite people.  Look how the Miesians got upset about the new window stops at IIT Crown Hall – a quarter-inch slope meant that a NON-RIGHT ANGLE had been inserted, thus wrecking (??) Mies’ vision.

the bite

Don’t tell me you can’t see that.  Come on! 

Landmarks Illinois has to approve whatever solution obtains thanks to their preservation easement, and they will make the decision as a Board.  Thanks to local opposition, the National Trust is now looking at this new relocation option.  (Note:  I have not been on the Landmarks Illinois Board for two years)

cornfield bus

Like here.

I still prefer the hydraulic solution because it keeps the building in place.  I also reject the irresponsible claims by some that this technology is somehow a big deal.

About Hydraulics

Let me take you back to to 1854, when Elishu Otis demonstrated the safety elevator.  Hydraulics – which preceded Otis by a decade – powered that elevator.  His innovation was a brake.  Within a few years, hydraulics allowed tall buildings to be practical.  By 1882, four years before Ludwig Mies was born –  you had a company in London running high-pressure mains 184 miles powering some 8,000 elevators.  So if this 175-year old technology worries you, avoid elevators.

333 elev doors

You’ll never get me up in one of those things.

Hydraulic jack technology is older than the zipper, the typewriter (what’s that?) and the automobile.   As the great Bob Silman, who investigated ALL of these options, noted, we put our lives on hydraulics whenever we get on an airplane.  All those noises you hear?  Hydraulics.  Think of all the times you have flown and the hydraulics on the landing gear failed.  Go ahead.

airplane

Sorry I’m Amish.

Back to the Decision – and Owning It.

Indications are that this relocation option – like the hydraulic solution – will still meet the National Historic Landmark status requirements.  This is really important and a key factor in the decision in my view.  The relocation option also appears to have the favor of John Vinci – who has no official role in the process.  Landmarks Illinois DOES have a role in the process.   As soon as we at the National Trust present our preferred option Landmarks Illinois will need to make a decision, especially in light of the fact that we have investigated this new relocation option based on their reaction to the hydraulic option.

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I get it – I have been in this field for over 32 years.  I LOVE being in the John Vinci position of sniping and throwing brickbats against the powers that be, safely outside the decision-making process.  That’s what I did in my 20s, and that saved some buildings from uncaring owners or inconsiderate government entities.  But Landmarks Illinois and the National Trust quite literally TOOK OWNERSHIP of this house a dozen years ago and are now responsible – there is no one but ourselves to snipe and throw brickbats at.

farns living east1109p

Or stones.  Maybe I should have said stones.  It’s a glass house after all.

So my role of late has been to praise the process the National Trust has undertaken over the last three years and to insist that every organization involved take ownership of the eventual solution.  Landmarks Illinois has made this a Board decision as opposed to a decision of the Fund and Easements Committee.  Fine.  But no decision – like taking no action – is NOT an option.  That decision will likely not be comfortable, but I for one will own it.

farns bedroom1109s

You make your bed you sleep in it.

UPDATE:  A European perspective.  A couple of weeks later I was in Europe with a local preservation group in the Ossola Valley and an Irish ICOMOS Committee Chair.  I mentioned the Farnsworth House flooding problem and without context or prompt they both said, nearly in unison:  “Jack it up.”  This would not be a fraught issue in Europe.

Do you know the Bessemer process which allowed the industrial production of steel, which made the materials of the Farnsworth House possible is ALSO younger than hydraulics?  Don’t worry – the old technology will not be visible – just the purity of the Modern.

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Palm Springs Modernism Week Again!

February 25, 2015

I had the opportunity, thanks to the wonderful Mark Davis, to again speak at Palm Springs Modernism Week, which is the coolest, most colorful preservation event anywhere.  I reprised my 2011 talk on Preserving Modernism in Chicago with an update on those icons of Modernism, the Farnsworth House (how do I flood thee?  Let me count the ways….), the sadly demolished Prentice Women’s Hospital (Philistines is too good a word – the Philistines were in fact civilized) and of course the soon to be geothermal Unity Temple.  So let’s get these pictures out of the way so we can move on to Palm Springs itself.

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unity temple best

So, here is the fabulous Menrad House – wowza!

Meanrad House2

And the famous Kaufman House by Neutra!

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And of course the great Bank of America (1961 office of Victor Gruen)

Bank America

And the stunning Chase Bank (E Stewart Williams 1960) with its working fountain!

Chase bank

Felicity took some great pictures of this.  But time for more houses!

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gotta love those butterfly roofs!

