Glass walls, cutting-edge appliances, a personal airplane hangar: while the House of Tomorrow, designed by Chicago architect George Fred Keck for the city’s 1933-34 Century of Progress Exposition, was built decades ago, it still offers a dream for the future. His model home’s expansive vision included an attached garage, then a rarity, and a prescient understanding of modern design and connecting with nature. Keck told Popular Mechanics magazine that his residential experiment wasn’t designed to be tricky or difficult, but to “determine if better conditions for living could be found.”
“At a time when people were living in dark bungalows, designing a home of glass was very innovative,” says Todd Zeiger, a director at Indiana Landmarks, an organization working to restore the home.
Keck’s vision, a precursor to the grand, glass-encased modern homes that define modern architecture, has lost its luster over the preceding decades: since its Chicago debut, the home was relocated by barge to the Northern Indiana lakeshore, where it currently sits, empty and unoccupied. But a just-announced historical designation will, hopes Zeiger and other local preservationists, renew the public’s attention and appreciation for this retro-futuristic landmark, and help it gain its rightful place in the modernist canon.
Today’s announcement that the House of Tomorrow has been declared a National Treasure by the National Trust for Historic Preservation—the first such designation in Indiana—will help preservationists rally around a new restoration initiative for the home. Marsh Davis, President of Indiana Landmarks, estimates it’ll take two years and $2 million to bring the House of Tomorrow back to it’s glittering, grand self, and sees today’s announcement as a important catalyst to move forward.
Designed and built during the early years of the Great Depression, the House of Tomorrow was a striking, optimistic vision of the future. The unorthodox, octagonal home, was part of Chicago’s Century of Progress Exposition, which took place on Northerly Island in Lake Michigan from 1933-1934, one of more than a dozen designs in the Homes of Tomorrow exhibition.
One of the most popular exhibits at the fair, the new homes showcased advances in design and architecture, including prefabricated construction and personal helipads. Among the innovative and outlandish, Keck’s design stood out. His blueprint for the home, a radical jump forward from Victorian-era architecture, exemplified the progressive theme of the fair, and was a massive hit. More than 1.2 million people paid an extra 10 cents to tour the house, which contained modern wonders such as an “iceless” refrigerator and General Electric’s first dishwasher.
Keck envisioned a flowing, open home, wrapping the living space in what he called “curtain walls” of glass, connecting residents with the outdoors, and providing passive solar heat. Years before Philip Johnson or Mies van der Rohe realized their own glass houses, Keck utilized a steel frame and spoke-and-hub system to support large panes of glass, a structural system akin to those used in skyscrapers. According to Zeiger, Keck’s eight-sided home was also a riff off an old octagonal Victorian home that was on the street where he lived.
The home’s radical exterior was matched by an equally modern interior, filled with new products and then cutting-edge appliances. While other model homes at the exhibition were funded by corporate interests trying to push their products, Keck’s contribution was funded by the architect and his backers, with the mission of pushing residential architecture forward.
The futuristic home was ahead of its time, and not always for the better. The stunning glass walls, which provided massive solar gain and passive heating in the winter, taxed early air conditioning systems during the humid Chicago summers, and visitors occasionally had to leave due to overheating. Keck learned from this experience, and as part of his film Keck & Keck, would continue to develop and refine his ideas for modern homes and passive solar heating, most famously with his boxy Crystal House of 1938.
After the Fair, the House of Tomorrow, along with four other Century of Progress homes, were purchased by developer Roger Bartlett and shipped across the lake by barge to their current homes on Beverly Shores in Indiana, 60 miles southeast of downtown Chicago. Bartlett tried to use these homes as billboards and attractions to draw in potential homeowners, whom he hoped would buy into his vision of turning the area into a new vacation destination.
His plan fizzled during the Depression, and the five Century of Progress houses were sold and remained in private hands until the land became part of the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, a unit of the National Park Service. Indiana Landmarks is now raising funds to restore the House of Tomorrow, which the group is leasing from the National Park Service. It’ll then be subleased for residential use.
Currently, the home sits mothballed, wrapped in a protective layer of Tyvek and perched on a dune overlooking the lake, a “poor man’s Christo,” according to Zeiger. But not for long. Indiana Landmarks hopes the National Treasure designation can help kickstart fundraising for the home. The planned restoration, which they hope to finish by 2019, will respect Keck’s original vision and design, a top-to-bottom update that will even replace the structural steel. While a restored House of Tomorrow won’t recreate Bartlett’s vision of a vacation community on the lake, it will perhaps turn this stretch of land into destination for tourists.
“I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to think it’ll have a big impact on architectural tourism in the area,” says Davis. “It’s right up there with other glass houses and Corbusier’s machine for living.”