Mies van der Rohe, Edith Farnsworth and the Fight Over a Modernist Masterpiece
By Alex Beam
The case that animates “Broken Glass” isn’t a legal thriller with turncoat mobsters or burned-out ambulance chasers, although one lawyer, accused of coaching a witness, did thunder “liar,” preceded by an expletive. The case was instead about a small house and the tensions between an architect and his client, the seemingly mundane matters of ever-escalating costs and a spectacularly uncooperative roof. (It leaked during the trial.)
The house wasn’t just any old house by any old architect, though. It was Mies van der Rohe’s exquisite Farnsworth House in Plano, Ill., completed in 1951. This was the glass house that launched a thousand others, most famously the one Philip Johnson designed for himself in Connecticut.
Mies-ians know the story, which Alex Beam tells without getting sidetracked by architectural arcana or excessive gossip-mongering. He has at once a lot of material to draw on — and almost nothing at all. The trial transcript filled more than 3,000 pages. But the proceedings involved fees and payments and design decisions, not what was really at issue, which, arguably, was the client’s broken heart.
The client was a well-connected Chicago physician named Edith Farnsworth. She paid a steep price. She had intended to spend $8,000 to $10,000 (somewhere in the neighborhood of $110,000 in today’s dollars) to have the house built. After that proved unrealistic and Mies called $40,000 “cheap,” the bill topped $70,000 (more than $680,000 now) and Mies sued for his fee. Farnsworth countersued, alleging, among other things, design problems. She came to call the house “my Mies-conception.” “Mies-stake” might be more like it.
But first came the coup de foudre. Introduced to the taciturn Mies at a dinner party in 1945, Farnsworth said she was looking to build a weekend house. She asked Mies if “some young man in your office” could design something for her. Hearing Mies say he would tackle the job himself (after he had uttered almost nothing during the meal) was, for Farnsworth, as powerful as “a storm, a flood or other act of God.” Beam says that 1946 and 1947 were the wunderjahren of their relationship: Mies’s longtime girlfriend Lora Marx had called a time out to join Alcoholics Anonymous and “Edith assumed the role of favorite in Mies’s life.” By the time Mies took the stand at the trial, in 1952, things had clearly cooled. He testified that he had told her at the dinner party that he didn’t usually bother with small houses, but that “if it could be fine and interesting,” then he would do it. What he meant by “interesting” was, of course, left unsaid.
They picnicked at the site and put stakes in the ground while living in what Beam calls “a world of unusual intellectual and spiritual intensity.” That didn’t last. Mies went back to Lora Marx (and also took up with another client). By 1948, according to Beam, Farnsworth was “not a girlfriend, mistress or lover” anymore.
But she was a client, and after Mies and his underlings turned ideas and sketches into an actual structure she could spend time in, she found it troublesome. She and Mies tangled over curtains and screens. A closet? Not in that house. Mies told her, according to the British peer who bought it from her in the 1960s: “It’s a weekend house. You only need one dress. Hang it on a hook on the back of the bathroom door.” (Eventually Mies relented and designed a closet.) Farnsworth sweltered in the summertime because Mies gave her only one door and the smallest of openable windows, and no air conditioning.
Beam’s thorough and thoughtful account is both a knowing biography of an object — the house — and of its two principals, the well-documented Mies and the widely overlooked Farnsworth. Fortunately for Beam’s purposes, Farnsworth left an unpublished memoir. But Beam, a columnist for The Boston Globe who has written books on the Mormon founder Joseph Smith and on McLean Hospital, concludes that Farnsworth “isn’t always a reliable narrator.” At the trial, Farnsworth lost on most of the “findings of fact.” The lawyers eventually worked out a settlement of $2,500, a trivial amount, all things considered.
The Mies biographer Franz Schulze, who died last year, wrote that “it is simplistic to say that Farnsworth wanted the house and Mies, and Mies wanted the house and the next client.” Beam makes clear that their relationship was complicated. But sometimes, the simplistic explanation actually makes the most sense.