This page contains the same information as the interactive timeline but is presented as a static page (not interactive) & has larger images. The interactive timeline is included at the bottom of the page for reference.
The Vanishing Porch in Perspective
This timeline explores the brief life of the Farnsworth House’s screened porch. It was a key architectural element for the building’s owner, Dr. Edith Farnsworth, because she needed protection from the riverside site’s mosquitoes when she opened the glass entry doors for cross-ventilation. The porch was screened with fine-weave corrosion-resistant wire mesh cloth & had an elegant center-pivot bronze-framed door. It was designed in 1946, constructed in 1952, & demolished in the early 1970s.
The Vanishing Porch in Perspective is an experiment in digital storytelling conceived, built, & maintained by Sarah M. Dreller, PhD.
Farnsworth House project begins
Edith Farnsworth, a successful Chicago physician, reportedly suggested the idea of a country house project to architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe at a dinner party in 1946. Mies, who had already started a project like this the previous year, began designing immediately.
Sept 17, 1947 – Jan 25, 1948
schematic design displayed
The public got an early look at Mies’s Farnsworth House design during his first solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. The show was curated largely by Mies himself and coordinated for MoMA by fellow modernist Philip Johnson.
For the Farnsworth House, Mies selected a schematic model of the house in which the screening for the porch is very recognizable.
architect/critic ignores porch
The most influential early published reference to the Farnsworth House strategically ignored the screened porch.
When Philip Johnson announced the completion of his own so-called Glass House in Architectural Review magazine, he wrote: “The idea of a glass house comes from Mies van der Rohe. Mies had mentioned to me as early as 1945 how easy it would be to build a house entirely of large sheets of glass. I was skeptical at the time, and it was not until I had seen the sketches of the Farnsworth House that I started the three-year work of designing my glass house.”
late spring or early summer 1951
Mies & Farnsworth’s friendship ends
Mies & Farnsworth argued bitterly over which curtains to install; he wanted natural-colored raw silk while she wanted something darker & more substantial. An architect in Mies’s office later reflected, “that’s what sparked the whole feud.” Farnsworth stopped paying Mies soon thereafter.
July 13, 1951
Mies sues Farnsworth
Mies sued Farnsworth to recover the money that he believed she owed for the house’s design & construction.
Until then, Farnsworth might have been viewed as an unusually enlightened client for giving free rein to a renowned modern architect. But after the lawsuit shed light on the details of their financial disagreement, Mies’s colleagues & supporters had a concrete reason to dislike Farnsworth.
official photo shoot
Mies was offered the October cover story in architecture’s most prestigious professional journal—but pictures of the Farnsworth House had to be taken by September whether the project was complete or not. When photographers arrived, the porch’s screening was the only unfinished design element.
For decades, these images showing the porch unscreened were widely considered the official photos.
Farnsworth House published
The special Houses Issue of Architectural Forum was delivered to 72,500 subscribers—thousands more than the two other national architecture magazines combined.
Despite discussing the Farnsworth House’s materials at length, the article does not describe the porch’s mesh cloth screening or bronze-framed door.
October 29, 1951
Farnsworth countersues Mies
Farnsworth responded to Mies’s lawsuit by suing him for money she believed she had overpaid. Her suit accused Mies of fraud & deceit, drawing considerable attention from the press. Meanwhile, within the architecture community, Farnsworth was reportedly described as naïve and/or difficult. The infamously persistent—and unfounded—rumor that she was Mies’s jilted lover may have also begun circulating at this time.
Farnsworth House completed
The Farnsworth House project’s end date is always listed as 1951 because that’s when it was first published in the professional architectural journals. But the building was actually completed the following year, when the screened porch was finally installed. The porch was reportedly constructed on site by William Dunlap, a young architect associated with Mies through IIT who also knew Farnsworth.
editor/critic emphasizes glass
The influential editor of House Beautiful magazine, Elizabeth Gordon, famously penned a scathing indictment of Mies’s design in which she defended Farnsworth by highlighting the building’s glass walls. In “The Threat to the Next America,” Gordon called the building a “glass cage on stilts” for the way in which it mercilessly exposed Farnsworth’s private life in the name of architectural beauty.
June 8, 1953
Mies wins lawsuits
After nearly two years, the lawsuits between Mies & Farnsworth were settled in Mies’s favor; she was instructed to pay about half of what he thought she owed.