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Above: the Dr. Franz Alexander House, 1955 by Walter S. White

Las Palmas classic

Mountains and palms make the setting and screen walls tell the time!

Frey tramway front

Above:  Frey’s Tramway gas station, now the visitors center!

Ivernada

Invernada in the Movie Colony – there is a lot of Spanish Colonial but we mostly look at the Mid Century Modern

studebaker house

Helps to have a 53 Studebaker in front

Swiss Miss Palmas

These are called “swiss miss” and have whacking great front gables

Now, this was sad – here is the site of the Spa Hotel, which used to look like this:

spa hotel2

But now looks like this:

PS Spa ruins

Yes, even the site where lakhs of Modernist mavens descend for ten days a year, they can’t always preserve what draws these doyens in….still, I don’t want to end on a negative, so let’s be upbeat and celebrate the desert paradise where flat roofs and ceiling-height doors and exterior showers are de rigeur. 

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This is one of the great Alexander Steel houses (7 were built) which I photographed in 2011.  I met the owner who got one listed on the National Register recently – kudos Brian!!

2200 Caliente

Nice one in Indian Canyons

Cody house

And a cool William Cody!!!

Palm Springs Modernism Week

February 27, 2011


Palm Springs tramway gas station, Frey and Chambers, 1962

I have seen the future of historic preservation, and it is Mid-century Modernism. It isn’t just the influence of Mad Men or Dwell, which recently celebrated its first decade. The writing was on the wall in the 1990s when Anne Sullivan, who replaced me as Director of the Historic Preservation Program at SAIC, started her class “From Lustron to Neon: Preserving the Recent Past” and within two years it was the most popular elective EVER. I managed to get my work on architect Barry Byrne into a Mid-Century panel in 2002 at the Society of Architectural Historians Conference, thanks to Victoria Young and Christine Madrid French, and Chris is now the Director of Trust Modern, a supporter of Palm Springs Modernism Week, which draws quadruple digits to the desert oasis to feast on the glories of steel cantilevers, ribbed concrete and floor-to-ceiling glass.



Alexander steel houses, Wexler & Harrison, 1962

Everything here looks like Dwell magazine, which means my kids would love it. Thanks to desert sun and a climate that avoids oxide jacking, this stuff looks great always. Many thanks are due to head honcho Jacques Cassin, Modern maven Nickie McLaughlin, and Palm Springs Museum curator Sidney Williams, all of whom made my visit wonderful. Sidney and my friend and colleague Lauren Bricker curated a GREAT show on the architect Donald Wexler at the Palm Springs Art Museum, and I got to meet Wexler, who has done a lot of great buildings.

Donald Wexler House, 1955

In 1999 the Palm Springs Modern Committee was founded to promote the preservation of the modern architecture and neighborhoods of Palm Springs. In 2001 the Modernism Show started, and together with a symposium organized by the Art and Design Council of the Palm Springs Art Museum, the event became Modernism Week, which is now 11 days long and growing every year. It started as a show, but it is becoming s serious conference, and our lectures were very well attended.

House of Tomorrow, William Krisel, 1962
I missed much of the show, which started over a week ago, but I did attend the Saturday symposium, which featured architectural historian Thomas Hines, technology historian David Nye and a panel of three architects building steel houses, including Lance O’Donnell, Linda Taalman, and Barton Myers.

O’Donnell House – uses almost no electricity or heat
There were bus tours of the great houses by Albert Frey and Richard Neutra and of course Donald Wexler, William Cody, William Krisel and E. Stewart Williams, who shaped the look of this desert city.

Twin Palms Estates, William Krisel, 1959
I did get to see the Airstream exhibit over the weekend, and the colorful exhibit of Braniff airlines, with wild 60s stewardess costumes and Alexander Calder designs, and I laughed my guts out at the Friday night presentation of Charles Phoenix, who narrates a bizarre and FABULOUS collection of found mid-century slides.

There is a glamour to this era which many of the enthusiasts are latching onto, an atomic age optimism that has a refreshing aura in the face of current conditions – that is a description of nostalgia, but when it is causing this many people to invest in this many buildings, I’ll take it. Here’s the lovingly restored Sinatra house, replete with period photos and furnishings:




Frank Sinatra House, E. Stewart Williams, 1947

You can see my several recent posts on Modernism, like this one, this one and this one to get more details about my talk on Preserving Modernism in Chicago, which was presented to a very appreciative crowd. And I have to express great appreciation to all those who came up to me in the FABULOUS Jorgenson-Mavis House (William F. Cody, 1955) to complement me on the talk.


