Completed in 1952 for Robert Hall McCormick, Jr., a member of one of Chicago’s most famous families, and his wife, the poet Isabella Gardner, the grand-niece and goddaughter of the great Boston art patron Isabella Stewart Gardner, Elmhurst’s “glass house” was designed by renowned German-American architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969), famous for his philosophy of “less is more.” For more information about Mies, click here.
Throughout his distinguished career, spanning both world wars and their aftermaths, Mies sought to create an architecture that embodied the modern spirit of progress, industry and freedom. Famously calling his architecture one of “skin and bones,” the exterior of his buildings exposed the materials of their making, celebrating the structure itself and the technological advances essential to its creation. The thoughtful and rigorous balance of industrial materials and simple geometric forms with elegant proportions, minimal ornamentation and naturally lit open spaces make Mies one of the most influential architects of the 20th century.
The McCormick House originally served two purposes: it was a home for the McCormick family and a prototype for a proposed group of smaller, affordable middle-class homes in nearby Melrose Park that McCormick was hoping to develop. According to McCormick, however, the progressive design had limited appeal to potential buyers, and the house lacked some desirable features like air conditioning and a basement, a new standard in new suburban developments.
Sold by its last occupants, Ray and Mary Ann Fick (Ray was the former mayor of Elmhurst), to the Elmhurst Fine Arts and Civic Center Foundation in 1992, the structure was moved from its original location at 299 Prospect Avenue to Wilder Park in 1994. Now part of the Elmhurst Art Museum, the house is an important and accessible example of Mies’ signature glass and steel constructions that transformed our built environment.
The McCormick House is a one-story residence built of glass, steel and brick on a concrete slab. The flat roof is typical of early 20th century modernist architecture in Europe. Architects including Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius, and Mies stripped the roof of any decorative or historic elements and used a rectilinear vocabulary that they felt embodied a purity of form, modernity and the machine. Mies was also influenced by the ground-hugging horizontality of Frank Lloyd Wright’s designs.
The glass and aluminum window bays, with vertical steel I-Beams attached on the exterior, are identical in structure to those of Mies’ 860-880 Lake Shore Drive apartment towers, completed the year before in Chicago, also a partnership between Robert McCormick and Mies. Mies’ glass-clad structures reduced the barriers between indoors and outdoors with floor to ceiling views of the surrounding landscape and increased natural light, hallmarks of Mies’ modernist idiom and evidence that he cared deeply about uplifting the lived experience.
Mies’ postwar achievement of an unobstructed, clear-span interior embodied his rational philosophy of a universal space—one that ensured the ultimate functional freedom throughout a building’s lifetime. In contrast to many of his contemporaries, Mies profoundly questioned the concept “form follows function,” because he recognized that functional requirements often change. Depending on the size of the interior to be enclosed, Mies designed different steel framing systems. For a residential building like the McCormick House, he used a framework of peripheral columns and ceiling beams, which allowed for an open and adaptable interior with movable wall partitions.
Carrying forward Mies’ concept of flexible space, the Elmhurst Art Museum placed the wood wall partitions to suit its current needs, housing storage, a private kitchen and a public space. Paying homage to the original 1952 interior, the living room is often arranged with a seating area, a dining table, a floating wood shelf and a wall-mounted shelving unit for books and objects. Often functioning as a place where visitors can sit, read and converse, the living room also serves as a rotating exhibition space, where everything, including the building, is on display.