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Boston Society of Architects

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Rising out of
the deep

Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House eyes a flood-mitigation idea involving hydraulic lifts

TARGET April-June 2020

Flood Mies at MOMA show Ryerson clear

Mies van der Rohe at the 1947 MoMA show dedicated to his work.

Digital image © 2019 MoMA N.Y.

Great architects select great sites for their designs. When Pittsburgh department store magnate Edgar Kaufmann showed Frank Lloyd Wright the rural acreage for his summer home, Wright boldly selected the unforgettable site of Fallingwater: “I want you to live with the waterfall, not just look at it,” Wright said.

Edith Farnsworth in Mies van der Rohe's office, reviewing building plans with associate Myron Goldsmith.
Digital image © 2019 MoMA N.Y.

Sometimes great architects make mistakes. When Mies van der Rohe toured Dr. Edith Farnsworth’s 9-acre, riverside parcel outside Chicago, he, too, made a fateful choice: He convinced Farnsworth to build her soon-to-be-famous second home less than 100 feet from the bank of the Fox River. The spot appeared ideal, next to a towering black sugar maple at the bottom of a meadow that sloped gently down to the water.

On a subsequent visit, van der Rohe spoke with local contractor Karl Freund. “We were standing on the floodplain,” Freund recalled, and “Mies asked me where I’d build the house. I said, ‘Not here.’”

“No, here, by the beautiful tree!” Mies insisted, pointing to the (since deceased) maple near the riverbank.

“I wouldn’t build here,” Freund answered. “You’ll get flooded.”

No problem, Mies insisted. “You have a canoe there, and if it floods, you take the canoe to the house. It’s an adventure, but that belongs to life.”

Mies famously elevated the Farnsworth House 5 feet, 4 inches above ground, suspended on eight gleaming white, wide-flange steel columns. The spare, almost Platonic design defined the house’s signature profile, but it could not save it from the floods.

Mies’ adventuresome site selection had immediate consequences. In 1954, just three years after the house was built, the river surged 2 feet above the interior floor level. The muddy waters stained his irate client’s carefully selected shantung silk curtains and damaged the teak-paneled wardrobe where Farnsworth kept all her clothes.

In 1996, the Fox rose 11 feet, sending a 5-foot wall of water rushing through the house, then owned by the renowned London real estate developer and art collector Lord Peter Palumbo. “The force of the water lifted up a very, very heavy teak bed and spun it around the house,” Palumbo recalled. “The water picked up that teak wardrobe like a feather and sent it swirling around the room.”

The press gleefully reported that an Andy Warhol silk-screen portrait of Elizabeth Taylor was spotted floating downstream, never to be seen again. Palumbo’s comment: “It’s better to lose an Andy Warhol than to lose a house.”

Today, even worse problems bedevil the magnificent Farnsworth House and its current owner, the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Because of heavier rains brought on by climate change, exacerbated by extensive real-estate development in the Chicago exurbs, the Fox River floods more often and more heavily than in years past. According to a hydrologic study commissioned by the Trust, “it is expected that the site surrounding the house will flood annually, and there is a 20 percent probability that flood level will rise above the terrace level in any given year.” (The terrace is the open-air patio between two flights of stairs.)

The recurring floods require the Trust to close the site to visitors, and when the water surges over the floor, “all movable portions of the house are raised on milk crates, and all carpets and rugs are rolled up and placed on elevated furnishings,” according to a flood mitigation report compiled by structural engineering firm Silman Associates in 2014. (Founder Robert Silman became famous for saving Wright’s Fallingwater house from almost certain collapse and led the Farnsworth rescue team until his death in 2018.) “Unfortunately, those immovable objects (the lower terrace; the main structure; the center wood console that includes the bathroom, closet, and kitchen; and the utility shaft) cannot be protected.…”

Silman’s firm helped the Trust devise a radical plan to preserve the house. The engineers considered three options for saving Farnsworth from Mies’ ill-considered site choice. First: elevating the house an additional 9 feet above its current location by adding about 10,000 cubic yards of fill under the existing footings. That would cost several million dollars, with “the major disadvantage,” according to the 2014 report, “that it completely transforms the structure’s interaction with the site and river.” Second: Move the house about 400 additional feet away, up the slope from the river, taking it out of harm’s way.

Relocation is the least expensive solution, costing perhaps less than $1 million. But it has a huge disadvantage, as Ashley Wilson, the Trust’s Graham Gund architect and project manager for flood mitigation at the Farnsworth, explains. “Moving Farnsworth away from the river is akin to moving Fallingwater off the waterfall,” she says. “The two are so interrelated, one doesn’t make sense without the other, it’s so site specific.”

So the Trust opted for the third—and what it hopes will be a game-saving—solution. The trustees plan to mount the structure on a 16-inch-thick concrete slab and then install a hydraulic-lift system underneath the house to power a flexible truss made of metal girders. When activated, the truss will raise the house 8 feet, if necessary, above the floodwaters. “The house will take between 30 and 90 minutes to raise, depending on the final design,” according to Ben Rosenberg, a principal engineer at Silman Associates’ Boston office. “The nature of the hydrology is such that the flooding occurs very slowly and can be anticipated days ahead, based on flooding upstream. So there will be time to plan for raising the house in advance of flooding.”

Robert Silman, of Robert Silman Associates, outlines flood mitigation Option C

Video by Saving Places, The National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Rosenberg calls the hydraulic-lift scheme “a fairly simple idea,” albeit, he admits, not one that has been tried elsewhere. Silman Associates was part of the team that moved Alexander Hamilton’s country residence for the National Park Service in 2008, and the firm has raised structures threatened by rising sea levels, but this particular solution is a first. “This is a fairly unique approach, to the best of our knowledge,” Rosenberg says.

Project manager Wilson anticipates that the overall restoration and mitigation plan will cost $9 million. The Trust has already embarked on a modest but necessary part of the plan: restoring the famous lower terrace that, with the two-tiered staircase, forms the “processional” entrance to the Farnsworth House, on the river side of the structure.

Mies used his beloved travertine marble—the same material he chose for the lobby of Park Avenue’s Seagram Building—all over the Farnsworth House, but it has suffered grievously on the outdoor stairs and terrace. In summer, parts of the staircase and terrace are routinely underwater, and the “freeze-thaw cycle” of the bitter Illinois winters has caused further damage. “The stairs are in bad shape,” Wilson reports, with some of the riser slabs broken into 20 pieces or more.

Edith Farnsworth (left) and her friend Beth Dunlap sitting on the front steps of the house.
Photo © National Trust for Historic Preservation

What is the sense of urgency? “We believe that the flooding will continue to get worse, so we are partly reacting, and partly being proactive,” Rosenberg says. “It costs money to floodproof the house as is, and there is potential for continued deterioration over time. This problem should be solved as soon as possible.” Wilson explains that the Trust has the money to start the travertine restoration, but financing the lift system will require some serious, targeted, fundraising: “Know any design lovers out there?”

Farnsworth House Saved,” read a famous 2003 Chicago Tribune headline, when a group of well-heeled Chicagoans purchased the house for the Trust, saving it from an anonymous, private buyer. So yet again the house is seeking salvation from the kindness of deep-pocketed, architecturally aware strangers.

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