Jorgenson-Mavis House (William F. Cody, 1955)

The important thing, however, is how much enthusiasm and energy (and money) there is in this phenomenon. People tend to want to preserve the architecture of two generations past, hence early 20th century preservationists began with Greek Revival, and by the 70s they managed to get their arms and minds around Victorian and even Prairie. But there is still some resistance to the architecture of the 60s and 70s, especially because preservation itself – heritage conservation – began in some part as a reaction against urban renewal and postwar sprawl, so it somehow seems heretical to preserve it. But even in Chicago we are starting to preserve urban renewal, which I mentioned in my lecture here Friday.

I.M. Pei townhouses, Hyde Park, Chicago

But in 1990 we weren’t – I and others rejected Walter Netsch’s request to save the UICC campus in 1993, and very few were on the other side. If it was happening today, the answer would be different, because another generation has passed since 1993, just as preserving Victorian painted ladies was okay in 1975 but “hideous” in 1957. The big issues in Chicago today are from the postwar era, like this soon-to-be-demolished State Street shoe store:

Friday afternoon I served on a panel (moderated by no less than Alan Hess) with impressive colleagues from Miami, Sydney, Brisbane and Havana (sort of) to discuss the challenge of preserving the architecture of an era that many of us actually remember. This stuff was popular with the students and scholars before it resonated with the general public, although huge strides have been made in the past five years. Here’s a bank in Palm Springs that borrows from Ronchamp.

City National Bank, (Victor Gruen Assoc., 1955)

I spent a lot of time with my Australian colleagues – Chris Osborne from Brisbane and Annalisa Capurro from Sydney – and one thing struck me above all. During our panel Chris said that the biggest difference between preserving Mid-century Modern in Australia and the United States was: the presence of the National Trust and the great Trust Modern initiative. He said the Australian National Trust would never be that progressive.

It made me proud to be a Trustee of the National Trust, which has two of the most important Mid-Century Modern houses in the nation: Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House (above) and Philip Johnson’s Glass House. And Trust Modern, of course. Here I was in Palm Springs witnessing the future of preservation, witnessing an incredible gathering of resources and enthusiasm that has – according to those who have been coming each year – been growing consistently.

Fire Station #1, a Palm Springs landmark

Kaufmann House, (Richard Neutra, 1947)

This is where the interest is going, and I am very glad that the Trust has been key to that effort. The future is as bright as the shiny steel houses of the Coachella valley that have been lovingly and painstakingly restored over the last two decades.

Edris House, (E. Stewart Williams, 1954)

2012: For the latest on THIS YEAR’s MODERNISM WEEK, look here.

And I will return for 2015!

Sharp Building 2009

December 26, 2009


Most people think of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago as the institution that resided above and below the museum it gave birth to over a century ago. Yet for over 30 years the school has had its own building and in the last 20 years the School has grown even more, filling five different buildings in the Loop and occupying space in even more.

In 1976 the School occupied the Walter Netsch modernist building on Columbus Drive behind the museum, and 12 years later it purchased the Champlain Building, now the Sharp Building. A couple of years later it bought the old Illinois Athletic Club building (1908, Barnett, Haynes and Barnett) as a dorm, later converting it into classrooms and renaming it the Maclean Building.

A few more years and SAIC turned the Chicago Building (1904, Holabird & Roche) into a dormitory, which was particularly gratifying to me because I had helped save it from demolition in 1989 when I worked at Landmarks Illinois.

The School also saved a 1917 Christian Eckstorm Building on State Street and incorporated it into a new dormitory by Larry Booth, a building I had the pleasure of teaching in last year.

But I want to talk about the place I have taught for the last 15 years, the Sharp Building at 37 S. Wabash.

The Sharp Building was originally built in 1902 for the Powers school, which taught clerical skills like German, stenography and bookkeeping. My Research Studio students – first year BFA candidates – are working on an exhibit interpreting the history of the building, which is appropriate since it has just been restored.

This is also the building where we have our Master of Science in Historic Preservation studios, lab, resource center and faculty offices. We used to be on the 13th floor but now we are on the 10th, where we have two large studios overlooking the corner of Monroe and Wabash Streets.

The building’s entrance and ground floor has just been restored to the original Holabird & Roche design, which involved recreation of the elaborate terra cotta entrance, largely destroyed in the 1933 remodeling as the Champlain Building.

The restoration also involved bringing back the brick piers which originally defined the ground floor, lost in the 1947 Skidmore, Owings and Merrill transformation into a TWA ticket office.

That’s 1947.

That’s today.

There is a lot of fascinating history here: When TWA was selling airplane tickets here in 1947, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe was on the 9th floor designing the Farnsworth House.

