Mies and the FBI or "How an Edward G. Robinson movie almost got Mies in trouble."

March 25, 2010

The weekend (March 27th) brings the‚ 124th anniversary of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's birth. And we mark it with one of the more‚ obscure chapters in the great architect's life:‚  the time when a suburban business woman with an overactive imagination, an Edward G. Robinson movie, and the hand of fate put Mies under FBI watch for being a suspected Nazi.

Mies was no Nazi, of course. Indeed, it was the Nazis who shut down the Bauhaus and hounded him out of Germany--and to Chicago--in 1938. But‚ that didn't stop the FBI from spending‚ 7 months tracking Mies and‚ developing an FBI file that I've had in my collection since the late 1990s. The file isn't juicy, but it is slightly comical.‚ It begins with a September 1939 letter from a‚ Glencoe businesswoman to a federal judge in Chicago:

I have just returned from Pike Lake Lodge, Wisconsin and while there‚ [I] was very suspicious of four Germans who were staying there. The leader was supposed to be a marvelous architect from New York. He had two younger men there and a woman (secretary) who has just come over from Germany. They spoke nothing but German and spent their time over "drawings---." I may be wrong but they impressed me as spies, perhaps drawing plans of our country for the woman to take back to Germany. If you are interested I can tell you more about it."

What made her so suspicious? Yes, there were national fears of Nazi infiltrators in our midst, but there was also this:‚  The Glencoe woman saw the movie Confessions of a Nazi Spy, (starring Robinson), just before encountering Mies and his crew in Wisconsin, agents reported.‚  (Do click on the movie link. It will explain a lot.)

The FBI then started keeping tabs on Mies, (but the file does not show if they actually interviewed him.)‚  Agents found‚  the group at the lodge included Mies, a "young architect,"‚  a professor from the‚ Armour Institute (now the Illinois Institute of Technology), a woman from Berlin who later sailed home on the Hamburg-American line's‚ New Amsterdam and a "glorified office boy"--whose names were all removed from the FBI file. The FBI‚ looked up Chicago police files, checked on Mies' $6-a-day lodgings‚ in room 1514 of the‚ Blackstone Hotel and confirmed his position as a‚ $25,000-a-year salary as dean of architecture at the Armour Institute. By November, 1939, they found an acquaintance of Mies who told them the architect was "opposed to the present dominant political party in Germany."

The investigation lumbered on until April 1940, when the agency found no evidence Mies violated US espionage laws.‚  Mies would go on to a 30-year career designing iconic buildings such as IIT's Crown Hall, 860-880 Lake Shore Drive, the Farnsworth House, Chicago Federal Center, the IBM Building, NYC's Seagram Building, Berlin's National Gallery and more.

That FBI under director J. Edgar Hoover kept tabs on all sorts of notable individuals is now the stuff of legend. But architects fell under the federal eyeball, too. Philip Johnson's actual pro-Nazi sympathies‚ in the 1930s caught Hoover's attention and the agency would‚ watch him for the next 30 years.‚ Frank Lloyd Wright's FBI file also spans 30 years, beginning with his 1926‚ arrest for violating the Mann Act; the married Wright‚ took his equally married mistress Olgivanna Hinzenberg to Lake Minnetonka, MN (just like Prince in Purple Rain) in 1926 and somebody--likely a spouse--called the cops.

So who were the people with Mies at Pike Lake Lodge--and what were they doing?‚  An answer comes in the 2001 book, The Bauhaus‚ and America which‚ identifies the attendees as architect, urban planner and fellow Bauhaus refugee Ludwig Hilberseimer;‚ ‚ architect and protege William Priestley; George Danforth (who, at 23, was youngest of the bunch and‚ likely the "glorified office boy"), and Berlin-born designer Mies collaborator Lilly Reich.

And the group was looking at plans for what would become the IIT campus, according to the book.

Gehry & Pritzker @ the Pritzker:‚  This should be good. Architect Frank Gehry, he of both bandshell and serpentine footbridge at Millennium Park, will be interviewed by Pritzker Organization CEO Tom Pritzker, April 6 at 6pm at the Cindy Pritzker auditorium at the Harold Washington Library, 400 S. State Street. I should add Gehry is winner of the Pritzker Architecture Prize. The lecture is free to attend.