Sixteen Sites to See
By Magazine Editors | From Preservation | November/December 2010
They include grand estates, presidential homes, modern masterpieces, and the oldest continuously inhabited settlement in the country. Together, the 29 National Trust Historic Sites tell the story of our land through a combination of architecture, landscape, and momentous events. They speak of rich and poor, of black, white, Hispanic, and Native Americans. And they stand as tributes to the people who restored them so that future generations can learn about the past to better understand the present. In 1951, the National Trust began operating Woodlawn, its first historic site. In the years since, the Trust's collection has grown to include dozens more. Turn the page and explore 16 of these sites (we'll feature the remaining 13 next year). We hope you'll be inspired, entertained, informed, and most of all, we hope that you'll visit these important places soon.
Acoma Sky City • Drayton Hall • African Meeting House & Abiel Smith School • Oatlands • Shadows-on-the-Teche • Lower East Side Tenement Museum • Villa Finale • Brucemore • Hotel de Paris • Chesterwood • Frederick C. Robie House • Kykuit • Woodrow Wilson House • Filoli • Philip Johnson Glass House • Farnsworth House
Acoma Sky City
Acoma, N.M. • 1150 A.D.
By Sudip Bose
Only after 11 of the loneliest miles I've ever driven—along a two-lane desert highway that cuts like a spear point through a terrain of piñon and juniper trees—does the mesa finally appear. It rises in the distance with a certain muscular authority, its sheer walls seemingly chiseled by some unfathomable godly force. It looms there on the horizon, and I am impelled toward it, but as I near, a feeling of awe gives way to incredulity: I can't quite believe that so many adobe dwellings exist atop the sandstone bluff, or that a group of people could once have ascended to such heights to make a living in so stark and isolated a place. But that is precisely what the Pueblo Indians known as the Acoma did more than 850 years ago in founding their city in the sky.
The sun is hard on this Sunday morning, the crystalline light diffuse across the vast, cloudless sky. I park in front of the Sky City Cultural Center and join 20 other visitors for the bus ride up to the summit, 360 feet above the valley floor. Visitors here cannot walk around unattended. This is sacred ground. But it is also a place where people live—no other site in the United States has been continuously inhabited for a longer time. The tribal elders still make their home here year-round, and though many other residents have dispersed to surrounding towns, their family houses remain, and they return on feast days and for other celebrations. For a leisurely hour and a half, then, we are in the hands of an Acoma guide who leads us along the rocky footpaths that wind among the plazas and hundreds of adobe houses.
They came from the north, the Acoma did, from Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde, settling eventually on this mesa about 70 miles west of present-day Albuquerque. Life changed dramatically when the Spaniards arrived in the 16th century, descending upon a land of sacred monoliths and cliffs in search of gold, flashing their steel, exerting their might, and shedding much blood. To survive, the Acoma had to adapt. And their belief system—a mixture of ancestral and Catholic influences—suggests how this process of assimilation worked, how aspects of colonial culture were combined with the old ways.
No structure on the mesa better embodies this cultural amalgamation than the wondrous San Esteban del Rey Mission. Beyond the massive carved doors, it is cool and dark. We stand on the bare earth floor and gaze up at the soaring ceiling, where birds flit about the ponderosa beams. The mission, which reflects both Pueblo and Spanish influences, was hardly a labor of love. For more than a decade, beginning in 1629, the men, women, and children of the Acoma Pueblo were forced to haul hundreds of tons of earth and rock to the top of the mesa from the valley below. Block by block, they erected a masterpiece that would later influence much architecture in the Southwest.
We head outside, gazing back at the facade, then wander past the cemetery, the ceremonial chambers, a large cistern, the ovens used for baking bread, a lone cottonwood tree. Vendors are selling pottery and food. The others in my group stop to do some shopping, but I am drawn into solitary repose. There is an undeniable serenity here, a feeling of peace, the kind that settles upon a place only after years of hardship and struggle, a peace that does not come easily but permeates everything once it does. I want to linger, but I am conscious also of being an outsider.
One tourist in our group, an elderly gentleman wearing a cowboy hat and jeans, begins peppering our guide with questions. The guide is patient with him. He answers every query. But when the man mentions Tony Hillerman's Native American-themed detective novels, our guide turns to him and says, quietly, without a trace of malice or condescension: "Those are fictions."
The message is clear. This is a land of indigenous stories and storytellers. The creation tales, the tales of the great migration southward from Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde, passed down over many centuries in a language still spoken today, preserved by tribal elders—these are the narratives that inform, that define, this culture. They instruct, they sustain. They are the truth. Anything else is mere fiction.
Standing before a sheer drop, I see a path winding around a large, red outcropping of rock. Once, our guide tells us, trails such as this were his playground. He sprinted along them, down the mesa, across the valley floor, and up into the neighboring hills, in pursuit of wild turkey and other game. I look down and see a little boy now scrambling along this trail, darting with great confidence and agility. He is an extension of this land, feet cleaving to sand and rock, limbs like a roadrunner's. He remains in my sight for only a few seconds. He races around the bend, and vanishes.
• • •
Charleston, S.C. • 1742
By Arnold Berke
The real entrance to Drayton Hall starts long before you reach the front gate. Drive up the historic Ashley River Road from Charleston under a canopy of live oaks that filter out the sun and the 21st century, and take in the sights, sounds, and smells of the Old South. The mood intensifies along the wooded lane into the grounds, as the mansion emerges from the shadows.
The story of Drayton Hall begins with John Drayton, who started building the house in 1738 as the centerpiece of a rice plantation, and runs through centuries of peace and prosperity—as well as slavery and war. The rooms are intentionally empty. When the National Trust bought Drayton Hall in 1974, a conscious decision was made not to fill it with period furnishings and costumed staff. The house had survived remarkably intact, untouched even by wiring, plumbing, heating, or air conditioning. Why fiddle with that?
Seeing the house uncluttered allows you to understand what makes Drayton Hall America's finest example of the Georgian-Palladian style. The symmetrical facade and floor plan, noble form, and fine detailing were inspired by the Italian Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio. And one can easily place the house in a long line of architectural masterpieces, from the Classical buildings of ancient Rome to the country houses of Britain and their colonial progeny.