Thirty years later, my father had a travel business in the building. The TWA ticket office turned into a restaurant and then later into a bank and again into a restaurant before closing a half dozen years ago. Our program began in the building in 1993, the same year it was DENIED landmark status. Later in the 1990s it was landmarked as part of the Jeweler’s Row district. A controversial project saved the facades of three Jeweler’s Row buildings for the new 80-story Legacy highrise. That project is responsible for the restoration of the Sharp Building’s ground floor, which has just debuted this month.

It is exciting for our historic preservation graduate students to work in a building that is seeing such a sensitive restoration, expecially after the disappointing replacement of most of the original windows a decade ago.

That’s the BEFORE – note the profile and depth.

That’s the AFTER – butchered and blinded. And they’re aluminum which means they are REALLY COLD right now. This was one of the events which kicked off my window rants back in ’01. Our class even produced alternatives to replacement, to no avail.

The lobby has bits of each period – we apparently still have – in storage – the elevator doors decorated with relief French and Indian figures during the 1933 remodeling by onetime SAIC dean Hubert Ropp, who also designed lunette murals, long lost to a dropped ceiling.

My BFA students are exploring all of these themes as well as the history of the corner of Monroe and Wabash, which includes the legendary Palmer House hotel, and the Sullivan facades recently revealed on Wabash Avenue across the street, on buildings incorporated into the Louis Sullivan designed Carson Pirie Scott store at the turn of the last century.

It is a great place to work, and an especially great place to teach the many arts and sciences of heritage conservation.

APRIL UPDATE:

Here is the show we had up this April from students in the BFA program first year:



House. Museum.

