Saturday, August 25, 2007

Rescuing an Icon - Mies van der Rohe's Farnsworth House

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

Thursday, August 23rd, 2007

My 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 enroute 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.

Whitney 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!

August 24th, 2007

Whitney and I had plans to drive out to Chicago for a 10:30 am meeting at the Landmarks Illinois office in the Monadnock Building with David Bahlman and Al Novickis, the architect ready to start work on the SAT grant for the house. I went down to a scrumptious breakfast to be told that Whitney had called at 7:30 am to say that the house had been completely surrounded by 4 feet of water during the night and I should get out there as soon as possible. I emailed my office and drove there to find that the Farnsworth House was peering above the water just barely, its 5 foot high stilts completely submerged and the water lapping at its front door. David Bahlman, President of Landmarks Illinois our co-steward partner at the house, drove down from Chicago, and he, Whitney and her boyfriend and I, tried to figure out how to get to the house to see if water had gotten in and/or to try to elevate the furniture and the rare Primavera wood panels.

We are fortunate that Whitney, the new site director who has only been in her job for 4 months, has lived in the community for 15 years and knows everyone. The water was too high and too dangerous to consider wading through. So we knew we needed to find a flat-bottomed boat. She called everyone she could think of including the Fire Department and no one had a boat. We feared we would be able to do nothing but watch as the house became submerged and possibly damaged as extensively as it had in 1996 when water rose 5' into the house.

Then, serendipitously, one of the House's volunteers was driving to the site with her son to see how they could help and they saw a boat for sale up the street. They spoke to the owner, who agreed to bring the boat down for us to use. He graciously drove the boat over and set it up for us. David rowed, while Whitney and I navigated. Whitney had 2 pairs of wader boots and gave me one of them to wear. As we approached the house, the top of the travertine terrace was just barely visible. David got the boat near the terrace and I jumped out and pulled them in closer and tied the boat to one of the famous Mies' steel stilts. Whitney and I went into the house, saw no water had entered yet, found some towels which we used as buffers between the boat and the travertine.

We didn't really have a disaster plan but created it on site. In the garage we had found garbage bags, duct tape and a screw driver. David thought to stop at Office Depot and buy a bunch of plastic milk crates to use to elevate the furniture. We didn't know how much time we had. The water had surrounded the house in less than an hour the night before when the locks on a dam further up the Fox River had been opened and within an hour had inundated the low flood plain surrounding Farnsworth. The rain had stopped at 1:30 am but 3 more inches were expected later in the day. We were sure we would get water in the house, so needed to move quickly to see how much we could get moved to higher locations.

We put all of the Tugendhat chairs on top of the bathroom counters, tied the curtains which wrap the house into garbage bags and lifted them up about 2 feet off the floor. We decided (with no scientific information) that we would try to raise everything up at least 2 feet. There are several very heavy pieces of furniture (a desk, dining table, custom bed) and we raised those onto the milk crates with wood planks for support. We removed the demountable Primavera panels in the living room, wrapped them in blankets someone had in their car and placed them on top of the wardrobe. By 1 pm we felt we had elevated everything as much as we could. We had originally, before we actually experienced this, thought we could remove the furniture and take it to higher ground. But once there we realized that the furniture was too heavy and it would be far too dangerous to try to put the furniture into a row boat - dangerous for us and dangerous for the pieces.

Several of David's colleagues had come down from Chicago to lend support. We piled back into the row boat, which by now had it's motor working thanks to Whitney's boyfriend, and retreated to higher ground (having turned off the electricity to the house as well). Exhausted and covered in mud and mosquito bites, we went to lunch (more Italian!) and shared our hopes that the house and its furnishings would survive. Whitney kept calling friends to get the latest weather update. At 2 pm, the huge thunder clouds suddenly dissipated without warning and it appeared that all we had gone through was probably just a drill.

Whitney, David and I drove back to the house around 4. As the sun started to shine on the house, we noted that the water hadn't risen any higher. David headed back to Chicago and Whitney, her daughter and I went back in the boat to photograph all sides of the house. Throughout the day, various colleagues of mine from Washington had been calling and emailing, reminding me to take photos while they tried to locate reporters around the country to cover the story. After our last row around the house, Whitney took her daughter to a football game and I found a cafe with free wi-fi. At 5 pm I downloaded all my photos and started sending them to our VP of Communications. By 5:30 I had been interviewed by the New York Times and an AP reporter. The following day I would discover that our story opened up an article on the flooding in the Midwest that was posted on nearly every online newspaper.
Saturday, August 25th, 2007
Saturday morning found us back at Farnsworth House with no further rains the night before. We took the boat out again and checked the house, emptied out the melting ice in the freezer, took more photos and then motored around the site to see how the trees and landscape had fared. There were many trees and branches floating in the water, fish swimming where only bushes and flowers should be and the pedestrian bridge from the Visitor Center was completely submerged. Still, we sighed happily that no water had breached the doors into the house. Whitney and I finished our day by writing down all we could think of that would be important for future disasters. And I drove back to Midway, happy to be going home and happier still that our precious resource had been saved - at least this time!!

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