Visitors can circle round, taking it all in, then enter as the Draytons did, up the double stairs and into rooms rich with hand-carved paneling and elegant plasterwork. The names of the rooms are appropriately patrician: the Great Hall, Withdrawing Room, Stair Hall, Upper Great Hall. Few who come, says Drayton Hall Director George W. McDaniel, miss the furniture or polished restoration: "People say, ‘Gosh, without them, I'm able to experience the place in a more personal way.'" They feel closer to history this way, as if they are wandering through a house newly built.
To know Drayton Hall fully, you must know its human history—race, family, and culture. Slaves and their descendants lived here from the start, their labor essential to the success of the Drayton enterprise, and Drayton Hall makes a point of conveying that reality, interpreting slavery from its origins through Emancipation, while exploring African American life at the plantation in the 20th century. "It's all part of history, my history, and I don't want to erase any of that," says Catherine Braxton, whose great-grandmother, according to stories passed down through the family, was a house slave and ran the kitchen for the main house. "The slaves were right there with the family."
The Draytons lived at the plantation for seven generations. So did seven generations of the African American Bowens family. Among the last was Richmond Bowens (1908-1998), who was born on the estate and lived and worked there, off and on, for more than 50 years. Bowens was a fount of knowledge about the buildings, land, and people and, says Braxton, "very passionate about his life at Drayton."
Bowens is buried in the plantation's African American cemetery, which dates to the 1790s and is one of America's oldest still in use. In October, an arch was dedicated there. Atop reads a quote from Bowens: "Leave 'em rest."
"People visit Drayton Hall," says George McDaniel, "to enjoy a rare encounter with history, one that both educates and touches them personally." For him and all the staff, the mansion is a house stabilized and preserved—not restored, not refurbished, not redone.
• • •
African Meeting House & Abiel Smith School
Boston • 1806 & 1834
By Jessie Despard
The street vendor was only trying to be helpful when he gestured emphatically, telling me that the easiest way to get to the African Meeting House would be to catch a cab. But the taxi ended up skirting Boston Common, snaking around the State House, going up the narrow lanes of Beacon Hill and down again, past elegant Federal townhouses, and finally over a steep hill. Only later did I realize that a short walk across the Common would have sufficed.
Home of the oldest extant black church in America, the 1806 African Meeting House, a brick building with four enormous arched windows, was constructed almost entirely by free black artisans. Today it sits surrounded by turn-of-the-last-century brick structures and clapboard houses from the 1830s.
Boston's black community was initially concentrated near the waterfront, in what is now the city's North End. But by the early 19th century, with the population expanding, some black residents started moving up the north slope of Beacon Hill. The need for a gathering spot, cultural hub, and place to worship became increasingly pressing. Thus the erection of the Meeting House. The First African Baptist Church, which owned the building, had its sanctuary on the upper floors. "After so many years of being treated poorly, the black community got together and raised more than $7,000 to build this majestic building," said Diane Parcon, director of capital improvements for the Museum of African American History, which owns and operates both the Meeting House and the adjacent Abiel Smith School.
The Meeting House provided needed space for community meetings and lectures and even served as a recruiting station for the 54th Regiment during the Civil War. "This was an active community," Parcon told me, "and they were so forward thinking. We found documents on some of the lectures they had—health care, finance. They really got into the topics of the day."
The ground floor was divided into a school for black children—the nation's first—and a small apartment initially intended for the church's pastor, but later occupied by caterer Domingo Williams. "He was known all over, by blacks and whites," Parcon said. "Everyone wanted his services." During a recent archaeological excavation, fragments of fine china and serving dishes were found in the yard. In 1835, students moved next door into the newly erected Abiel Smith School (which today houses museum exhibits).
The day I visited, the Meeting House was being readied for the final phase of a restoration. The first floor was covered with planks and construction material, as an elevator to the second floor was about to be built. We made our way up a steep staircase to see the sanctuary and entered a large, open room flooded with sunlight. "Look at this architecture," Parcon said, pointing to the back wall. Exposed lathing revealed a gentle curve, which reminded me of the hull of a boat—not surprising since some of the builders had most likely been shipwrights. It gave the room a surprisingly modern feel. "It took highly skilled craftsmen to curve a wall like this," Parcon said.
Over the years, the interior of the Meeting House underwent numerous changes. And when the black community migrated to other parts of the city (primarily the South End), the church became a synagogue. The current restoration will take the interior back to the 1850s (the height of Abolitionism), retaining the simple elegance of this significant site, a place where a community gathered to learn and pray, and left its mark on a storied, venerable city.
• • •
Leesburg, Va. • c. 1809
By Margaret Foster
I'd been to Oatlands a decade ago, on a date with the boyfriend who became my husband. We wanted to see the sheepdog trials, and on a windy day we joined hundreds of spectators on the grounds of the estate to watch champion border collies herding sheep along a challenging, obstacle-filled course. We never made it inside the mansion that day, but on a steamy Sunday a few months ago, I finally returned to Oatlands to tour the house (and taste some wine). I turned off a country road, bought a ticket in the gift shop (a restored carriage house), and sprinted up the gravel path for the last tour of the day.
Liz Wall, a cheery tour guide, opened the front door and led me through the many rooms, recounting stories about the two very different families that inhabited this Greek Revival mansion, completed around 1809. First she pointed out a painting of George Carter, the grain farmer who built the house—an unsavory figure who kept 128 slaves at Oatlands (many of whom escaped). "My habits, like most men's," Carter once wrote, "are vicious and corrupt."
Wall let me read this quote from her notes, and she was forthcoming about this sordid aspect of Oatlands' past. But I wanted to know more, and interpretive material on slavery at the mansion is limited to just one brochure about the Underground Railroad. It is hoped that this narrative will expand once evidence from an archaeological dig is gathered and analyzed. Excavators think that the site of the former barn, built c. 1821, might yield traces of the slave quarters. "Paramount to Oatlands' success," says David Boyce, the site's former executive director, "was its African American workforce—its slaves. And an integral part of interpreting the Carter barn and its agricultural past will be information regarding the slaves."
Just after the Civil War, the financially troubled Carters had to take in boarders before finally moving out. And it was during the early 20th century that Edith Eustis first saw the property. One glimpse of the garden, then in a state of ruin, was enough to inspire her and her husband, William Eustis, to buy the estate. Edith Eustis was a regal figure, judging by another painting Liz Wall pointed out—it depicts Eustis in a gray silk dress. She carefully restored both house and grounds, later inviting the likes of Franklin D. Roosevelt and George C. Marshall to stay as guests. In 1964, Eustis' daughters, Anne Emmett and Margaret Finley (who married the founding chairman of the board of the National Trust in the parlor of the house), gave Oatlands to the Trust, along with an easement to protect several hundred acres of surrounding land.
