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Lumenhaus draws from charm of van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House

The Lumenhaus — winner International Solar DecathlCompetiti— is display Farnsworth House Plano.

The Lumenhaus — winner of the International Solar Decathlon Competition — is on display at Farnsworth House in Plano.

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Updated: September 22, 2011 12:30AM

Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House, a timeless masterpiece of modernism, sits peacefully on the banks of the Fox River just waiting to be admired.

The stunning glass box is a gem in our own backyard. Architecture fans from around the world, about 10,000 a year, make the trek (a 60-mile drive southeast of Chicago) to admire van der Rohe’s vision. And now, as added incentive, the Lumenhaus, a special exhibit through July 31, adds to the draw.

Designed by students at Virginia Tech and inspired by the Farnsworth House, the Lumenhaus is an innovative house integrating architecture and technology to create a well-designed, energy-independent, mobile structure.

The Lumenhaus sits in a cornfield by the visitors center and does, indeed, look like the modern-day spawn of the Farnsworth House. And if you love the Farnsworth, you’ll want to live in the Lumenhaus.

Equipped with smart-grid technology, geothermal heat and materials chosen for sustainability and beauty, the Lumenhaus also is surrounded by water gardens that repurpose gray water and rain water. A zero-energy home, it is completely powered by the sun. A fully automated Eclipsis System, comprising independent sliding layers across the glass panels, permits a revolutionary design in a solar-powered house while filtering light in beautiful, flowing patterns throughout the day.

The Lumenhaus is the first special exhibit at the Farnsworth site, and executive director Whitney French would like to see more in the future.

“The Lumenhaus is going over well,” French said. “We’d like to do something like this every year.”

But the main draw will always be the Farnsworth. Tours begin at the visitors center with a half-mile walk through the woods, where the house sits surrounded by grass, plants and trees.

On a recent visit, tour guide Joan Knutson walked a group through the house, pointing out the rare prima vera wood paneling, travertine marble flooring and how the architect situated the house to take full advantage of the view.

Knutson builds into the conversation a concise history of the steel and glass structure.

Earlier this decade, it might have disappeared from Illinois if not for the diligent work of the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois, Knutson explained.

Finished by van der Rohe in 1951, it was built as a country home for Dr. Edith Farnsworth, who owned it until 1972, when she sold the house to Lord Peter Palumbo, a British art collector and real estate developer.

Palumbo, in turn, put the house up for sale at a Sotheby’s auction in 2003. Since the house does not have landmark status protection, there was nothing preventing someone from buying it and moving it out of Illinois. However, the Illinois preservationists group, after some last-minute fund-raising, had the winning bid, $7.5 million.

The house, now owned and operated as a house museum by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, remains as described in an introductory video: “one artist’s philosophy distilled in one beautiful little box.”

† The Farnsworth House and the Lumenhaus are at 14520 River Rd., Plano. Hours are 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. Admission is $20, and daily guided tours are available. Call (630) 552-0052;

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