July 10, 2009

The news officially broke yesterday that Landmarks Illinois would cease to be the operating partner for the Farnsworth House, a National Trust Historic Site and one of the great modernist Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s most significant buildings. Landmarks Illinois joined John Bryan and the National Trust in buying the Farnsworth House at Sotheby’s auction house in December, 2003, thus saving it from a potentially devastating move away from its riverine location in Plano, Illinois.
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In 2003, the National Trust was already well aware of the problems associated with operating house museums, having held a conference entitled “Are There Too Many House Museums” 18 months earlier. The historic significance of this conference has only swelled in the ensuing seven years, although arguably the Fox River has swelled even more, coming within inches of the house in 2007 and inundating it in 2008, a mere 12 years after the last 100-year flood. Here’s the wardrobe, where you can see the flood damage – and this is only a 12-year old replacement from 1996.
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The added hassle and expense of major repairs occasioned by the floods and by ongoing issues stemming from its age and design led Landmarks Illinois to cut ties after having set up a solid operating procedure and staff, while still losing money. The National Trust, created by Congress in the 1940s for the express purpose of operating house museums, is the acknowledged leader on the issue. Which is why it was the first to ask that key question “Are There Too Many House Museums” and why it has a broad base (some 30 sites) for understanding the issues involved. (Full disclosure – I have been on the boards of both organizations for the last few years.)
fh angle terrS
Make no mistake: The Farnsworth House is fantastic. There are many buildings in this world I knew first through photographs and then was disappointed when I saw them live. Farnsworth is not one of them – seeing it for real was a revelation, as all great art is when you encounter it. Many more eloquent people have written about it so suffice to say it is a perfect Greek temple. I will take 100 people there next week on two tours and it is definitely worth the hour’s drive from Chicago and more.
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But the Farnsworth House – like most National Trust sites – is an exception. The United States is full of house museums, most of them run by local historical societies, most of which were formed for the express initial purpose of saving the house of a community founder or other early architectural and historical landmark.
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These are noble goals, and part of the goal is to insure that the entire public can visit and appreciate these sites. We were at one such last week, a 1783 Dutch colonial farmhouse built by the earliest settlers that was saved and preserved by descendants of those settlers way back in 1916. And visited by descendants of those settlers last week, namely my wife and daughters.
dyckman house
I like these places. I like to visit them and I have also been impressed with how so many of them have done more creative interpretation in recent years. One of our favorite phrases at the National Trust is “beyond the velvet ropes,” which is to say house museums need to break out of the old museum box, take some curatorial risks and become more interactive and dynamic. The reason is obvious. If the velvet ropes stay where they are, you visit the house with your fourth-grade class and then YOU NEVER GO BACK AGAIN because you have already seen it.
whack valance hampton est
The problem is a basic economic one. To run a museum – especially a house museum – you need some source to cover about 80 percent of operating costs. When the National Trust did a survey several years ago they found that the average house museum took in $8 per visitor and spent nearly $40 per visitor. That means that admissions covered about 20 percent of costs. I have done a little research on this issue and guess what – it was always like that. It was like that in the 1910s when William Sumner Appleton preserved houses for the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities and funded 80 percent of operations himself. It was like that in 1920s Charleston when a similar society purchased the Manigault House in order to save it – and had to buy it again, twice, within ten years until a major benefactor was found. It was like that when the Chicago School of Architecture Foundation bought the Glessner House in 1966 and basically leased office space in the building and started a docent tour program to subsidize the costs.
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Most historic house museums are a fiscal nightmare. Which ones do well, or at least survive? There are several models. One is to have an endowment which can cover a certain percentage of annual operating costs, and many sites have this. Another is to have an income-producing property, which we have at the Gaylord Building. Another is to raise the volume of tourism to such a high level that it can provide more than 20 percent of operating, which they do at Fallingwater. Another is to raise the admission prices high enough to cover the costs. This can work at world famous sites, but it patently won’t work at local historical societies whose purpose is to save the building for the people. Another is to have a successful gift shop, a source of income the Frank Lloyd Wright sites have had good fortune with, and of course this is also the model many traditional museums use to make ends meet.
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Another model is the one no one wants to talk about but is becoming increasingly necessary in order to preserve these buildings: put them back in private hands. The fact of the matter is that the economics of a home and economics of a public facility are completely different – people make economically unjustifiable decisions about spending money on their homes all the time – just look out of the airplane window at all of the swimming pools. Private owners also mean less wear and tear on historic fabric. Fallingwater spent many millions correcting deflection of its slabs and acknowledges it will need to do so again before long due to the volume of tourists.
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I was an early advocate of a private owner saving the River Forest Women’s Club because it was clear no public owner had the money to restore it after many years of deferred maintenance. The problem with private ownership is that it defeats the basic impulse of having everyone appreciate the house, although in many cases the properties are made available to the public on a limited or annual basis, in events like Oak Park’s Wright Plus every May. Most properties covered by preservation easements are private, but the easements require some sort of token annual opening to the public, which is common on community and neighborhood house and garden walks. I remember being in Pontefract, Yorkshire in the 1990s and having the good fortune of being there the only day of the year the Hermitage was open, so we were able to descend this 60-foot spiral staircase into the earth and see it. Public ownership is also of course subject to public monies – witness the indefinite closing of a dozen Illinois historic sites last year, or the drastic reduction in opening hours that has affected other sites. Sometimes once a year is a lot.
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By far the most exciting model for making a house museum economically viable is the one that Hull House in Chicago and Brucemore in Cedar Rapids have used: become the center of the community, a place where things are always changing, always interesting, and always interactive. To do this requires discarding curatorial imperatives or at least finding space for dynamic interaction with the public. It also requires an uncommon leadership ability and uncommon creativity.
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At the National Trust, we will continue to work on these sticky issues and come up with new models, just as we will continue to work on the Farnsworth House, raising an endowment so it can maintain public access as much as possible.

House Museums and Ultimate Use

October 24, 2008

During the National Preservation Conference for the last many years, Fridays are the busiest day, beginning at 7:15 AM with breakfast with the Site Council Chairs and Trust President Dick Moe. I represent both the Gaylord Building and the Farnsworth House. The former has a decent endowment while the latter does not, and of course the economic climate was at the top of the agenda for all 29 of the Trust sites.

Gaylord Building 2004

This is always a fascinating meeting, especially since the Kykuit Conference, where the Trust sites took the “beyond the velvet ropes” step, encouraging Boards and staff at historic sites to go beyond the “museum” model for historic houses. This is of course a great interest of mine as readers of this blog will know. I have been proposing to the Trust for several years the idea of a national database of all historic sites that could be used for corporate meetings, institutional retreats, filming, and a whole variety of events. These things all happen of course on an individual Trust property level, but a national database – perhaps licensed to other sites as well – could be a powerful funding tool.

The historic house museum, based on tourism and ticket sales, has NEVER made sense in all of history, unless the tickets are very high in price (Biltmore), or an incredible number of tourists are pushed through (Fallingwater), or a gift shop regularly trebles the income per visitor versus ticket sales (Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio). The Gaylord Building has relied on its endowment, even though it has a paying tenant (the Public Landing Restaurant). The Farnsworth House is working on merchandising, as well as offering more expensive “restoration tours.”

