Rescuing an Icon, Part One

Posted on: November 1st, 2007 by Barbara Campagna

A story of how a typical business trip turned into a tale of disaster management of national importance...

(Editor's Note: Originally written in August for her personal blog, Barbara Campagna has agreed to share the story of her experience at the Farnsworth House in Plano, IL, as the floodwaters from the Fox River approached.)

Thursday, August 23rd, 2007

The Farnsworth House, Plano, ILMy day began like many others since I joined the National Trust - board a plane for another city, actually leave and arrive on time (not the norm), rent a car and soon find myself driving out of a city and across the plains and sprawl of middle America. This time briefly passing through Chicago en route to Plano, Illinois, the location of one of the world's most famous and influential modernist icons - Mies van der Rohe's vacation home for Edith Farnsworth. I arrived on time at 1pm for a day of project review with the new Site Director, Whitney French.

It was sunny and humid, not unlike my home in Washington, DC. A week of massive rains in the Midwest had left the Fox River, next to which the Farnsworth House lies, full and rising. Thirteen inches of rain left spots of minor flooding on the 7 acres adjacent to the house, mostly evident along the quarter mile trail from the Visitor Center to the House. These patches caused the tour groups to detour to the house via a ride along Fox River Drive to the rear garage entrance - not the best scenario because the preferred trail brings the visitor up and around the house, giving you that "ah ha" moment when you come around a copse of trees and suddenly see the white steel and glass cube that changed the way architecture is made. But a rear entrance is preferable to no entrance - people literally come from around the world to pay homage to one of the 20th century's grandest yet simplest architectural gestures.

The Farnsworth House, Plano, ILWhitney and I spent the afternoon reviewing projects that had been completed or partially completed, the progress of grants, and the scope of work for the new SAT (Save America's Treasures) grant the house had just received. We roamed around the site, discussed the need for a disaster management plan, checking on cracked travertine, speculating as to the cause of the oxide jacking at the building's steel frame corners, debating when to paint the peeling paint beneath the terraces, and wistfully looking at the custom bed that Brad Pitt had briefly rested on during the filming of a Japanese jeans commercial a week earlier!

We finished for the day around 5 pm and went downtown for dinner. Around 6 pm, while eating our Italian dinners, suddenly the skies opened up, and filled with claps of thunder and streaks of lightning. After a half hour of relentless torrential rains, Whitney and I realized that there was no way I could safely drive the 50 miles to Chicago where I was planning on spending the night. She called the only Bed and Breakfast in town and secured the last room available for me. I spent a dry night in the very Victorian "Homestead Bed & Breakfast" although we had joked that I could stay at the Farnsworth House!

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Coming soon: as the flood waters rise, wader boots and a boat become necessary.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

Barbara Campagna

Barbara A. Campagna, FAIA, LEED AP BD+C was formerly the Graham Gund Architect of the National Trust in the Stewardship of Historic Sites office. She is currently a sustainability consultant to the National Trust and can be reached at bcampagna@bcampagna.com.

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