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Each year, CAC staff and our team of more than 450 dedicated docents work together to create new ways to experience architecture. But have you ever wondered what inspires our tours? Here’s the story behind our Farnsworth House bus tours.

by Kerstin Adams, Marketing Coordinator


The iconic Farnsworth House was built along the banks of the Fox River in 1951 as a country retreat for Dr. Edith Farnsworth. It’s one of the most significant of Mies van der Rohe’s works and among the world’s great architectural masterpieces. A founder and leader of the modernist movement in Europe, Mies lived and worked in Chicago for more than 30 years. He is well known for his use of glass and steel, as well as his sleek design aesthetic and the “less is more” philosophy that influenced city skylines around the world.


The Farnsworth House is a direct reflection of Mies’ signature approach and an exemplary representation of the International Style. The design is striking: pure white concrete slabs line the floor-to-ceiling glass walls, opening the space up to the house’s surrounding elements. As Mies explained, “We must beware not to disrupt [nature] with the color of our houses and interior fittings. Yet we should attempt to bring nature, houses and human beings together into a higher unity.”

The design of the house was so acclaimed that a 1947 exhibition of Mies’ work at the Museum of Modern Art included a model of the Farnsworth House before it was even built. Since then, the house has been included in the National Register of Historic Places (2004) and designated a National Historic Landmark (2006). 


In 1972, Dr. Edith Farnsworth sold Farnsworth House to Baron Peter Palumbo, a British arts patron who had restored several other historic properties. When Palumbo listed the building for sale at Sotheby’s auction house in 2003, several potential buyers inquired about dismantling the structure and moving it to another state. In an attempt to keep the house intact and in its intended location, Landmarks Illinois, the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Friends of the Farnsworth House purchased the building at auction and opened it to the public as a house museum.


Shortly after its public opening, CAC received several requests from private groups to organize tours of this architectural masterpiece. CAC docents and staff realized that this significant site—and its architect, who had such an immense impact on the world of design—ought to be introduced to the greater public.

In 2005, docent Bill Shapiro developed the Farnsworth House PLUS tour as a celebration of the career of Mies van der Rohe, the influential architect who introduced Modernism to Chicago. The tour starts at 860–880 North Lake Shore Drive for a look at the two towers that helped define Chicago as a leader in Mid-Century Modern architecture. From there, the tour continues to Crown Hall at the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT), which is widely considered to be Mies’ finest work. Finally, guests enjoy a guided tour of Farnsworth House. In 2013, CAC launched a second Farnsworth House tour for guests who are simply interested in visiting the iconic house.


Both Farnsworth House tours attract architecture enthusiasts from around the world who want to see one of the leading Mid-Century Modern architecture sites. Expand your knowledge of Mies’ career beyond the Loop, and experience this vital part of American iconography in person. 

The Farnsworth House tour and Farnsworth House PLUS tour depart on select Thursdays and Sundays at 9:30am.