Giving Farnsworth House a Lift

Delph Gustitus examines roof at Farnsworth House.

Delph Gustitus examines roof at Farnsworth House.

A few years back, I had the privilege of working on a roof replacement project for Mies van der Rohe's landmark Farnsworth House in Plano, Illinois. The house is widely recognized as an iconic masterpiece and is currently owned and operated as a house museum by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Increased urbanization, storm water runoff and rising water levels in the nearby Fox River have threatened the home for years. The National Trust convened a flood mitigation project almost two years ago to consider options for preserving Farnsworth House in the event of future flooding. Three scenarios emerged:

  1. Elevate the house and terrace in situ with additional fill placed under and around the house,
  2. Move the house to high ground on the site or move to a newly filled portion of the site close to the original location, and
  3. Employ a hydraulic or mechanical system to raise the house temporarily just prior to and during the flooding. 
Farnsworth House flooding on 4/18/13. Photo © National Trust for Historic Preservation

Farnsworth House flooding on 4/18/13. Photo © National Trust for Historic Preservation

Yesterday, at an event organized by Landmarks Illinois as part of the Chicago Architecture Biennial, the National Trust announced its support of the option to raise the 275-ton structure on a hydraulic lift during storms. According to a report by Dennis Rodkin for Crain's Chicago Real Estate Daily, the lift would be designed to raise the 1,500-square-foot glass and steel house and its attached terrace as one unit, keeping all the glass walls and utilities intact.

The proposed system is described as a new application of standard technology. The trusses would carry the load, the hydraulic system would only be needed during the lift cycle, the system would be waterproof and the proposed pit would create access for maintenance. The plan, with an estimated cost of $3 million, is not without its critics however, including Dirk Lohan, grandson of Mies van der Rohe. So it seems that deliberations will continue. Ultimately, Landmarks Illinois holds an easement on the house and must approve the project.