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Landmark Mies House Goes to Preservationists

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Landmark Mies House Goes to Preservationists



The Farnsworth House sold at Sotheby's on Friday for $7.5 million.

Published: December 13, 2003

In just seven minutes of intense telephone bidding, preservationists won the battle yesterday for Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's legendary Farnsworth House, paying $7.5 million at a Sotheby's auction in New York. They competed against only one other telephone bidder, who was not identified.

The National Trust, which will operate the house along with the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois, plan to open it to the public as a museum sometime this spring.

The sale lays to rest months of fear that the 1951 steel-and-glass house in Plano, Ill., about 60 miles southwest of Chicago, would be sold to a developer and moved from its site. Preservationists said moving the house, set on 58 acres of prairie and long considered a landmark of domestic Modernist architecture, would destroy the context for which Mies had designed it. They also worried that a move might destroy the house itself.

"We are pleased not to have the prospect of driving to another state to see the Farnsworth House," David Bahlman, president of the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois, said at Sotheby's after the sale. "It will be taken care of and forever open to the public."

Accompanying Mr. Bahlman was Richard Moe, president of the National Trust. "This is a very happy day for us," Mr. Moe said. "It has been a long, arduous fight."

In October the National Trust and the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois announced a joint campaign to save the house. Each put up $1 million in seed money, and over the months, Mr. Bahlman said, about 350 people contributed funds, some as little as a few dollars, others significantly more.

"We had about 30 people who gave over $250,000," Mr. Bahlman said. "A few were architects, some were the usual Chicago philanthropists and others were newcomers. Yesterday a man we didn't know called, offering to give $250,000. By the time the phone call was over, he had given $750,000."

That the National Trust was able to raise the money surprised the audience of architecture lovers milling around Sotheby's York Avenue headquarters yesterday. Earlier this week the trust said it had raised only $3.5 million, $1 million short of Sotheby's low estimate. (The high estimate was $6 million.)

Rumors of other interested buyers had been circulating for months. They included Lawrence J. Ellison, chief executive of the Oracle Corporation in Redwood Shores, Calif.

The house was sold by Lord Palumbo, a British arts patron and former chairman of the Arts Council of Great Britain. He bought it in 1968 from Edith Farnsworth, a prominent Chicago doctor who had commissioned Mies to design it for her as a weekend retreat.

When Sotheby's announced the sale in October, Lord Palumbo said health problems had persuaded him to sell the house.

While Lord Palumbo did not attend yesterday's auction, he was in New York keeping close watch over the proceedings. "I think the National Trust is absolutely the right body to acquire it," he said in a telephone interview after the sale. "It will secure its legacy for all time. That was always my intention. The main thing is it will remain where it is."

Two years ago Lord Palumbo struck a deal with the State of Illinois, which agreed to buy the house for $7 million and open it to the public. But state officials withdrew from the deal early this year, saying $7 million was too much to spend when Illinois was facing a budget crisis.

When Sotheby's agreed to sell the property, it gave interested buyers until Dec. 5 to pay $250 for what it called a bidder's package, which included a registration form with enough financial information to assure both the seller and the auction house that the prospective buyer could pay for the house.

Bidders were also required to give the auction house a check made out to Sotheby's International Realty for $250,000, which was to be held in escrow, pending the outcome of the sale.

As soon as Bill Rupprecht, Sotheby's chief executive, took the winning bid over the telephone, Mr. Moe, who was watching the auction from a box above the saleroom, was spirited away by Sotheby's officials to provide a "hammer deposit" of another $250,000.

The $7.5 million price includes Sotheby's buyer's premium: 19.5 percent of the first $100,000 and 12 percent of the rest.

The 2,233-square-foot house shares a place in architectural history with Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater in Bear Run, Pa.; Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer's Gropius House in Lincoln, Mass.; and Philip Johnson's Glass House in New Canaan, Conn., which the National Trust also owns and operates.

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1951? that house looks 60's but I kinda think it's good to save it but then again i don't like many of the 50's 60's 70's designed buidlings

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I like the house myself, but I tend to like the 1950s modern houses. Midcentury modern has always appealed to me. The design of the Farnsworth house was quite innovative for its time. I certainly wouldn't pay $7.5 million for it though!

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