Out in the garden, sommelier Mary Watson-DeLauder was leading a wine tasting, and I slipped into the crowd of about 16 guests, many of them first-time visitors. This was Oatlands' second wine tasting; afternoon teas are held here regularly, as are book signings and weddings.
After a few too many sips of Napa Cabernet Sauvignon, I wandered away from the chatty group of 50-somethings toward the 1810 greenhouse, built with bricks fired by George Carter's slaves. Aside from the occasional airplane (Dulles Airport is nearby) and the crescendo of summer cicadas, all was silent. In one of her letters, Edith Eustis wrote of the "secrets" of Oatlands' garden. "People walked in its alley and paths, by the shade of its walls, made love under the shadows of its trees, when America was very young," she wrote. "Those walls and terraces have known of gay days and sad, of romance and griefs; and if spirits revisit their old haunts on earth, many may flit about on moonlit nights along the bowling green, or by the vault, or the wisteria arbor near the south gate."
In the shade of a Japanese maple, I glimpsed a sign of the new generation at Oatlands: In the white dust of a greenhouse window, graffiti spelled out the names of sweethearts who, I imagined, could have slipped away from some raucous wedding party to the privacy of this 200-year-old garden house. Wherever you are, Brian and Tamala, I think Edith Eustis would have welcomed you.
• • •
New Iberia, La. • 1834
By Elizabeth McNamara
I awaken this morning to the sound of rain pelting the streets of New Iberia. By the time I leave my hotel and get into my car, some of the streets remain flooded, but the thunderclouds have rolled eastward toward New Orleans, leaving the skies sketched with cirrus clouds and the summer air dense.
In the 1830s, sugarcane planter David Weeks built Shadows-on-the-Teche, a three-story brick plantation house named for its shady location off the Bayou Teche. Like many other Anglo Americans, Weeks and his wife, Mary, descended upon bayou country following the 1803 Louisiana Purchase with the intention of producing sugar. Their residence features wide white columns, an outdoor staircase, open balconies, and long windows flanked by louvered shutters—an expression that was both grand and practical, taking advantage of the breezes in this subtropical climate.
Inside the old house, 19th-century heart-pine floors still gleam. And because the Weeks family owned the property until 1958, 80 percent of the furnishings and objects inside, such as the canopied bed and children's playthings, are original. The Weekses were also meticulous record keepers, leaving behind thousands of documents—personal correspondence, business letters, receipts, invoices—all chronicling life at an antebellum Southern plantation.
Slaves were integral to the Weeks' prosperity; as many as 42 toiled at Shadows-on-the-Teche before the Civil War and an additional 200 lived and worked on the sugar plantation the family owned at Grand Cote (present-day Weeks Island). Union soldiers occupied the house and grounds during an encampment that lasted from November 1863 through early January 1864. The house itself was not harmed much during the war, though the sugar industry plummeted soon afterward, and many years would pass before the region thrived once again.
I continue through the house, seeing the Weeks' dining room, still furnished with French china, and the pantry, where I can imagine Charlotte, the Weeks' kitchen slave, wearing an apron stiff as armor. That I'm seeing these details at all is due to William Weeks Hall, great-grandson of Mary and David Weeks and the last member of the family to inhabit the Shadows. During William's time, buildings began to encroach upon the property. It was he who saw the value of preserving this ancestral home in the face of development. He hired New Orleans architect Richard Koch to restore the house, and he maintained the gardens and erected the bamboo fence that rings the site. Historic preservation was in its infancy in 1958, when Weeks Hall bequeathed the Shadows to the National Trust, conscious of the importance of memorializing the grand, historic plantation house in a region fast losing its character.
Afterward, I wander into the back yard, which slopes to the brackish waters of the bayou. I find a bench and sit. At this historic site, structure and landscape come together to describe a past at once glorious and tarnished, but always powerful and moving. I could stay here all afternoon.
• • •
Lower East Side Tenement Museum
New York City • 1863
By Sudip Bose
They came from Ireland, Italy, Germany, and beyond—7,000 immigrants between 1863 and 1935—to this five-story brick walkup at 97 Orchard St., on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Imagine for a moment what it must have been like for the Gumpertzes, Rogarshevskys, Confinos, and Baldizzis to start here anew, in a tenement in New York City.
Imagine entering the narrow hallway, even on a bright afternoon, and being plunged at once in darkness. You feel your way, bumping into your equally blind neighbors while ascending the staircase to a 350-square-foot apartment. You light the kerosene lamp and fire up the cast-iron stove. If you haven't remembered your water for the day's cooking, you'll have to walk back downstairs and fill a basin at the outdoor pump. If this is pre-1901, there's no toilet, and you'll have to use the outhouse. Your kids swarm about the absurdly small space where you cook and eat your food, wash clothes, store what possessions can fit onto a shelf or two. You worry about vermin and disease. And you might wonder, on the worst, most trying days: Was it really so bad in Ireland, Italy, Germany, and beyond?
But of course, the tenement was also a place of refuge from the teeming, unfriendly streets outside. It stood for hope. It was, in short, a home.
One day, about 20 years ago, workers were busy restoring 97 Orchard, in anticipation of turning it into a museum, when a very curious Josephine Baldizzi walked by. She had lived in one of the apartments as a girl, from 1928 to 1935, and she had considerable insight into what life was like here for her Sicilian family during the painful Depression years. When the Lower East Side Tenement Museum opened in 1988, officials made sure to record Baldizzi's oral history. And at the end of one of the museum tours currently offered to visitors, a guide plays an excerpt from that recording.
There is a joyous timbre in Baldizzi's voice as she recalls sitting at the kitchen table, playing checkers and solving riddles with her father, Adolfo, while her mother, Rosaria, went about the apartment, starching clothes, listening to Italian music on the radio, preparing sandwiches of buttered rolls, fried eggs, and ketchup. It is a portrait of happiness, of domestic bliss. But when I heard the recording, I couldn't help focusing on something else.
It was when Baldizzi recalled how her mother spent so much time crying, knowing full well that she'd never be going home again. My own parents emigrated from India in the late 1960s, and I remember those days when my mother received letters from her parents and sister in Calcutta. Long after she had read and reread those letters, my mother would cling to the blue aerogrammmes, as if by touching them, grasping them, she could retain a connection to the world she'd left behind. I may not have understood much as a small boy, but I knew this: The lure of the New World may be magnetic, its promises great, but one's ties to the Old World never really disappear.
