Alanis Morissette might call it ironic—I moved to the big city in pursuit of artistic enlightenment and, five years later, I find myself fleeing Chicago for the very same reason.
My most recent quest brought Jason and me to the woods of Plano, Illinois, to tour Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's architectural masterpiece: the Farnsworth House. As one of only three residences designed by the Chicago-based, German-born architect, the place is an international treasure.
Most Art History 101 courses mention the modern marvel of a house, made entirely of steel and glass, but as one colleague recently put it, "I've never heard of anyone actually going there." For many Chicagoans, Plano seems farther away than Paris.
On a recent Saturday, we made the journey by car (nowhere near Paris, it lies 60 miles west of downtown). Earlier that morning I had checked the website and learned that we needed to call ahead to make reservations for the $20 guided tour, should wear shoes comfortable for walking, and should allow 90 minutes for getting there from Chicago. Luckily there was room for us on the 1 p.m. tour.
After four highways, two tolls and some stop-and-go traffic, we made it to the town of Aurora, where the directions had us rolling off the highway and onto secondary roads through farms and cornfields. Billboards advertised "Houses for $130,000," and car dealerships sporadically appeared—this wasn't just remote suburbia, this was rural Illinois.
About 80 minutes into our journey, we arrived. We initially drove past the visitor center and into "hunting grounds," marked by wood signs, saying to each other, "Was that the visitor center?" After making a U-turn to get back to the non-descript white building, we decided the lack of advertising was more refreshing than annoying.
We were welcomed warmly by the shop keeper, an energetic elderly lady, and encouraged to browse through the shop's modern art books and watch a looping 10-minute video on the house's history.
Walking toward the house was a divine experience. It being late October, we watched leaves silently and slowly fall from trees, and were equally mesmerized by the Fox River, to our left, as it reflected the orange, yellow and brown hues surrounding us. Our 14-person tour group consisted of a few young couples, several architecture buffs and a four-person family of Germans. The daughter in the German family apparently didn't read the website instructions, as she struggled with knee-high high-heeled boots through the stretch of forest.
Our tour guide, a gray-haired man wearing sunglasses and carrying a walking stick, greeted us at the edge of property. We soon learned that Dr. Edith Farnsworth, a single woman who was a kidney specialist in Chicago, commissioned the house from Mies van der Rohe in 1945 as a weekend retreat; it took six years to construct, and Farnsworth and Mies van der Rohe wound up in court disputing the final costs.
The house belonged to art collector and British businessman Lord Peter Palumbo from 1972 to 2003, after which it was sold at auction to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which opened the house to the public in 2004.
Our guide recounted all the engineering facts and architectural design choices in perfect detail, though none of the history lessons compared to the magical sight of the house. A futuristic model of streamlined simplicity, the 1,400-square-foot structure appears as a glass box perfectly framed in white steel.
Once inside, the preciousness of the place truly settled in. The free-flowing unified feel of the exterior relates to the interior as well. All utilities and functional needs of the house are positioned in the center, from the kitchen on one side to the fireplace on the other, creating a one-room openness. Standing in the living area and looking out at the Fox River was a breath-taking feeling, like being outside and surrounded by nature.
After our high-brow architecture activity we felt the need to low-brow it a bit. Noticing some outlet stores off the highway in Aurora on our way back to city reality, we stopped at what proved to be the Chicago Premium Outlets and browsed through Polo, Le Creuset and the Adidas store before finally sitting down in the food court for a rest. From artworld to Americana, we had moved from architectural treasure to a mall in the town that was home to Wayne's World. Excellent!
For those without a car, the Chicago Architecture Foundation offers a bus tour that that travels to the Farnsworth House. It's open by appointment only from December through March; otherwise, 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday.