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George & William Keck: Sibling architects who saw the future

The Midwest visionaries built the literal Home of Tomorrow decades before modernism made its mark

The House of Tomorrow at the 1933 Century of Progress International Exposition in Chicago, designed by the Keck brothers.
Hedrich Blessing Collection/Chicago History Museum/Getty Images

Chicago’s William and George Fred Keck, sibling architect who spent decades working out of their office in the Michigan-Ohio Building in Chicago’s Loop, were best known at visionaries. They boldly pushed modern design as far back as the 1930s, when most homeowners didn’t dream beyond cookie-cutter Colonials.

While some of their designs boldly aimed for the future—one demonstration home featured both a car garage and airplane hanger—they were much more practical than some of their plans suggest. As William, the youngest, once told an interviewer, "There's nothing wrong with looking at history and taking the best of it and applying it to the future." Engineers at heart, they built homes with solutions, not stereotypes, in mind.

“No intelligent person would build in the traditional manner today,” George Fred Keck told The Architectural Forum in 1941. “It is only the badly trained architect who harps on traditional at all.”

During a career that spanned decades, during which the siblings finished more than 800 projects and became two of Chicagoland’s busiest modern architects, they still sweated the small details. One of their larger works, a 16-story public housing project in Chicago called Prairie Avenue Courts, even utilized shadow studies to make sure the shade fell on the parking lot rather than the neighboring row houses.

Biography

The Keck brothers, two of five boys, were born and raised in the small southeastern Wisconsin city of Watertown. The eldest, George Fred (named after his father, Fred George) became obsessed with building early, inspired by the family’s roots in the furniture industry. In high school, he built an entire sailboat without considering how he would remove it from the woodshop (he was forced to pop out a shop window).

After studying engineering and architecture, George Fred spent a few brief years working in New York City before returning to Chicago and opening his own firm in 1926. His 1929 design for the Miralago Night Club in Wilmette, Illinois, which featured a smooth white exterior, was one of Chicagoland’s early modernist designs. William would join five years later, eventually becoming the second half of the film Keck & Keck, where he worked until his passing.

The Kellett residence, a curving, two-story structure with stone and wood panel walls, completed in 1941 at Winnefox Point in Menasha, Wisconsin.
Hedirch Blessing Collection/Chicago History Museum/Getty Images

At a time when Corbusier was decidedly avant-garde and Mies van der Rohe hadn’t arrived in the U.S., the Kecks were already thinking about streamlined, modern designs. George Fred, inspired by Corbusier, took to heart his maxim that architects should work like engineers. He would later teach at the New Bauhaus in Chicago (now the Illinois Institute of Technology) and incorporate the ideal of the International Style into his designs. At the time, the assumption was that only Europeans designed modern homes, so William enjoyed telling the story of how his brother, at a pre-war design conference at Princeton, was complimented on his English and asked how long he’d been in the U.S.

The brothers’ early brush with fame came during the House of Tomorrow Exhibition at the Century of Progress Exhibition, which drew crowds to Chicago in 1933 and 1934. Each year, the Kecks created a different futuristic home. The first, in 1933, was an 8-sided House of Tomorrow which featured a suite of high-end appliances and glass walls. The following year, they debuted the Crystal House, a boxy steel prefab that looked like a cross between the Glass House and the Pompidou Centre.

Their real breakthrough, however, didn’t come during the design phase of these model homes, it came during construction. As workmen assembled the House of Tomorrow during a typically freezing Chicago winter in 1933, the greenhouse effect from the glass facade trapped so much heat, they were able to work in their shirtsleeves. The brothers keyed into this energy-saving aspect of the design, which became a cornerstone of their work. Quick, back-of-the-envelope math led them to discover homes designed like this could save 15-20 percent on energy costs.

For decades afterwards, the brothers pioneered the use of double-glazed windows, radiant heat, and siting to take advantage of passive solar power. Starting with a pair of homes—the Wilde home in their hometown of Watertown, and the Sloan Residence in Glenview, a Chicago suburb—they would continue to refine their technique. A 1941 Chicago Tribune article noted the Sloan Home kept the interior at 71 degrees without running the furnace, desire negative-one degree temperatures. The brothers would continue to refine these ideas as they designed homes, Eicher-like subdivisions, and the occasional commercial commission.

At a time when energy conservation was well outside of mainstream thought, the Keck’s focused on progressive, more sustainable design. When clients inevitably complained about the heat trapped inside a Keck and Keck home, William would repeat, again and again, that they could always just open a window.

The Crystal House at the Century of Progress International Exposition in Chicago in 1934.
Hedrich Blessing Collection/Chicago History Museum/Getty Images

Buildings to know

The House of Tomorrow, a bold experiment in modern living, could be considered their most influential and inspiring design. Built from the inside out, with than-cutting-edge mechanical systems encased in an octagonal glass display case, it was designed to “find solutions” to modern life. During the fair, the home’s matching garage and airplane hangar contained a replica of famous aviator Charles Lindbergh’s plane, and saw 1.2 million visitors. It’s currently in the midst of a $2 million restoration project.

Another famed Keck residential design, the Edward McCormick Blair home in Glenview, Illinois, is tragically no more. Recently demolished, the home was named a residence of exceptional distinction by Architectural Record in 1957. A gorgeous two-story glass resident in one of the most scenic corners of the North Shore of Lake Michigan, it was demolished late last year after going years without a buyer.

Legacy and reputation today

In the Chicago architectural canon, other names, such as Mies and Wright, will always be larger-than-life. But their relatively small output, compared the the hundreds of homes designed by the brothers, means few people can truly experience life inside their creations. Today, Keck homes attract a significant premium (the unsold Blair home was asking $10 million). Even the original 1940 Sloan Home asked $750,000. The brothers have also become a respected part of the city’s rich design heritage, winning the First Illinois Medal in Architecture from the University of Illinois-Champaign in 1980.

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