Speaking of which, Joan Mercuri explained to me the thinking at Robie House, which is taking the strange and unusual step of closing completely to try to complete the last $5 million of their restoration. Joan explained that many visitors were upset that they couldn’t see certain things during restoration. She also stressed that some of the decisions regarding how many tours would be available – once a week this coming year, and none from November ’09 to April ’10 – were not final and they would possibly open more. She also talked about cell phone tours, which are a growing media for heritage tourism and interpretation. So that made some sense, and obviously there are lots of hard feelings among docents, but I haven’t read the Hyde Park Herald so I don’t understand the infighting. If it were up to me, I would still be more open during the restoration – that is what we are doing at Farnsworth – but it isn’t up to me. I suppose you could do exterior tours during intensive interior renovation. That will essentially be the situation at the Farnsworth House during certain points in the rehab. At Robie House that is an even more obvious strategy, since like Farnsworth, much of the design brilliance is visible from the exterior.

The other fascinating aspect of being at the Site Councils meetings at the National Trust is the Trust’s wise commitment to recognizing the end of the house museum as we know it. They have changed Boards who couldn’t see that end, and they will continue to do so. Sites will look for new types of community outreach and development and measure success not based on visitors but a more comprehensive assessment. Most importantly, we hope to show the rest of the nation that some sites have to transition – become private sites again as they once were. There are too many house museums, a fact the Trust recognized almost a decade ago. I’m glad we are being creative at the Farnsworth House and I am glad the Gaylord Building was ALWAYS an adaptive re-use project with a commercial component. Because that is the only preservation that is sustainable.

What’s Going On At Robie House?

October 18, 2008

THE BLOG BELOW IS FROM OCTOBER 2008. The issues described below have been fully and completely resolved and the restored Robie House is MORE open for tours than ever before. FOR CURRENT INFORMATION ON ROBIE HOUSE, GO HERE.

October 2008 blog begins here:


Last week, Blair Kamin reported in the Trib on two of the iconic house museums that draw tourists from all over the world. I am involved, through both Landmarks Illinois and the National Trust, in the Farnsworth House. After the devastating flood last month, tours were abruptly cancelled, even as people arrived in Chicago from every corner of the world to see the house. We gathered, brainstormed, and decided to allow tours again, through the restoration. These tours will cost more – a rare chance to see “Farnsworth House with a black eye” as Landmarks Illinois’ Jim Peters said.

Opening a house museum during renovation makes sense. I saw Montpelier during its rehab a couple of years ago and loved it. The rehabilitation action actually ADDS interest to the tour and can, as at Farnsworth House, command a premium. You won’t see it this way again.


The pattern was set more than 20 years ago at the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio, where a massive restoration to the building’s 1909 appearance – including digging a foundation for the Studio – took place without tours ever stopping.

Which makes the second part of Kamin’s story a massive mystery. Robie House, the iconic triumph of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Prairie School, is undergoing restoration and they are cutting tours to Saturdays only – starting in November, and then shutting it ENTIRELY from November 2009 to April 2010. This makes no sense on the face of it, especially since Robie House is operated by the same group that did the Home and Studio restoration – the Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust.

It can’t be a pure revenue move – you can schedule all sorts of high-end exclusive events without stopping tours. We had Brad Pitt filming a jeans commercial at the Farnsworth House and we had Johnny Depp doing a movie at the Gaylord Building this summer.

Kamin reports that the docents are upset, and this provides the only clue as to the logic behind the move. There is talk of automated tours. Again, given the FLW Preservation Trust’s reliance on docents in Oak Park, this doesn’t make sense. The only plausible explanation is that they want to replace the docents, so they need to shutter the place, just like the Berghoff shut down for a while to ditch its union employees.

The move could backfire – the Wright mania that has driven a commercial empire of Prairie styled goods for the last 25 years can’t last forever. The junk may stop selling, but the tourism draw is permanent – especially European and Asian interest in the origin of modernism. The FLW Preservation Trust knows that – the lion’s share of Oak Park visitors are foreign. Robie House, Unity Temple, Crown Hall and the Farnsworth House are essential for any architecture buff who cares about the last century. Tours on Saturdays only doesn’t make sense on the face of it. Why freeze out Hans from Lubeck and Yukie from Sapporo, not to mention Joe the Plumber?

Maybe the foreigners buy less junk so they need to host more private parties. Maybe the Graduate School of Business is looking at Robie House like the Latin School looks at Lincoln Park. After all, the U of C still owns it. Still, the docent angle remains the most plausible explanation for an illogical move. I’ll try to find out more next week at the National Preservation Conference.