• • •
San Antonio, Texas • 1876
By Elizabeth McNamara
It's mid-June on King William Street. The shade of sturdy oak trees provides relief from the oppressive Texas heat, and from behind the wrought-iron gates of the three-story Italianate house comes the sweet smell of sawdust. I pass two stone lions and walk up to the front stoop as the screeching sound of machinery reaches a feverish crescendo. Villa Finale is in the middle of a $1 million-plus, top-to-bottom restoration, and I am getting a behind-the-scenes peek.
A hardware merchant named Russell C. Norton built this place in 1876 as a family residence with one story and four rooms. Norton added a second floor in 1879, but financial trouble soon forced him into foreclosure. Edwin Polk, a local cattleman, bought the property and added a rear wing and third-story tower, but he was forced to sell in 1895. Ten more owners came and went before Walter Mathis arrived in the late 1960s, at the urging of a friend who happened to be a preservation architect. By that time, King William Street and the surrounding neighborhood—once the home of cattle barons, merchants, and businessmen—had succumbed to blight.
Mathis, a World War II veteran who made his living as an investment banker, looked beyond the neglect, admiring the house's grandeur and proximity to the San Antonio River. He knew at once that he wanted to spend his final days here—hence his name for the house: Villa Finale. He bought the manor in 1967 and spent two years restoring it. His preservation work extended beyond the front gates of his house, however. In the decade that followed, Mathis purchased 14 nearby houses, first restoring them and later selling them to preservation-minded buyers. As a result, the King William National Historic District was born and listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Before Mathis' death at the age of 86 in December 2005, he donated Villa Finale to the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
In the entry hallway, the chandeliers are wrapped with plastic. The air is thick with dust that rises to the high ceilings. Aside from a few picture hooks and the gray outlines where frames once hung, the space is empty. I turn the corner and nearly bump into a construction worker in a cowboy hat reinstalling one of the parlor's floor-to-ceiling windows. Rounding another corner, I find a large collection of Mathis' furniture assembled in a single room: a golden statuette of a mare, a blue china lamp resting atop an overturned end table, which in turn sits on a tufted Louis XVI armchair upholstered in a regal red-and-gold design. Down the hall is Mathis' large kitchen, its long cupboards painted blue, its walls lined with copper pots hanging on hooks. "I could happily cook here," I say to myself, thinking of my cramped apartment kitchenette.
I go to the back of the house, and the mechanical screams flare up again. The activity outside is just as busy as the crowded interiors, with workers hunched over benches, operating power tools, hammering, sanding, painting. I negotiate a maze of orange electrical cords on the back porch and walk toward the river. As the noise of activity dies away, I reach the large oak under which Walter Mathis' ashes are interred. Mathis never married. So it's fitting that he rests in this quiet spot, within sight of his one great love: the villa he saved.
Correction: In the print magazine, we refer to Norton as a German immigrant. Norton was not from Germany. We regret the error.
• • •
Cedar Rapids, Iowa • 1886
By Gwendolyn Purdom
You might be surprised to find this 1886 Queen Anne mansion amid the cornfields and grain mills of eastern Iowa. But you'll be even more surprised when you step inside. That's where the real story of Brucemore lies, in all its unexpected quirkiness, a tale of dynamic personalities and old-fashioned American eccentricity. There's a pet lion involved, too.
Built for a prominent meatpacking family, the estate has always been home to local gentry. In 1906, businessman George Bruce Douglas (heir to the Quaker Oats fortune) acquired the 15,000-square-foot mansion and moved his wife and three daughters in. The Douglases added a carriage house, book bindery, squash court, servants' duplex, greenhouse, guest cottage, and swimming pool, as well as tennis courts, gardens, and additional acreage.
To say that the Douglas daughters enjoyed a privileged upbringing would be an understatement. The girls had a performance stage in the attic, a heated playhouse with running water, an island to which they canoed, and a place to roller skate on the second-floor landing. When the youngest daughter, Barbara, demonstrated a talent for music, the Douglases rebuilt the third-floor staircase and bedroom in 1929 to accommodate 678 pipes of a Skinner player organ. When Barbara asked for a swimming pool, family friend (and American Gothic artist) Grant Wood created a plaster mural in her second-floor sleeping porch instead. (Barbara eventually got her pool as well.)
In 1937, eldest daughter, Margaret, and her husband, Howard Hall, inherited the property, bringing their fun-loving, celebrity-hobnobbing lifestyle with them. Some of the site's most surprising artifacts come from the Halls' residency—for example, the video footage Howard captured on the set of Gone With the Wind and the pet cemetery gravestones memorializing the couple's many German shepherds and Howard's pet lion, Leo.
Hidden in the basement are the most unexpected rooms of all. Not until Brucemore was bequeathed to the National Trust for Historic Preservation upon Margaret's death in 1981 did the public get a look at Howard's delightfully tacky "man cave." The main room is decked out in tongue-in-cheek island decor, from the tin ceiling to the map of Tahiti set into the vinyl floor to the bamboo armchairs to the statuettes of lei-clad hula girls. When guests gathered, a sprinkler imitated the rushing patter of tropical falls. In another room, Howard installed a log-covered "Grizzly Bar" (salvaged from an abandoned hotel), a roulette table, and a player piano. The Halls, it seems, knew how to have a good time.
Today, Brucemore serves as a cultural and arts center for Cedar Rapids, in accordance with Margaret Hall's stipulations. On the night of our visit, young families with blankets and picnic baskets crowded the lawn for the annual Outdoor Children's Theatre performance. Each August, two musical events, Bluesmore and Cabaret in the Courtyard, attract thousands of festival-goers. And at Christmas time, the pipe organ plays carols.
Brucemore was never home to a president (though Herbert Hoover made a campaign stop here in 1928 and spent a night at the house a few decades later). No chapters were reserved in encyclopedias for the events that took place on its grounds. But every quirky detail here tells a compelling story—an Iowan story, to be sure, but an American story above all.
• • •
Hotel de Paris
Georgetown, Colo. • c. 1890
By Gwendolyn Purdom
It was the glint of silver that lured the prospectors to Georgetown in the second half of the 19th century, transforming a sleepy western settlement into a boomtown. At the center of the bustling "Silver Queen of the Rockies" (which counted 5,000 residents in 1877) stood the Hotel de Paris, a grand structure housing a glamorous hotel and restaurant.
