CHICAGO — Floodwaters are threatening the Farnsworth House, a masterpiece of modern architecture built in a flood plain along the Fox River.
Photographs provided Tuesday by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which owns and operates the house, show the floodwaters rising to near the top of the stilt-like steel columns that lift the house above the ground.
The floodwaters have completely covered the house's lower terrace, but have begun to recede, the Trust said in a statement to the Chicago Tribune. Yet with severe storms forecast for next week "we aren't 'out of the woods' yet, the house's executive director, Scott Mehaffey, wrote in an email.
"Just hoping the water stays below floor level!" he added.
Located in far southwest suburban Plano, about 60 miles from Chicago's Loop, the Farnsworth House was designed by architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe as a weekend home for Dr. Edith Farnsworth, a Chicago kidney doctor.
Completed in 1951, the elegant, single-room house of steel and glass has been inundated with floodwaters before.
The worst flood occurred In 1996, when the raging Fox River cracked through the house's huge plate-glass windows and 5 feet of water roared in.
The water flipped a desk upside down, turned a wardrobe on its face, lifted a bed at a 30-degree angle against a wall, and drenched a Moroccan wool carpet in mud. It also carried valuable works of art out the broken window and dumped them in the brown waters of the Fox River.
The heavy rains that have hit the Chicago area in the last few days, flooding home basements as well as the Chicago Riverwalk, are threatening the house, making it resemble a beleaguered house boat.
When Mies designed the house in the late 1940s, he is said to have examined the river's high water mark on a nearby bridge.
Accordingly, the architect raised the Farnsworth House above ground — partly to prevent flooding, but also to make the house appear floating, even ethereal.
Since then, Mies' defenders have said, suburban development upriver has made thousands acres of land in the Fox River's watershed less permeable, increasing the volume of water that flows into the Fox River and raising the risk of flooding.
The flooding "isn't in direct response to the rain but rather is a delayed reaction to the watershed draining into the river," Mehaffey wrote Tuesday.
Local staff are monitoring the house and will provide updates later Tuesday and on Wednesday, he added.
Thousands of people have visited it since the trust joined with local preservationists to buy the house for more than $7.5 million at a tension-filled 2003 New York auction, then opened the house for tours.
In 2014, the trust proposed putting hydraulic jacks below the house to raise it out of danger from floodwaters.
But preservationists objected, saying lifting the house would create an undignified "Jack-in-the-Box" effect. They also complained that the plan would separate the house's upper portion, which would have been lifted by the jacks, from its lower terrace, which would have remained in place.
In response, the trust called for the hydraulic jacks to be placed beneath the entire house, which would have to be moved and then returned to its original site when construction of the jacks was complete. Yet the plan has not moved forward.
The threat to the house comes shortly after the publication of a book about the contentious relationship between Mies and his client, which centered on cost overruns and led to a court fight won by the architect.
In the book, "Broken Glass," author Alex Beam describes a warning issued to Mies by Karl Freund, a local cabinetmaker who became one of the main contractors of the house.
"I wouldn't build here. You'll get flooded," Freund is said to have told Mies as they walked the site.
According to the book, Mies replied, "we can combat that. It's easy. You have a canoe there, and if it floods, you take the canoe to the house. It isn't much. It's an adventure, but that belongs to life."