2009 UPDATE: See the update blog from August 2009 Time Tells.

floods keep me busy

September 30, 2008

It felt like I was crisscrossing the northern half of the state last week, and in a sense, I was. I did two tours for the Art Institute on Wednesday and Thursday to LaSalle, to visit the incomparable Hegeler-Carus mansion, an 1874 Italianate-cum-Second Empire extravaganza that never left the family, and to ride the new historic canal boat on the I & M Canal at Lock 14. The floods of almost two weeks earlier prevented us from riding on Wednesday and curtailed our ride Thursday.


The floods also drew me out Wednesday afternoon post-tour to Plano, to see the Farnsworth House and assess the damage.
There is good news and bad news. The good news is that the electricity is working and, more importantly, so is the insurance. The bad news? The wardrobe may be a loss – an accurate 1996 replica of the original.
The end walls of primavera wood are in bad shape, and we will probably debate how much needs to be replaced. We need to investigate the structure underneath the travertine panels, and we also have water in the window wells that needs to be addressed.
We discussed strategies for opening the house on a limited basis during construction – as was done at Montpelier – so people could see the process. This was a good idea – I saw Montpelier during the process and loved it.

We also have to deal with the question: the house has been flooded or almost flooded by 3 100-year floods in 12 years – why don’t you move it? Or put it on retractable stilts or somehow get it out of the way of the floodwaters? Well, of course the first answer is we saved it 5 years ago from being moved out of state, and despite Mies’ love of “universal architecture” this was designed for a specific location and a specific client.
The second answer occurred to me as I was perusing my latest issue of ARCHAEOLOGY which described the various depredations threatening the Egyptian sites at Thebes. My first memory of National Geographic magazine is the cover in the 1960s when they moved the Ramses tomb to make way for Aswan Dam. So, why not move Farnsworth House? Well, my memory of that NG cover was how they had to hack Ramses into little pieces to move him – the same is true of Farnsworth House. Even though we are dealing with postwar building techniques, I doubt we could get those hidden spot welds on the I-beams right today. We don’t like what happened in Thebes, and now the Valley of the Kings is subject to flash floods thanks to the unintended effects of the dam, which got rid of the annual floods and siltation, which caused farmers to increase both irrigation (which increased floods) and fertilizer use (which then threatens the stone artifacts with its toxicity). So, flooding – the human-directed kind – is a huge issue in both places. But the question (To move or not to move?) must be asked and we at Landmarks Illinois and the National Trust are going to be exploring all of the options very seriously. In fact, we hope soon to welcome public suggestions for solutions and how much they would cost.

After the tour Thursday I visited with four of the veterans of our lovely Art Institute China trip this summer as the museum celebrated its tour programs. Friday I zipped out to Lockport for the Gaylord Building Site Council meeting, where we debated the budget and the upcoming opening of the Lincoln Landing – a new park in front of the building that replaces the cluttered cabin collection of Pioneer Settlement with a new sculpture celebrating Abraham Lincoln’s connection to the canal. The park design is nice and will enhance the building.

But there is a nagging Lincoln thing here. Lincoln is my favorite President and I can recite the Gettysburg Address by heart, but as a historian I am troubled by our Illinois tendency to equate Lincoln with ALL local history. The story of the I & M Canal, which straddled the continent, built Chicago and opened up the West to settlement and industry even before the railroads, is a hell of an historical story. It doesn’t need Lincoln to make it important. Fascinating historical narratives are buried in indifference, awaiting the brush of Lincoln’s sleeve to be made real. The same thing happens in architecture with Frank Lloyd Wright, especially in Oak Park. A nice building is a nice building and a good design is a good design, but unless Frank Lloyd Wright sneezed on the blueprints, it isn’t really great architecture.

Anyway, I’m not done with Friday. I headed out Friday evening to the Dunham Riding Club in Wayne to give a talk for the Preservation Partners of the Tri-Cities on the National Register (I’ll be doing a similar discussion in Kenilworth in a couple of weeks). A nice audience and they were offering up a super tour weekend, including the stunning 1937 Campana Building in Batavia. It’s a great building and a stunning tower-and-wings that looks ready to soar above the farm fields on the Fox Valley. I would hazard to say it is a more impressive building that the nearby Fabyan Villa in Geneva, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Abraham Lincoln must have been involved somehow….

tomorrow? Hull House…

Flooded Farnsworth

September 17, 2008

All photos courtesy Landmarks Illinois, 2008.
The biggest news over the weekend was the incredible flooding throughout the state and the two feet of water and mud that soaked the interior of Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House in Plano. I am doubly responsible for this landmark, which is owned by the National Trust (I’m on the Board) and operated by Landmarks Illinois (I’m on the Board). The immediate hit is coming to Landmarks Illinois, which will lose $60,000 in tour income in the coming months – the height of the tourist season. It is tragic that this disaster occurred at all, doubly tragic that it occurred at the start of the two best tourism months in Northeastern Illinois – September and October.

