IN MEMORIAM: David Bahlman, Preservationist

“In 2004, months after orchestrating the audacious $7.5 million bid to purchase and preserve Mies van der Rohe’s famed Farnsworth House, David Bahlman, who served as president of Landmarks Illinois at the time, found himself in a nervous hurry as he made his way from Chicago to the site of the home in southwest suburban Plano.

“Heavy rain and flooding had hit the area, and Mr. Bahlman was headed to see if water had damaged the architectural masterpiece.

“‘I remember David saying, ‘You know, we’re going to need a boat,'” recalled Jim Peters, who later succeeded Mr. Bahlman as head of the nonprofit preservation group.

“Mr. Bahlman spotted a rowboat for sale in the front yard of a nearby home, quickly closed the deal, and rowed the vessel several hundred yards to the iconic structure. He was relieved to find that water hadn’t climbed above the steel columns that act as stilts and keep the home about 5 feet above ground level.

“‘Nothing would stand in his way; nothing was too big for David, and he was so quick with ideas,’ said Joe Antunovich, another former leader of the group.

“The effort to secure the house, which was put on the block by a private owner, was nail-biting. Failure could have meant the home would be disassembled and moved to a new location away from Illinois and its intended prairie setting next to the Fox River.

“Hours before the Sotheby’s auction in New York City, Mr. Bahlman learned that the preservationists’ bid would most likely be a few million dollars short. Over lunch across the street from the auction house, Mr. Bahlman hatched a plan to secure a bank loan for about $1 million using the potential sale of farmland adjacent to the Farnsworth House as collateral. He pitched the idea to his counterparts at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and they kicked in more funds to help close the deal.

“The Friends of the Farnsworth House advocacy group and the late Sara Lee Corp. CEO John H. Bryan and art dealer Richard Gray also played important support roles in the preservation effort.

“Mr. Bahlman died Nov. 13 from leukemia at his home in Lexington, North Carolina. He was 78.

“The Farnsworth House is open to the public and welcomes more than 10,000 guests annually from all over the world.

“Mr. Bahlman began his work at Landmarks Illinois in 1999 and soon found himself up against plans to demolish the former Cook County Hospital building. The Beaux Arts-style building was spared and today houses hotels, retail and office space, and a food hall.

“‘He was only with Landmarks Illinois for about nine years, but he had a huge impact during that time,’ Peters said. ‘And he was so good because he was able to kind of work all the various sides of the aisle — government, developers, advocates — in a way that not a lot of people can do. And he was a very charming guy, but not a pushover.’ (Dudek, Chicago Sun-Times, 1/4/24)

Read the full obituary at the Chicago Sun-Times


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