Farnsworth ultimately paid Mies a total of about $85,000 for the house’s design & construction. Adjusted for inflation, that would be just over $800,000 today—about $413,000 more than she had originally expected to pay.
historian marginalizes porch
Generations of architecture students learned about the Farnsworth House from Henry-Russell Hitchcock’s well-respected survey, Architecture: Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. The textbook acknowledged the screened porch in the briefest possible way: “this is a cage of white-painted welded steel raised above the river valley in which it is set and walled partly with great sheets of plate glass, partly with metal screening.”
Note that while Hitchcock described the steel & glass with enough specificity to help his readers visualize the building, he used the very generic term “metal” for the screening.
historian/critic attacks porch
During a lecture at Columbia University, noted historian/critic James Marston Fitch reinforced the idea of Platonic purity by attacking the screened porch—and Farnsworth by extension.
He said: “…the owner has made certain modifications which presumably make it more comfortable to live in. But it cannot be held that they make it more pleasant to look at. In fact, in screening the porch, even with the care that was obviously exercised, Mies’s beautiful creation has been not merely maimed, but destroyed. Where once pure space flowed between and around those hovering planes there is now a solid black cube, heavy and inert…”
historian/critic’s lecture published
Fitch’s 1961 lecture was published verbatim in book form two years later. This enabled his negative comments about the screened porch & Farnsworth, which originally reached a relatively small audience at Columbia University, to circulate widely throughout the national & international architectural community.
photo-documentation includes porch
The National Park Service sent a Historic American Buildings Survey photographer to document the Farnsworth House just before Farnsworth sold the property. The building’s screened porch, including the center-pivot door, is clearly visible in these pictures.
This is the only complete set of photos ever taken of the Farnsworth House that include the screened porch.
new owner removes porch
Farnsworth sold the property to Peter Palumbo, a modern art connoisseur & collector, twenty years after the house was completed. Palumbo promptly removed all evidence of the screening from the porch as part of a larger effort to return the Farnsworth House to what he considered its original Mies design.
Like most people, Palumbo’s ideas about what was original to Mies were largely informed by the 1951 photos showing the porch unscreened in combination with decades of after-the-fact narrative that associated the porch with Farnsworth.
1974: historical report added to HABS photos crediting the porch to Farnsworth
1985: MoMA commissions Hedrich Blessing to re-photograph the Farnsworth House to emphasize the clear glass walls for a major Mies exhibit
1996: Palumbo restores house after catastrophic flooding, porch remains unscreened
December 12, 2003: Farnsworth House & property sold at auction to current owner, National Trust for Historic Preservation, with Landmarks Illinois
“Award $14,467 to Architect of Glass House.” Chicago Daily Tribune. (June 9, 1953): 20.
“Charges Famed Architect with Fraud, Deceit.” Chicago Daily Tribune (October 30, 1951): A5.
Dreller, Sarah M. “Curtained Walls: Architectural Photography, the Farnsworth House, and the Opaque Discourse of Transparency.” ARRIS: The Journal of the Southeast Chapter of the Society of Architectural Historians 26 (2015): 22-39.
Dunlap, David. “House Proud: Personal Visions.” The New York Times (June 24, 1999).
Fitch, James Marston. “Mies van der Rohe and the Platonic Verities,” in Four Great Makers of Modern Architecture: Gropius, Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, Wright; The Verbatim Record of a Symposium Held at the School of Architecture, Columbia University, March-May, 1961. New York: Da Capo Press, 1970. This is an unabridged republication of the first edition, published by Columbia University in 1963.
Gordon, Elizabeth. “The Threat to the Next America.” House Beautiful 95 (April 1953): 126-30.
“Edith Farnsworth House, 14520 River Road, Plano, Kendall County, IL,” Survey number: HABS IL-1105. Historic American Buildings Survey, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.
Hitchcock, Henry-Russell. Architecture: Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1958.
Johnson, Philip. “House at New Canaan, Connecticut.” Architectural Review 108:645 (September 1950): 152-59.
“Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Farnsworth house in Fox River, Ill.” Architectural Forum 95:4 (October 1951): 156-161.
Summers, Gene. Interview by Pauline A. Saliga, 7-8 October 1987, compiled c.1993 under the auspices of the Chicago Architects Oral History Project. Department of Architecture, The Art Institute of Chicago.
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