THE INDEPENDENT VOICE OF THE VISUAL ARTS

 

Yesterday's House of Tomorrow

The House of Tomorrow, Built 1933 by George Fred Keck

by Lauren Whitney

 

The House of Tomorrow is one of a kind. A creation of George Fred Keck—a true American Modernist—this innovative glass house helped pioneer American Modernism. It was built to give hope, and yet it now sits empty, completely dilapidated and in desperate need of attention. The next investor in the House of Tomorrow will need deep pockets, boundless passion, and unwavering determination.

No: the house is not dead. Though my images may show how broken it is, there is still a heartbeat. This very faint heartbeat seemingly persists as if the building is waiting for the perfect someone—a hero—to come in and wake it up.

The House of Tomorrow was a part of the Homes of Tomorrow Exhibition for the Century of Progress International Exposition. Held in Chicago from May 27 through November 12 of 1933, it was back up again from May 26 through October 31 of 1934 because of how successful the original run was. The original goal of the Exposition was to commemorate Chicago’s past, but with the backdrop of the Great Depression, the fair evolved into an event with a deeper purpose: inspiring optimism in the face of an uncertain future.

 

House of Tomorrow Exterior. Photo by LaurenWhitney.

 

The fair’s theme was technological innovation. The Exposition included and encouraged corporate participation along with scientific participation to educate the public on how science and technology are essential. By advertising new inventions and encouraging the public to adopt them, the Exposition helped cement Americans’ faith in the promise and power of science, particularly electricity-based solutions for everyday life.

The House of Tomorrow included a structural steel building material, air conditioning, and a dishwasher. At the time, these items were groundbreaking for everyday homes. All are now commonplace. More exotic amenities included an airplane hangar next to the one-car garage on the ground floor. With the House of Tomorrow, Keck realized his own unique vision of how cooperation across the government, business, and science might enable future families to live.

This past June, I was blessed with the wonderful opportunity to photograph the House of Tomorrow.  I already knew the exterior as a result of many drives past the house; this was my first trip inside the home, and it was a fantastic and moving experience. Overwhelmed with emotion, I found it very hard not to scream in excitement with each new room I visited. Documenting this home was much more than checking it off my bucket list as a photographer; it was the fulfillment of a dream.

The three-story dodecagon house is approximately 2800 square feet, resembling a three-tiered wedding cake. A staircase spirals around the supporting steel tube at the center of the building. Steel beams extend throughout the structure, allowing for floor-to-ceiling glass walls on the upper two floors. Keck did not intentionally design the House of Tomorrow to be solar, but that is exactly what he achieved with the enclosing glass. This glass house construction predated Philip Johnson’s Glass House and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House by more than a decade.

The house’s experimental design prioritized function over form in order to solve anticipated needs for the future. That approach did result in some notable issues with thermal regulation. The primitive A/C could not keep up with the temperature swings caused by the floor-to-ceiling windows, creating dramatic and inconsistent temperatures inside the house.

The biggest surprise during my visit was all of the color I observed. Specifically, paint had fallen away from the steel beams, revealing the original colors from 1933. Beautiful green and red paint, now dull and dirty, was still very much there. I can only imagine how Keck intended the house to look.

Bold and striking hues remained throughout the house, including on the air ducts, steel beams, floors, and ceilings. To date, I have not found any images of what the house looked like with these original colors. However, Robert Boyce’s book on Keck’s architectural achievements (Keck and Keck, published in 1993 by Princeton Architectural Press) detailed vibrant colors throughout the home: an orange floor in the workshop; red curtains with a blue ceiling in the recreation room; turquoise walls with a green rubber floor in the children’s room. These bright tones were ultimately unpopular with the sponsors, and the decision was made to paint the house in pastels, grays, and beiges.

 

Top: House of Tomorrow 2nd floor living room.

Bottom: House of Tomorrow looking south.

Photos by Lauren Whitney.

 

Once the Exposition was over, Robert Bartlett purchased five Century of Progress homes, including the House of Tomorrow. Robert was a developer from Indiana who had purchased Beverly Shores, Indiana from his older brother, Frederick Bartlett. He sought to create greater awareness of Beverly Shores, which was intended to be a resort-like community. Four of the homes were shipped by barge across Lake Michigan, while the Cypress House was disassembled and then reassembled next door to the House of Tomorrow.

Whether the house appealed to people at the time of the exhibit or more than eight decades later, seeing it was a memorable experience, and its trailblazing features remain an impressive tribute to American ingenuity. As the country’s first glass house, it is very surprising that this building does not receive more credit and recognition. Keck was ahead of his time, and he mentored or influenced many other notable architects and designers, including Robert Bruce Tague, Bertrand Goldberg, and Marianne Willisch. Given this impact, you would expect demand for him to build another House of Tomorrow. Keck knew what he was doing; with more than 800 homes throughout Chicagoland credited to him, I am sure he could have created another House of Tomorrow. Yet I believe he knew there could be only one House of Tomorrow.

Built to inspire Americans by offering a glimpse of their technologically advanced future, this iconic structure is now vacant and in need of hope and vision. It is not lost. It is still adored by many people—I among them.

Indiana Landmarks, Indiana Dunes National Park, and the National Trust for Historic Preservation are partnering in efforts to restore the House of Tomorrow. They plan to sublease the properties to anyone who can restore the house in exchange for a 50-year lease.

I do believe in this house. I also believe in perfect timing. Much as this house’s construction and the Exposition’s timing were perfect, this house has persevered, and the timing will again be perfect when it finds someone to extend the legacy of the House of Tomorrow.

 

A Chicagoland native, Lauren Whitney has been a freelance architectural photographer since 2009. Photographing architecture is not just her passion, but also her purpose and responsibility. www.laurenwhitneyphotography.com

 

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