Frenchman Louis Dupuy arrived in 1870, six years after the town's founding, having abandoned work as a journalist to pursue life as a miner. A bad mining accident, however, injured him, forcing him to rethink his plans. In 1875, he rented a clapboard box on Sixth Street, converted it into the Hotel de Paris, and expanded the building over the next 15 years. Dupuy "refitted and refurnished the house in elegant style," reported the Colorado Miner, "and proposes to keep a first class Hotel-Restaurant … Oysters, game, and all the delicacies of the season will be kept … A fine suite of furnished rooms will give regular boarders the opportunity of having a home in the building."
Affluent businessmen and salesmen were Dupuy's usual guests; an average miner made about $3 a day, and a room at the hotel was $4 a night. And with Georgetown at the end of a railroad line, the hotel often doubled as a kind of showroom for traveling salesmen's wares. Upon Dupuy's death in 1900, the property changed hands several times until the National Society of the Colonial Dames of America in the State of Colorado took over the hotel in 1954 to run it as a nonprofit museum.
Today, the Hotel de Paris retains quite a bit of its Victorian-era allure. Nearly all the furnishings, decorations, and artwork are original. The opulent dining room still features a fountain topped with a golden cherub riding a goose—according to lore, dinner guests could pick out the trout they wanted for dinner from among the fish swimming in the water. About 200 of the original 700 Haviland china pieces remain. And on the ceiling, what appears to be intricate molding and plasterwork is actually ordinary rope Dupuy painted gold and glued up, a clue to his resourcefulness.
The Hotel de Paris is just one of many 19th-century buildings in Georgetown. And it's the only National Trust Historic Site devoted to the mining industry. It gives visitors a glimpse of what a boomtown was like in the Victorian period—though the past conjured up here is a bit different from the typical assortment of shoot-'em-ups, saloons, and bordellos. The Hotel de Paris reminds visitors of a time when life in the rustic American West was first imbued with a touch of European refinement.
• • •
Stockbridge, Mass. • 1900
By Lauren Walser
To experience Chesterwood, you have to get there first. And for me, that was no small feat, since I was armed with nothing more than scribbled notes on the back of an envelope and a cell phone GPS to guide the way—and the one thing you won't find in certain parts of the Berkshires is reliable cell phone reception. I spent most of my drive along the narrow roads of western Massachusetts convinced that I was lost. But once I turned into the gravel drive, I understood why the American sculptor Daniel Chester French built a summer home and studio on this sprawling, wooded property—and why so many other artists found inspiration here as well. The site is ravishing.
I visited Chesterwood on a balmy summer day. After a quick trip to the Barn Gallery—a rustic building housing the ticket office, gift shop, and museum—I joined a guided tour and received a crash course on French's life.
Best known for his sculpture of Abraham Lincoln inside the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., but credited with hundreds of other works of art, French purchased 122 acres of land in the Berkshires in 1896 to create an escape from his hectic life in Manhattan. He had his studio up and running just two years later, before the main residence—a ramshackle house at the time of purchase—was turned into the grand Colonial Revival-Italianate residence one sees today. French and his family spent summers here for more than three decades, tending to an expansive vegetable garden and a few cows while enjoying the bucolic surroundings.
First stop on my tour: the house—a cross between a rural New England residence and an Italian villa. (French honed his craft in Italy as a young artist and returned to the United States enamored of Italian architecture and culture.) Paintings by his artist friends line the main corridor inside, set against the backdrop of the original wallpaper, still in mint condition. The rooms off the hallway were roped off, so we took turns poking our heads into each room to catch a glimpse of artifacts and furnishings.
The home, though beautiful, was just a prelude to the main attraction: French's studio, a tall, stately structure located nearby. The south side of the studio features a large wraparound porch (the sculptor called it his piazza) that frames a view of an expansive green field and the hills beyond. A century ago, we might have heard French chipping away at his marble creations, but on this day, the only noises came from birds flying overhead and a distant lawnmower.
Light from the north-facing windows illuminates French's marble, clay, and bronze pieces: large figural works, small models, and reliefs depicting horses, angels, heads, hands, and feet. An exquisite, tiny plaster model of French's Lincoln statue was propped next to a much larger, six-and-a-half-foot model, making for a striking contrast and suggesting how French created his large-scale monuments.
I walked out the north door of the studio and found myself in the sculptor's luscious Italian-style garden, where a long line of hydrangeas and peonies formed an axis from the studio to the woods. There, I strolled along the Woodland Walk, a peaceful trail designed by French that winds through the forest, offering spectacular views of the surrounding mountains.
French was an important arts advocate as well as an artist, and his spirit is very much alive at Chesterwood. For more than 30 years, the estate has hosted an annual contemporary sculpture exhibition, and also offers an artist-in-residence program. For a small fee, artists can purchase a pass to draw, paint, and photograph the landscape during the summer months. Maybe it's the combination of great art and this gorgeous pastoral setting, but the feeling of exhilaration I got from Chesterwood lingered long after I left. Seeing the laboratory where French created so many important pieces of art was as humbling as it was inspiring, and I was more than a little awestruck. Indeed, as I left the site (this time with a detailed map in hand), driving past the small town of West Stockbridge and back toward the highway, I felt reenergized. Chesterwood has that effect on you.
• • •
Frederick C. Robie House
Chicago • 1910
By Eric Wills
Fred C. Robie was a modern man, a product of the manufacturing age who studied mechanical engineering, wanted to design cars, and zipped around turn-of-the-century Chicago in his own aerodynamic prototype. No surprise, then, that when he decided to build a home for his family, he wanted something streamlined, something innovative, with an open floor plan, plenty of windows, and no fussy Victorian ornamentation that would gather dust. The local architects he approached all had the same reaction: "Oh, I know what you want—one of those damn Wright houses."
Frank Lloyd Wright, then, it had to be. Robie's partnership with the master yielded much more than just another house, even by Wright's standards. Completed in 1910, the Robie House—emphatically horizontal, with a cantilevered roof that seems to defy gravity—marked the apotheosis of Wright's Prairie Style. Robie found every last detail to his liking and "was grateful beyond all imagination."
Understandably so. In 1957, House and Home magazine called it the most significant residence built in America in the preceding 100 years. And its influence on modern architecture would be unparalleled.
