A stroll through the McCormick House, one of only three residences in the United States by Mies van der Rohe, offers a rare opportunity to personally experience his design philosophy: Less Is More. The transformative changes in design and technical innovation of the 1950’s reflect the architectural clarity and simplicity embraced by post-war American culture.
In 1952, at the time of its completion, the McCormick House floor plan expressed a radical change in thought about the way people live. Introducing open plan design and a modern aesthetic, yesterday’s formality was replaced by collaborative spaces for both entertaining and family activity. The McCormick House “living spaces” paved the way for current trends in residential design creating a connection to the outdoors, while gathering the family in and around the kitchen—the heart of the home.
Mies van der Rohe was a German-born architect, and one of the pioneers of modernism. In his accomplished career he served as director of Bauhaus from 1930-33, and moved to the United States in 1937. He accepted an invitation from the Illinois Institute of Technology to serve as head of the architecture department where he remained for 20 years. Although the impact of Mies’ architecture is evident throughout the Western world, Chicago is home to the majority of his mature works including Crown Hall, 860-880 Lake Shore Drive, the Federal Center, and the Farnsworth House. The McCormick House is an important part of the story.
The McCormick House was Mies van der Rohe’s prototype for a group of row houses planned for development in Melrose Park, Illinois. It is a one-story, horizontal layout study of van der Rohe’s high-rise towers, adapted to a row house form. A departure from the luxurious design work for which he was known, the McCormick House served as a lab for his design development and an exercise in space efficiency, moveable partitions and building systems, modularity, and the modesty of stock millwork.The McCormick House at Elmhurst Art Museum is a mid-century modern masterpiece designed by legendary architect Mies van der Rohe.
Robert McCormick, a real estate developer, worked with Mies on the 860-880 Tower on Lake Shore Drive in Chicago. McCormick had the vision to see that a cross section of Mies’ high-rise building would make a desirable single family home for the new middle-income families of the post-war industrial Midwest. By utilizing inexpensive materials, such as stock millwork for cabinetry and pane glass, concrete and tiled floors, a carport instead of a garage, and no air conditioning, the new houses could be affordable. The row houses were never built, but the McCormick House took its place on 299 Prospect Avenue in Elmhurst, Illinois.
For nine years, from 1952-1961, the house was regularly used by the McCormick family. In 1963, Robert McCormick sold the house to Ray and Mary Ann Fick, who raised their family and made Mies’ glass and steel house their home until 1992.
The house was set back from the street, and as its sheltering trees matured, neighbors felt “the glass house” had an air of mystery. When offered for sale, a group of volunteers who were planning to build the Elmhurst Art Museum purchased the house to incorporate into the museum complex. On August 16, 1994, the house was de-constructed, separated into units, loaded onto a flatbed truck, and began its journey through the streets of Elmhurst to the Museum’s future site in Wilder Park. Long-range plans are now being developed to restore the house to its original residential state, providing visitors with a look at life in the fifties in a modern home.
The McCormick House Exhibition
Marking the 60th anniversary of the McCormick House, built in 1952, the Elmhurst Art Museum is continuing its efforts to enhance the house’s presentation and raise its profile. As one of only three of pioneering modern architect Mies van der Rohe’s single-family residences built in the United States, the house is the museum’s most significant artifact, and we want to share it.
As most of you know, the museum was originally designed to incorporate Mies’ McCormick House, sections of which have been used for administrative offices, educational programming, and small exhibitions. With the new phase, the Carport and Living/Dining Room recieved a facelift. The Carport area was redesigned and includes new, updated text panels providing accessible yet scholarly information about Mies and the significance of the McCormick House, as well as the lively introductory video by Karen Carter. Several windows were uncovered, providing visitors with a view into the private section of the house.
The Living/Dining area serves as a hybrid space: a living room with seating for visitors that includes furnishings by some of the most important and innovative American designers of the postwar period, such as Mies himself, George Nelson, and Florence Knoll, as well an exhibition space with focused groupings of ceramics, functional objects, and art. In the first presentation, midcentury ceramic dinnerware by designers Russel Wright and Eva Zeisel join artwork by Abbott Pattison, Higgins glass, and Haeger pottery, all from the museum’s collection. In addition to new labels, archival materials, photographs, and books are available for further information about Mies, the McCormick House’s history, and midcentury modern art and design. In our efforts to honor the room’s original interior design, we commissioned a 10-foot floating shelf for the brick wall, and added new lighting consistent with the period. Elmhurst Art Museum would like to thank Laura and Gary Maurer for their generous support in purchasing a magnificent, vintage George Nelson Comprehensive Storage System shelving unit for the new installation. We hope you will visit the house soon and enjoy the exciting changes we have made.
Watch the video, Mies van der Rohe's McCormick House.