Farnsworth House
Photo courtesy Landmarks Illinois
The Farnsworth House flooded in September 2008 and remained closed for the rest of the year while repairs were made.

Plans to protect Mies van der Rohe's Farnsworth House by placing it on a hydraulic lift that can be deployed in case of flooding are proceeding at a rate that has taken even the plans’ supporters by surprise.

The lift will cost as much as $3 million, according to Robert Silman, a structural engineer whose firm has done preliminary design work on the system. But Silman says that the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which owns the Farnsworth House, “has a potential donor who is very interested, and we understand that the donor’s decision will be based on public acceptance.” That public acceptance could emerge as early as this month. On May 29 and 30, the National Trust will hold two town hall meetings, one in Chicago (in Mies’s Crown Hall) and one in Plano, Illinois, site of the Farnsworth House, designed in 1945 and completed in 1951.

“They’re doing a very good job not just of making a decision but also of building consensus,” says Dirk Lohan, Mies van der Rohe’s grandson, who is a member of an advisory panel formed by the Trust to consider ways to save the house from flooding. Silman says the Trust has also been “vetting this before many organizations including the AIA, Docomomo, and the National Park Service.” “If the support emerges,” he wrote in an e-mail, “the target is to have construction completed by 2016. An ambitious schedule.”

Lohan, principal of the Chicago firm Lohan Anderson, says he supports the plan, and that in fact he proposed a similar hydraulic lift in the 1990s. Lord Peter Palumbo, who owned the house at the time, decided to sell the property instead. The trust bought the house from Palumbo, chairman of the Pritzker Architecture Prize jury, at a Sotheby’s auction in 2003.

Mies chose the house’s location along the Fox River to create just the right views—both to and from the famously transparent building. But flooding has become more frequent in recent decades, in part because of development in the once-rural swath of Illinois. Lohan says that he was responsible for maintaining the Farnsworth House when Palumbo, who lived in London, owned it. “I have seen a couple of floods, including the one in 1996, when there was five feet of water in the house,” he says. “At that time,” he says, “I did a study for hydraulic lifting of the house. I had confidence that it was doable.” He says he saw hydraulic lifts raise the roof of his grandfather’s Neue National Gallery in Berlin, and he realized “if they can raise that, they can raise this little house.”

In an April 28 presentation of the plan, Silman showed a row of four steel trusses that would lift the house and its underlying floor slab nine feet in about two hours. (Silman dubbed the plan “trophy on a tray.”) He concedes there are unresolved questions, including how the hydraulic mechanism would be protected from debris carried by rising waters. And there are aesthetic concerns. Right now, beams supporting the house are welded to the beams supporting its lower terrace. But because the terrace would not be lifted with the house, the structure would have to be severed. Lohan says that in addition to engineers, the team that is designing the lift “should include a group of architects to make sure it looks right and isn’t visible.”

Silman says his firm was paid “a very small fee” for its feasibility study. (The study included two low-tech options—moving the house further from the river, or raising the house on fill—as possible alternatives to the hydraulic lift.) While he would like to be involved in the actual design work, he says, “we have no contractual certainty.”