Visit the site—donated to the University of Chicago in 1963 and operated by the Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust—and you'll discover that its influence hasn't diminished. The house appears to be moored on its corner lot on Woodlawn Avenue like some majestic landlocked ship. Across the street is the university's new business school building, the Charles M. Harper Center, designed by starchitect Rafael Viñoly and completed in 2004. Viñoly paid homage to the Robie House, echoing its form with his cantilevered floors and horizontal spans of limestone. A century later, and Robie House still inspires reverence.
Don't be afraid to study it, to ogle it. That's what Wright wanted. He designed a garage (one of the first attached garages in the world; it now contains a gift shop) on the house's south side but positioned the main entrance on the northwest. Visitors thus had to walk around the house after parking their cars, giving them a chance to admire the rows of stained-glass casement windows and the prow-shaped front porch that extends nearly to the street. (By keeping the porch open-air, Wright managed to flout building codes that required a greater setback.)
After entering on the ground floor, Robie's guests would have come up the stairs into the living room, separated from the dining room by a brick fireplace, the centerpiece of the house. A small cutout at the top of the fireplace maintained the flow of space between the two rooms. The stained-glass windows, decorated with intricate Zen-like designs, afforded ample views, drawing guests onto the porch. Yet the overhanging roof also maintained a sense of privacy. Inside, the details were exquisite: the wood moldings and built-ins, the dining table and high-back chairs Wright designed (now in the nearby Smart Museum of Art).
In recent years, the Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust initiated major restoration work on the house, stabilizing the structure, restoring the roof, installing a climate-control system, repairing the fire-glazed white brick behind the stove, and bringing in new period pieces to furnish the space. This summer, workers were busy restoring the bedrooms and kitchen, repainting walls in historic colors.
Remarkably, Robie lived in the house for only about a year. His father died, and after Robie had paid the estate's creditors, he found himself nearly broke, his marriage in shambles. He had no choice but to sell, and the house passed through a series of owners before the Chicago Theological Seminary purchased it. Wright himself intervened in 1957 when the seminary threatened to demolish the house to build new dorms. "It all goes to show the danger of entrusting anything spiritual to the clergy," a 90-year-old Wright quipped.
Robie may have lost his home, but his love for it never waned. A half-century later, as a retiree living in a Cleveland apartment, he remembered his first—and best—house as "the most ideal place in the world."
• • •
Tarrytown, N.Y. • 1913
By James H. Schwartz
It's difficult—no, impossible—to believe that I'm 20 miles north of New York City. I'm standing on the expansive terrace to the west of Kykuit, the storied mansion built in the early part of the 20th century as a country home for the Rockefeller family. Peering out through the August haze, I can easily make out the Hudson River three miles away, as well as the towering Palisades marking the river's western banks. Yet I can't see a street, or a car, or any sign of a village. Kykuit stands in stony solitude, deliciously and emphatically set apart from the world around it.
Kykuit (the word is Dutch for "lookout") may have been home to generations of Rockefellers, but the estate today is far more than a house museum. Yes, the Beaux-Arts mansion designed by William Delano, Chester Aldrich, William Welles Bosworth, and Ogden Codman, draws about 30,000 visitors each year, and the furnishings, artwork, and gardens dazzle. But the estate now functions as a living laboratory for preservation, revitalization, and sustainability.
"I think it's fair to say that Kykuit is consciously different from other historic sites," says Charles Granquist, executive director of the Pocantico Center at the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, which has leased Kykuit (and a portion of the estate) from the National Trust since 1991 and is responsible for stewardship. "Our story here is about adaptive reuse, taking this extraordinary historic estate and reinventing it as a center that can promote the goals and mission of the fund."
Reuse at the Rockefeller estate meant transforming the c. 1900 coach barn into a state-of-the-art facility that hosts conferences, programs, and lectures related to the fund's grantmaking in democratic practices, sustainable development, and peace and security in New York City, southern China, and the Balkans. It also meant introducing a series of green initiatives to place Kykuit at the forefront of sites practicing sustainable maintenance. (Not only does the estate operate on wind-generated electricity, staff members also use green cleaning products and actively recycle.) And it meant reaching out to local residents and inviting them to cultural events so that they began viewing the estate as a part of their community, rather than an impenetrable reserve off limits to all but a privileged few.
"American historic sites face challenges today," Granquist admits. "Visitors, particularly younger visitors, are less interested in standing behind a velvet rope and listening to a tour guide … To be successful as a historic site, people in the community have to care if you live or die, so a key part of our programming is directed at adding value to this community."
And Kykuit is succeeding. The Pocantico Center hosts 55 to 70 conferences for nonprofit organizations related to Rockefeller Brothers Fund programming every year, and offers about a dozen cultural programs open to the public. It also funds artists in residence and maintains a gardening program teaching local schoolchildren about health and sustainability.
Then there's the house itself. It's an unusual, intimate, and appealing residence—not at all what I expected. Curator Cynthia Altman notes that it was designed as a family retreat, not a gallery, and not a museum. Rockefeller children were expected to run through the halls here—and they did: "That's the reason the family installed protective cases over the sculptures."
Almost every corner seems to feature a noteworthy treasure from the ancient or modern world. Altman points out that the family acquired pieces based on widely varied preferences and passions: "Abby Aldrich Rockefeller [1874-1948] purchased many of the antique pieces here, but was also the driving force behind the establishment of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Her son, Nelson Rockefeller [1908-1979], loved everything from the Tang Dynasty figure in front of the west-facing windows to the 70 modern sculptures he personally sited on the grounds outside."
As I walk away from the Rockefellers' mansion and back into the mammoth coach barn, I realize that Kykuit is a historic site that practically defines the term reinvention. The gardeners, curators, directors, and guards work inside 20th-century buildings erected for a 19th-century magnate, but they're hoping to change the 21st-century world. As Granquist says, "This house and this site are not exclusively about the past. We're far more interested in what the future looks like."
• • •
Woodrow Wilson House
Washington, D.C. • 1915
By Lauren Walser
While touring Woodrow Wilson House, I overheard a little boy talking to his mother. "There's a lot of awesomeness in here," he said. I couldn't help but agree.
The 28th president of the United States spent the final three years of his life in this large, Georgian Revival house a block off Embassy Row. But unlike, say, George Washington's Mount Vernon or Thomas Jefferson's Monticello, this house didn't play a role in shaping Wilson's life. Then again, no house really did. As a child, Wilson moved frequently (you can tour one of his boyhood homes in Augusta, Ga.), and he maintained that nomadic lifestyle as an adult.
