Architecture Students Trying to Preserve History

Barnsworth House rendering

A group of students from the Illinois Institute of Technology are putting their education to work in the real world. They’ve taken up a project to build exhibit space at  Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House (14520 River Road, Plano), about 60 miles west of Chicago.

Farnsworth House (if you haven’t heard of it, just pick up a Chicago Tribune, it’s in there pretty much every day) is a one-room weekend house built in the late 1940’s out in Plano.  Some people think it’s a masterpiece.  Others think it looks like a warehouse.

Either way, the house was flooded by Hurricane Ike in 2008.  Most of the pieces of furniture were saved by elevating them above the flooding Fox River.  But some pieces, like a large wardrobe, were simply too large to move.  And in the case of another flood, would still be too big to move.  The solution from the IIT students is an external exhibition space called “Barnsworth House” which can house the wardrobe and other artifacts out near the visitors’ center.

So far, the building has been designed, and the permitting process has been started, but the project still needs money to be completed.  To that end, a Kickstarter page has been put together to take donations for the project.

You can read the students’ complete press release below, and you can visit the projects’s web site to see lots of pictures.

Barnsworth House rendering


Frank Flury’s Design-Build Studio Seeks Fund-Raising to Build at Historic Site

On September 14, 2008 rain poured down on the Fox River valley in Plano, IL, causing the river to spill its banks and flood Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House. The flood damaged the house and the furniture within, specifically a large wardrobe that was added to the house at the request of Mies’s client Edith Farnsworth. Unlike the other, smaller pieces of furniture in the house, the 12’ x 6’ x 2’ wardrobe is too large to be removed from the house in case of another flood. With the existing visitor center not able to accommodate this large piece of furniture a need exists for additional exhibition space to temporarily display this historic piece of furniture until a mitigation plan can be implemented that offers permanent protection for the house and its contents. Whitney French, director of the Farnsworth House sought the help of a design-build professor at Mies’s own Illinois Institute of Technology. Professor Frank Flury has led many successful design-build studios at IIT including the recent AIA award-winning Field Chapel in Boedigheim, Germany. Professor Flury presented the project to his students and over the past two semesters the team has designed an adaptable exhibition space that solves the Farnsworth House’s need to display the wardrobe and can also be used for events such as lectures and exhibitions.

Early concepts for the design were rectilinear and simple, drawing on the Farnsworth House for their inspiration. After many iterations, critiques from their professor, and advice from practicing architects and engineers, the team decided it would be more appropriate to design in the local vernacular, something more similar to the farm buildings that are scattered over the landscape. Since the new exhibition space is situated about a half-mile form the Farnsworth House, adjacent to the visitor center and visible from the road, a farm building seemed appropriate. Another problem the design team looked to solve was how to provide handicap accessibility to the Farnsworth House. In the end the studio designed a contemporary round barn with a new gently sloping path circling the “Barnsworth” on its way to the Farnsworth House. The design is simple and compact; the round floor plan creates a natural exhibition space. The interior walls are segmented while the exterior walls feature vertical board and batten siding to create a continuous curve. The walls are free from openings providing extensive display space while a simple and elegant lantern sits atop the space to allow the penetration of natural light.

Permit drawings have been submitted for review and now the team is seeking in-kind donations of construction material and equipment as well as monetary donations. For the monetary donations the Barnsworth Studio has set up a kickstarter page.

Author: Editor

Editor founded the Chicago Architecture Blog in 2003, after a long career in journalism. He can be reached at

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