The Doctor Is In: Renaming the Edith Farnsworth House

By Special Contributor posted 01-19-2022 17:16


By Chris Morris, Rena Zurofsky, and Scott Mehaffey

This past year laid bare our growing racial and economic inequities, but also systemic societal inequities that disproportionately affect women of all identities and backgrounds. While we celebrated women’s leadership skills and political prowess, we also confronted the reality that women still face enormous hurdles in our ongoing efforts to achieve economic, professional, medical, and political parity. We in the preservation community also are culpable for supporting this gendered rubric every time we overlook or deliberately exclude the many, many women who have shaped our history.

Women are—quite literally—everywhere. Yet too often we neglect women entirely, or relegate them to the background in secondary or supportive roles (sister of, wife of, mother of, servant of, etc.), without doing the work needed to truly understand their lives and impact. The result is that we greatly limit women’s visibility, diminish their significance, and miss an opportunity to increase the public’s knowledge of and respect for women as historical actors. If our goal is to tell the full American story, then women must be equitably represented in that story.

There are several ways to instill more balance and equity in the narrative of historic places. Outlining how and why we changed the name of the Edith Farnsworth House, one of the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s most recognizable historic sites—as well as the benefits, unforeseen challenges, and lessons learned along the way—provides one roadmap for how we can commit to creating more gender parity at historic places. 

Image of the new logo for the Edith Farnsworth House

Why Change the Name?

After many months of discussion and planning, the National Trust took the very public step of renaming one of its most iconic sites to formally honor the woman who was integral to its creation and early history. Known for decades as “The Farnsworth House,” it was most prominently associated with its male architect, Mies van der Rohe. On November 17, 2021, we made one small change that spoke volumes, rededicating the site as “The Edith Farnsworth House.” 

The act represented much more than a simple name change or a new logo. It was a fundamental repositioning of Dr. Edith Farnsworth and how we understand, experience, and interpret her and her internationally recognized home. It ensures that the patron and owner will forever be squarely at the center of the story, where she belongs. 

This change also embodies many of the principles of the National Trust’s campaign for Where Women Made History, which at its heart is a manifestation of our commitment to tell a more equitable national story. 

The preservation field has a responsibility to re-examine our own practices, and commit to identify and elevate women as a central part of the narrative at historic places. That very much applies to the National Trust’s own collection of 28 Historic Sites, several of which had women in pivotal roles as owners, enslaved workers, clients, patrons, archivists, conservationists, or preservationists. 

When to Consider a Name Change

We know there are many sites across the country where women have not been properly recognized in the interpretation. We also know that a name change is a big step that takes time and resources, and it may not be necessary—or even appropriate—for every site as a way of centering its women’s history. 

One of the first things any site should do is evaluate any existing designations for the property (local landmark, state registers, National Register of Historic Places) to assess what aspects of the site’s history they address. If the site was established for a specific period of significance, look beyond that frame to find the other histories that can and should be presented in parallel. In many cases the original National Register nomination should be amended to correct the narrative. 

At sites where women’s history was under-documented and underrepresented, allow sufficient time to conduct scholarly research with proper credits and citations. Contact the National Park Service Regional Office to discuss why the listing needs to be rewritten. While it can be challenging to expand the stated Period of Significance, this can be done when significant eras or people have been overlooked in the original nomination. National Trust Preservation Fund Grants can be a source of funding for you to undertake this important work.  

For our purposes, the Edith Farnsworth House was in the beneficial position of having completed two years of exhibitions, programs, events, and related communications (website, social media, print and broadcast media) as part of “Edith Farnsworth Reconsidered” exhibition. That level of extensive research and programming was critical. It created a solid foundation of information and established a clear rationale for the name change, so that all key stakeholders were supportive by the time the new name was announced publicly. 