Nevertheless, the objects collected here help tell the story of the man who led the United States into the First World War and then helped establish the League of Nations. The artifacts range from a prized baseball autographed by King George V to a favorite overcoat to the pen used to sign the declaration of war in 1917. There are numerous Tiffany items, as well as crowns, medals, and a cape. Gadgets, including a Victrola, several typewriters, an early film projector and projection screen (Wilson was a huge movie buff), and an old microphone used during a 1923 radio broadcast, show how Wilson immersed himself in the technology of the early 20th century.
Wilson was the only president to remain permanently in Washington after the end of his second term, and the house's furnishings—a dining room for luxurious entertaining and a drawing room and library filled with couches and chairs for guests—suggest an active and engaged post-presidential social life. But I saw reminders, too, of Wilson's struggles with the aftereffects of the debilitating stroke he suffered in 1919. Security rails line the walls of his bathroom. The night nurse's quarters just outside Wilson's bedroom contain a twin bed and an impressive inventory of medical supplies. And then there's the electric elevator, which Edith Wilson (the president's second wife) converted from an old rope-and-pulley trunk lift, so that her husband could reach each floor of the house.
Despite the challenges facing historic house museums in the wake of the economic downturn, visitation at Woodrow Wilson House remains steady, according to Frank J. Aucella, the site's director. "The house is not an architectural masterpiece, but Wilson remains one of the more popular presidents, so there continues to be a lot of interest in him," he says. "Plus we offer a lot of special programming, like our changing exhibitions, and that's really key in getting our name out there and helping us to raise our operating income."
In the back yard, I wandered into a tranquil Italian-style garden, restored to its early 1920s appearance. Though last winter's massive snowstorms took a toll, the plants are slowly recovering, and the entire expanse was tinted a vibrant shade of green. Standing there in the sunlight, enjoying a moment of peace and quiet away from the chattering tour groups, I briefly forgot that I was only minutes from D.C.'s bustling Dupont Circle neighborhood.
Walking around the home and garden, I felt more like a house guest than a tourist. Everything is accessible; there are few velvet ropes corralling visitors into small spaces. Indeed, the museum's staff is so dedicated to creating an intimate experience for guests, that when making reservations online, visitors are invited to share their specific interests in the house so that tours can be customized.
"Our goal is to use everything that was given to us to tell stories and make this part of history come alive for everyone," says Aucella.
And it's true. Wilson may have spent fewer than three years in this house, but his legacy lives on both inside and out.
• • •
Woodside, Calif. • 1917
By Margaret Foster
On a chilly spring morning, my family and I arrived at Filoli, a country estate 30 miles south of San Francisco, eager for a glimpse of the good life. More than 100,000 people come here each year—to wander through the 43-room Georgian-style mansion, stroll its formal English Renaissance-inspired garden, and hike the 528-acre nature preserve. They also come to make honey, paint pictures, prune fruit trees, or arrange flowers. Although we visited on a weekday, the parking lot was full, with German tourists examining a map, kids playing near the trailhead, and new arrivals crisscrossing the lot toward the visitor and education center.
A gold-mine owner named William Bourn commissioned San Francisco architect Willis Polk to design Filoli and entrusted the design of the gardens to Bruce Porter, a family friend. Construction began in 1915. The name of the estate came from a contraction of Bourn's motto, "Fight for a just cause; Love your fellow man; Live a good life." Hence, Fi-lo-li, pronounced fye-lo-lee.
As we soon discovered, the best part of exploring the mansion is imagining that it's yours. We crept into the butler's pantry, which smelled of roses, and just for fun, enclosed ourselves in the walk-in silver vault. Then we followed the sound of piano music ("Go Tell It on the Mountain") and discovered the 70-foot-long ballroom with 22-foot-high ceilings dripping with crystal chandeliers. The elderly piano player looked up and smiled as my daughters twirled to his song. For a moment, it indeed felt like we owned the place.
The Bourns were famous for their entertaining, often throwing lavish affairs. According to local lore, guests at the Bourns' end-of-Prohibition party (later referred to as The Drunk's Dinner) arrived to see a banner draped across the mansion's front door: "Mr. and Mrs. Bourn, being of sober mind, will not attend." Old age eventually confined the Bourns to their beds, but even then, the parties are said to have continued, the sounds of revelry drifting up to their second-floor quarters, where husband and wife lay ensconced.
After the Bourns died in 1936, Lurline and William P. Roth bought the property, and the tradition of grand parties continued during their stewardship. In 1975, Lurline Roth donated the estate to the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
Roth "opted to give away her gorgeous property so everyone could enjoy it, as opposed to selling it to a real estate developer," says Jane Risser, Filoli's executive director. "This is a living collection. That's what brings people back. That and the fact that it's not every day that you get to see a 36,000-square-foot mansion."
With its wisteria-covered portico and red-tile roof, the mansion seems familiar. It has been featured in such movies as Heaven Can Wait, Shadow of a Doubt, and The Wedding Planner, and it played a role in the 1980s television show Dynasty.
After their ballroom dance, my daughters pushed open a door and spilled out into the colorful garden. Through an arched brick doorway we discovered a glass-walled garden house straight out of The Sound of Music, where white pigeons rustled in a dovecote. Gardeners knelt in the sunken garden outside, and other families were passing through, on their way to the fruit garden and olive orchard. We saw people from all over the world, on their first visit or their 31st. There was an air of graciousness all around us, as if we were welcome guests, and we left Filoli feeling pampered and rejuvenated. Just as the Bourns and Roths would have wanted.
Correction: In the print version of this story, we identify William Bourn as a "gold miner." In fact, Bourn was the owner of the Empire Mine. We regret the error.
• • •
Philip Johnson Glass House
New Canaan, Conn. • 1949
By Dwight Young
In 1932, New York's Museum of Modern Art mounted an exhibition of photos and models of recent work by European architects. The show's organizers, Philip Johnson and Henry-Russell Hitchcock, coined the term "International Style" to describe the buildings on display, suggesting that by relying on industrial materials—steel, glass, and concrete—and eschewing any kind of applied ornamentation, the architects had created a style that was truly global, transcending national or regional design traditions.
In the mid-1940s, Philip Johnson decided to see whether he could create the International Style paradigm: a glass house. As it turned out, he could, and did. In 1949, he completed the sleek Modernist structure that not only became a classic in its own right but also helped define, for many Americans, an exciting new movement in architecture.