Kudos to Whitney French, who is amazing. She is the Site Director of the Farnsworth House and she is amazing when giving a tour, amazing in her attention to every window frame and tree on the site, amazing in her intelligence and resourcefulness, and amazing in her dedication to this building. When something like this happens, she puts in ALL of her time, something I can’t claim.

The tragedy here of course is that Mies built the building to a height protecting it from all but the once-in-a-hundred-years flood. The only problem is that thanks to our emissions-enhanced environment and oodles upon oodles of new suburban development upstream, we have had a hundred-year flood at least three times in the last decade or so, and right now they are coming every year.

This building needs your help. Give not once but twice – the links are on this page. Give to Landmarks Illinois to help bring the building back as quickly as possible and give to the National Trust to build the endowment needed to support this unique icon of modernism. This is one of my favorite buildings in the world. It sings like few others. It’s worth it.

Thanks.

2014 UPDATE on Farnsworth House
2014 Update

MOVING

March 25, 2008

Week before last they moved my office – while I was off doing tours of the Farnsworth House (1946-51, Mies van der Rohe) and the Ford House in Aurora (1947-50, Bruce Goff). The tours considered the vast artistic difference between two mid-century icons built at the exact same time, both with free plans and framed in steel, but one an orthogonal exercise in classical purism of steel, glass, travertine and primavera wood, the other an exuberant disk, a romantic fantasy of coal, glass cullets, rope and cypress that, according to its longtime owner, can actually prevent depression.

In concert with two days of visiting steel houses with glass walls, my new office has two walls of windows and I have been moving at home too so I unpack a box at work and carry it home on the train for re-use. Our winter of discontent has been also a winter of boxes, which makes one realize how little is actually needed for the everyday, since I have many things that have been sitting in boxes in the basement of the new house (new being 1897) since November and for the most part they are not missed.

At the same time, one has to wonder at the audacity of Mies, who initially refused to include closets or dress-height wardrobes in Dr. Edith Farnsworth’s house, the excuse being it was a vacation home but the real reason being architectural purity and glass transparency – the wardrobe that was added diminishes the view of and out of the architecture.

The Greek Temple recast as a white steel and glass box and done with utmost precision. The Ford house is modern Rococo, an exuberant, swirling titter. Both houses grew out of the Fountainhead era, the age of heroic, god-like architecture and both require their inhabitants to adapt – rather than the other way around. Frank Lloyd Wright did that a lot – trimmed and windowed the walls so you couldn’t hang pictures on them and disturb the pictorial perfection of his vision. Le Corbusier allowed paintings on the walls, as he was a painter as well (and a painterly architect).

Wright hated attics and basements because they attracted clutter – but as I move out of and into my boxes I wonder whether clutter isn’t our natural condition and whether art is not, like religion, an unattainable model of perfection and I wonder how people can really live in those perfect spare interiors you see in the Sunday magazines. My own architectural dreams do not have form at their center – I can’t see them in two dimensions, much less three as Wright could – but they are all about function. I dream of pens and scissors and phone numbers at hand and handy recycling and composting and easy access to files and bags and boxes and wood screws and shelf brackets all at the ready. I recall that Le Corbusier tried that idea out with his form-types and the problem was that forms do not stay typical for long. Even evolution ratted out his conceit, as he resized the Modulor to the new average human reality.

The falsehood in this whole approach to design is that the goal transmutes into an object. A wardrobe, a desk, a filing cabinet, a programmable closet. But the functions that elude my everyday are not the kind of problem that is solved by an object. I wonder at the conceit of environmental determinism as I leave one house where daily tasks have been minimized into a series of fluid, nearly intuitive motions for a new house where that fluidity will remain challenged and it is clear that the solution lies not in any object but in me, the Modulor, who must be modulated to his environment. The Farnsworth and Ford houses are but more dramatic examples of how every house adapts us to it. And it isn’t even so much the architect demanding behavior of the client, because the real reason you can’t design your way out of life is that life NEVER. REMAINS. STATIC. Those fluid motions of the morning were not the same three years ago. Last June the architect Jack Hartray commented that the great mischief of Modernist architecture was the conceit that you could plan for all needs. He was talking about the Time-Life building, designed to corporate models long deceased but it could as easily refer to the IBM building, being converted into something else as we speak, or our Swiss friend’s Modulor, who wouldn’t sit still or even stay the same size over time.