Based on our preparation for the Edith Farnsworth House rededication, here are other factors to consider before determining whether changing your historic site’s name is the right approach: 

  • Determine what information exists and whether it is publicly available. Publications and videos like Alex Beam’s book, Broken Glass: Mies van der Rohe, Edith Farnsworth, and the Fight Over a Modernist Masterpiece and the Edith Farnsworth, Reconsidered short film were widely accessible to the public and media well in advance of the renaming. These types of public information helped increase the general awareness of Dr. Farnsworth’s importance and created new champions for her life and work.
  • Ensure that the parent organization is committed to the name change. The Edith Farnsworth House benefited from the existence of the campaign for Where Women Made History and National Trust’s larger commitment to showcasing the history of women.
  • Talk to the family, where applicable, your organizational leadership and/or board, major donors, and other significant stakeholders to ensure they understand the importance of the change and will support it. The name change at the Edith Farnsworth House was socialized  with National Trust and Historic Sites leadership as well as the Edith Farnsworth House’s Site Council before we launched into planning.
  • Be aware of the time and expense needed to make an official name change, particularly the “domino effect” of changing logos, promotional and interpretive descriptions, letterhead and print communications, website and social media, offsite (directional) and onsite signs, vehicle/equipment decals, staff uniforms and nametags, etc. The Edith Farnsworth House rededication required approximately 8 months of planning and coordination.
  • Use the opportunity not only to elevate the visibility of women at your site, but to strengthen the interpretation and programmatic ties to those women. The rededication inspired us to conduct additional research, create a new commemorative booklet about Edith, and expand our programs in line with Dr. Farnsworth’s personal and professional interests.
  • Make it a celebration on a meaningful date or anniversary to reinforce the public and positive nature of the name change. The Edith Farnsworth House rededication was scheduled for her birthday, with a cake and prosecco for the guests to enjoy. We also positioned the announcement as a time for one “last look” at the Edith Farnsworth Reconsidered exhibition at the end of 2021.   

Lessons Learned

Much to our surprise, there was almost no resistance to the idea of renaming, which we feel was a clear indication that this correction was necessary and probably overdue. But it is important to have these conversations up front to gauge levels of understanding and support (or concern) among your board, staff, key partners, and donors. 

We still were not entirely prepared for the logistical issues associated with changing the site’s name across multiple physical spaces and online platforms. We benefited from a staff person who could conduct an online audit to identify and implement global updates across our websites and social media. That online audit also resulted in updates to the Site logo with the new name, and a refresh of the site’s boilerplate language. 

A woman kneeling down in a field with a dog. In the background is a modernist building that is entirely open with walls of glass.
Dr. Edith Farnsworth in a field in front of her home. | Credit: David W. Dunlap

Our celebration was a useful tool in attracting positive media attention to the name change. The Edith Farnsworth House rededication was able to capitalize on existing media relationships, but of equal importance was the general coverage of Modern architecture programs and events as part of “Archtober” in the month prior. This helped secure placement and visibility in key outlets and media markets leading up to and during the rededication date in November. Before setting a date for your announcement, determine whether and when there are affiliated media-covered events that could align with histories of the women you are highlighting at your historic site. 

Had it not been for COVID-19, it would have been ideal to coordinate a series of offsite and onsite programs among various women’s groups to raise awareness and appreciation outside the context of the house museum and begin forging long-term relationships with new partners and potential supporters or donors. 

Next Steps

We know there is still more work to be done to assess the longer-term impact of the change. Over the next year, site staff will engage visitors informally to normalize the change and convey operational acceptance. They also will monitor audience reaction and feedback to determine if the messaging around Edith Farnsworth and the new name need to be adjusted or clarified. 

Although the “Edith Farnsworth Reconsidered” exhibit ended in December 2021, Dr. Farnsworth’s presence will be a constant, regardless of the primary exhibition programming, through lectures, didactics, new projects, and partners. And, of course, her full name now presides over all, reminding everyone that her patronage and her taste were—and remain—as significant as the architect’s work. 

Whether or not a name change is right for your site, consider some the many other ways we’ve mentioned that you can identify, spotlight, and celebrate the women who helped shape your site’s history, and give them the public attention and respect that they deserve.

Chris Morris is a senior field director at the National Trust for Historic Preservation and leads the campaign for Where Women Made History. Rena Zurofsky is the interim vice president for Historic Sites. Scott Mehaffey is the executive director of the Edith Farnsworth House.