It's sort of hard to know what to call it. "Showplace" fits, since people come from all over the world to visit, but "home" is also appropriate, since Johnson lived in it—and loved it—for more than 50 years. No matter how you describe his creation, it's the unfussiest house you're ever likely to see: a concrete slab, a flat roof, black steel columns, four glass walls. That's it. Couldn't be simpler, and yet it's So. Much. More.
With no internal partitions to block the views, the house is stunningly, gloriously transparent. (I know what you're asking yourself, and here's the answer: There's a silo-like brick cylinder off to one side that houses the bathroom.) Sometimes, depending on the slant of light, the building reflects the surrounding landscape. At other times, the walls seem to dissolve, giving a whole new meaning to "barrier-free design." It's not a house to hide in, but I'm convinced that if you gave yourself over to it (I'm trying hard not to get all New Age-y here), the utter transparency of the place just might calm you so thoroughly that you wouldn't want—or need—to hide anymore.
In the interest of full disclosure, I must tell you that I've visited the Glass House only once, on an unforgettable snowy day several years ago. The minute I stepped through the doorway, I knew I could take up residence right away and be perfectly happy there for an eon or two. But even in the grip of love at first sight, I recognized that Johnson's creation is definitely not a house for everyone. (There's a story—perhaps apocryphal, though I hope not—that a visitor once planted herself in front of the architect and announced, "Mr. Johnson, I could never live in this house." To which Johnson replied, "Thank God.") In fact, the place immediately struck me as pretty demanding. As I surveyed the spare elegance of the interior, here's what occurred to me: If you lived here and got up in the middle of the night for some cookies and milk, you'd have to wash the plate and glass and put them back in the cupboard before returning to bed, because leaving them out on the countertop would spoil the whole effect of the room and probably call down the wrath of the "Less Is More" deities on your trashy, thoughtless head. In other words, this is a house you have to live up to. Though that strikes me as a good thing, it probably helps explain why America's residential landscape isn't dotted with similar glass houses.
When he visited Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, Johnson reportedly was so moved by the building that he said, "Architecture is not about words. It's about tears." And then he wept. I believe I know how he felt. When I stood in the middle of his incredible crystalline box and watched fat snowflakes falling silently through the dark trees all around, I didn't cry—but I did get sort of choked up. I'm pretty sure no other house has ever made me feel that way.
• • •
Plano, Ill. • 1951
By Eric Wills
It began as a dream, a collaboration between Edith Farnsworth and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. She a Chicago doctor, searching for an architect to design her country retreat along the Fox River in Plano, Ill. He a German immigrant and Illinois Institute of Technology professor, starting to establish himself as one of the most influential architects of the Modernist movement. They met in 1945, reportedly at a dinner party. She was delighted that so avant-garde an architect would agree to take on her project, likening their early conversations to "a storm, a flood, or an Act of God." He was delighted to find a client who placed few restrictions on his creativity, allowing him to pursue a consummate expression of the International Style of architecture, which he had helped import from Europe.
Their collaboration culminated in 1951 with the completion of Farnsworth House, a revolutionary and elegant expression in steel and glass, which Architectural Forum proclaimed as perhaps the most important residence designed in America since Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin West. A "concentration of pure beauty" that "had no equal in perfection of workmanship [and] precision of detail," the journal raved.
By then, however, the dream had ended. Even earlier, during the house's construction, Farnsworth had become cynical about Mies' supposed brilliance. One day, the architect staged an elaborate ceremony as he sorted the slabs of travertine intended for the floor and deck into three piles: first quality, second quality, and reject. As he sat in a blue canvas chair smoking a cigar, workers paraded the travertine past him ("each man carrying a slab of stone like a precious painting before the eyes of a divine appraiser," Farnsworth wrote in her diary). But then a misunderstanding ensued about which pile was which, and the show collapsed into absurdity.
Rumors circulated of a love affair gone wrong between client and architect. And when Farnsworth failed to pay $28,173 of Mies' fee, he took her to court. She countersued, alleging cost overruns and a leaky roof. They eventually agreed to a settlement of $14,000 in Mies' favor, but she could not hide her contempt: "Something should be said and done about such architecture as this," she huffed to House Beautiful magazine, "or there will be no future for architecture … I wanted to do something meaningful, and all I got was this glib, false sophistication." Frank Lloyd Wright piled on, equating the International Style with totalitarianism, a rejection of the distinctly American idiom he had spent his career developing. Farnsworth declared the house unlivable and, for the next two decades, respected it little, coating the primavera panels inside with a reddish-black stain, filling up the space with pedestrian furniture, leaving the sink piled high with dirty dishes. The future did not look bright for Mies' masterpiece.
Yet Farnsworth House survived, in no small part because of Lord Peter Palumbo, a British art collector who bought the 2,000-square-foot residence in 1972 and hired Mies' grandson, Dirk Lohan, to conduct a sympathetic restoration. It survived the rise of Postmodernism and the scorn of critics such as Tom Wolfe, who in his 1981 book From Bauhaus to Our House dismissed the glass-box phenomenon with characteristic hyperbole, charging that Mies "put half of America inside German worker-housing cubicles." It survived multiple floods and proposals to move it to higher ground. It survived long enough for preservationists to consider it historic (the National Trust and Landmarks Illinois purchased the site in 2003 for $7.5 million), and for tastes to come full circle and Midcentury Modern architecture and design to experience a cultural revival.
To dismiss Farnsworth as a glass box is tantamount to calling Stonehenge a bunch of rocks. As site director Whitney French says, the remarkable thing is how the structure stands distinctly apart from nature, the white beams and precise horizontal lines undeniably man's imposition on the land; from the inside, however, the steel and glass seem to melt away, the house becoming an extension of nature, inducing visitors into a contemplation of the swaying branches of the black sugar maple in front, or the river meandering by. The structure begins to disappear.
Indeed, for all the tons of steel and concrete and travertine, Farnsworth inspires a sense of airiness and elation, seemingly levitating above the plain. The connections between the beams and the roof and floor were welded together and the joints concealed, so that a magnetic force appears to hold the structure upright.
The experience can only be understood in person. You must come, as the Mies acolytes, architectures buffs, and devotees of Modernist design have come since workers first broke ground. Because Farnsworth House is not some passing fad built on the shaky foundation of artifice. Farnsworth House, just like the skyscrapers and houses that Louis Sullivan and Daniel Burnham and Frank Lloyd Wright designed 60 miles east, in Chicago, is timeless.
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