While a flood-battered Frank Lloyd Wright home in New Jersey may have found salvation in the unlikely form of a Walmart heiress, it's a different story in the exurbs of Chicago where the granddaddy of glass houses, Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House (1951), may be spared from future floodwaters with the assistance of a $3 million hydraulic jack system being mulled over by the home’s owner, the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Situated along the Fox River outside the bustling agricultural hub of Plano, Ill. this steel and glass masterpiece of modernist design was, of course, designed by German-born van der Rohe to meld seamlessly into its bucolic natural surroundings. Said Mr. “Less is More” himself of the boxy, voyeur-friendly vacation home built as a weekend retreat for client Edith Farnsworth: “Nature, too, shall live its own life. We must beware not to disrupt it 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.”

Like with Wright’s nature-embracing Bachman Wilson house, the irony here is that, despite providing a stunning backdrop, Mother Nature has been extremely unkind to the one-room Farnsworth House, particularly in recent years. To be more accurate, she’s been downright brutal, abusive. Inundating floodwaters from the Fox have damaged the National Historic Landmark-registered home on numerous occasions including in 1996, 1998, and in 2008 when flooding stemming from Hurricane Ike’s soggy leftovers forced the National Trust for Historic Preservation to close the home and invest in extensive repairs.

And so, with the realization that things probably aren't going to get any better, the National Trust for Historic Preservation has some tough decisions to make.

Explains the Chicago Tribune:

Confronted with the prospect of more flooding, the house's owner is carefully weighing how to preserve and protect the house, two goals that potentially conflict. Keep the house where it is, and the river is almost sure to flood it again someday. Move the house away from the river to higher ground, and its authenticity would be compromised. Such are the choices in an era when disastrous '100-year floods' seem to occur every few years.

Of three options being considered by the Trust, the aforementioned hydraulic lift scheme is the most costly. However, it also makes the most sense from both a preservation and a protection standpoint as the site-specific Farnsworth House—to be clear, it's already resting on stilts, as van der Rohe designed it to be flood-proof — would remain at its original site after being temporarily relocated as a pit is dug and a system of hydraulic jacks installed. When Mother Nature decides to throw a damaging tantrum, the hydraulic system would kick in and the Farnsworth House would be lifted to safety, floating above the floodwaters that have already wrecked so much havoc.

The Tribune elaborates:

To its credit, the trust has arrived at this critical juncture carefully. A study it commissioned found that flooding poses a greater risk to the Farnsworth House now than ever before. The trust also convened a technical advisory panel including respected figures such as Chicago architect Dirk Lohan, Mies' grandson. The panel concluded that the hydraulic system was the 'most promising' option. A subsequent study, by the engineering firm Robert Silman Associates, fleshed out that option, saying something more complex is needed than a conventional hydraulic lift that raises a car in a repair garage. Instead, the firm envisions below-ground steel trusses that, when activated, would shift from a horizontal position to a vertical one, raising the house on a concrete slab, as if it were a trophy on a plate. Once floodwaters were pumped out of the pit, the house could be lowered.

The audacious hydraulics proposal could simultaneously allow the trust to preserve and protect the house, yet it's far from a sure thing: Would its construction disrupt the surrounding landscape? Are there less expensive, less intrusive solutions that would rely more on landscaping than technology, which, as we all know, can sometimes go haywire?

Says the Trust's president, Stephanie Meeks: “It's concerning to us that the house has already flooded a number of times. Given the research, we feel compelled as the stewards of this property to take that threat seriously and consider what our options are." She adds: “I think one of the risks is that this is a new application of an old technology. The risk is overcoming the question mark in people's minds. People will want to be satisfied that it's the simplest solution."

A public meeting will be held on May 29 to discuss the hydraulic jack scenario along with the two other cheaper but less-favored options: temporarily relocating the Fansworth Housing then moving it back atop a 9-foot-tall mound built at its current site or permanently relocating the structure altogether away from the river to higher ground within the 60-acre estate. Although significantly less expensive than building mounds or installing complex hydraulic sytems, this latter option has been ID'd by the Tribune as "surely a non-starter."

The Trust kicked of its official season at the Farnsworth House earlier this month. The building — a building so iconic that you can construct a LEGO replica of it atop your dining room table if you so wish — and its surrounding grounds will remain open for public tours and private events through November.

Via [Chicago Tribune] via [Dezeen]

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Matt Hickman ( @mattyhick ) writes about design, architecture and the intersection between the natural world and the built environment.

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