Plans Floated For Saving Farnsworth House From the Fox River

Farnsworth House

Photograph courtesy of Farnsworth House

The Farnsworth House can’t catch a break from Mother Nature.

The nearby Fox River repeatedly threatens the historic Mies van der Rohe-designed house. All too frequently, the rising water floods Farnsworth House (14520 River Road, Plano).

Only a few years after it was built in 1951, two feet of flood water gave it a quite unintended and unwanted indoor pool. It wouldn’t be the last time.  The most recent time the river entered the house was just this past April.

Now, after much discussion and consideration, the Farnsworth flooding problem is a step closer to a permanent solution. Last week, two town hall meetings were held, during which flood mitigation options were detailed.

Stephanie Meeks, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation

Stephanie Meeks, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation

The first meeting was held May 29th at another venue designed by Mies van der rohe: Crown Hall at the Illinois Institute of Technology. Stephanie Meeks, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, opened the meeting by offering some history. The Farnsworth House was a private residence until 10 years ago, when the National Trust purchased it at auction.

“Every glass building is in some way a transformation of the Farnsworth House,” Meeks said. “We’ve now had three floods [since the trust took ownership,] and each one was more intense than the previous. We’ve engaged hydrologists who assure us there will be more floods. So, it’s time to explore options before it’s washed away or damaged further.”

Bonnie McDonald, president of Landmarks Illinois, also spoke and explained her organization’s role as the Farnsworth House easement owner and critical fund-raiser during the auction process. McDonald reiterated the importance of finding an answer to the flooding.

“We’ve weathered several floods, and each takes a toll inside and out,” she said. “Rescue of Farnsworth House is one of the most important achievements we need to manage.”

Zurich Esposito, executive vice president of AIA Chicago

Zurich Esposito, executive vice president of AIA Chicago

To lend some perspective on the importance of the structure, Zurich Esposito, executive vice president of the Chicago chapter of the American Institute of Architects explained that Van der Rohe was awarded the gold medal by the A.I.A. in 1960.

“It’s the highest honor we have,” Esposito said. “With the recent loss of Prentice Hospital, it’s important for us to look for ways of preserving works. We share a common goal of preserving something important to us.”

Following Esposito’s remarks, Gunny Harboe, president of Harboe Architects and a board member of DOCOMOMO-US, offered a telling comment when he said, “There isn’t an ideal solution, but we shouldn’t have to worry about the Farnsworth House filling with water like an aquarium every few years.”

Gunny Harboe, president of Harboe Architects

Gunny Harboe, president of Harboe Architects

There isn’t an ideal solution. But there are options. The Farnsworth House flood mitigation project’s advisory council evaluated nine separate solutions. The council distilled them down to three very different possibilities. None are perfect and none are cheap. But they each will keep the Farnsworth House dry.

Robert Silman, president emeritus of Robert Silman Associates Structural Engineers, described the mechanics.

“We started by asking what level of risk the National Trust wanted to assume,” Silman said. “Each solution requires a relocation to do the work. It’s such a precious, fragile house that people ask, ‘How do you move it [without damaging it]?’ Well, we do it all the time. There are established methods.”

Silman explained some other high-profile relocation efforts, including the Hamilton Grange House in New York City and the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse in North Carolina. They were both moved using hydraulics and dollies. It would be a similar method for the Farnsworth House.

Farnsworth House

Photograph courtesy of Farnsworth House

So, what to do after hoisting up the building and sitting it on a dolly? The three options (with approximate price tags) are:

  1. Keep the house in the same location, but higher, to keep it above the reach of floodwaters. That would mean raising the base by seven feet. It sounds pretty easy, but it would require 28,000 cubic feet of fill. There’s not much of it to be had in Plano, IL, which means trucking in the dirt. That means a lot of trucks (each one can carry about a dozen cubic yards of fill). The cost: about $3 million.
  2. Move the house back a little bit, on land high enough to keep it out of harms way. This option is the least attractive to purists, the National Trust and the advisory council, because it alters the placement of the property in relationship to the Fox River. It’s an odd notion, because the relationship is causing all the trouble. The cost of this option: $500,000.
  3. Leave the house exactly where it is, but build a hydraulic lift underneath it, to be used only when floodwaters loom. It would work much like the gizmo at Jiffy Lube when you take your car in for an oil change, but a bit larger. It’s at once the most complex solution, and certainly the most intriguing for engineering geeks. Not coincidentally, it’s also the most expensive at a cool $3.5 million.

Option C is pretty fascinating in theory. It would require a pit to be dug out, with a concrete slab on top of it, then the hydraulic equipment. All of this stuff would be invisible to visitors, at least until the switch is flipped to raise the house. The contraption would move an inch and a half per minute, fully raising the house in two hours. All you need is a few hours notice that the river will rise to dangerous level and zip, boom, the house goes up.

It would be prudent to test the hydraulic gizmo periodically to make sure it’s working smoothly when you really need it. Silman reckoned maybe a monthly test would be sufficient. He even joked that you could create an event and charge visitors more for the tour on the days of raising for a test.

Robert Silman

Robert Silman, president emeritus of Robert Silman Associates Structural Engineers

“How do we know it will work? All I can say is, it will,” Silman asked, and answered. “Like a trophy on a tray, is how [Chicago Tribune architectural critic] Blair Kamin described it.”

Silman finished his presentation by cautioning the audience that this is just a feasibility study and nothing is set in stone. However, he said, “the Advisory Council said keep the house where it is now, which means the house has to move up [either permanently or temporarily.]”

Silman and his team are also investigating other options, including a floatation device under the house, so it would be buoyant and rise with the water.

“Nature would do the work, and the house would float up on its own,” he said. “However, controlling it is not easy. Another option would be a temporary flood barrier, but to hold back 11 feet of water would be very difficult; it hasn’t been done before with a temporary barrier.”

He said the flood mitigation team even discussed the possibility of a temporary barrier with a Dutch company (which ought to know a thing or two about dikes) and they expressed concern about whether it would work.

Which solution is the best? Every interested party seems to have its own opinion. You can check out the details of each plan here.

I asked Zurich Esposito if A.I.A. Chicago had a recommendation or opinion about which option was the best to consider.

“Our board, like other interested parties, is still learning about the variety of options being developed and presented, so a position has not been formalized,” Esposito said. “The National Trust team has shown a genuine interest in exploring any and all possibilities to protect the Farnsworth House. Their exploratory approach and their openness to ideas from all areas of the professional architecture, engineering and design community, as well as the public, is notable and to be appreciated, regardless of whatever path of action, if any, is ultimately taken.

“Everyone has the same end goal here,” he continued. “What’s interesting is how many interpretations of protection there are.”

Farnsworth House

Photograph courtesy of Farnsworth House

 

Bill Motchan

Author: Bill Motchan

Bill Motchan is a writer and photographer, and a former resident of the West Loop. He can be reached at bill@ChicagoArchitecture.org.

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