May 4, 2017

He Saw The Future: George Fred Keck And The House Of Tomorrow

Today, the name George Fred Keck is synonymous with the House of Tomorrow, a 12-sided, glass-and-steel residence built for the 1933 Century of Progress International Exposition in Chicago. This marvel represented the optimism for the future and strides in technological advances following the Great Depression. Despite the house’s popularity at the Exposition, no one requested Keck to design a similar house for themselves (Keck didn't expect people to, but he was happy to do it if someone asked him), making it truly one of a kind.

After years of deferred maintenance, however, the famous house is sitting vacant and deteriorating on Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. Working with the National Park Service and Indiana Landmarks, the National Trust has a vision to restore the innovative and promising legacy of architect George Keck that was so far ahead of its time.

House of Tomorrow Historic Exterior

photo by: Hedrich Blessing/Chicago History Museum

The House of Tomorrow wasn’t the only structure that Keck built. For over 40 years, Keck and his brother, William Keck, designed Modern houses across the Midwest and the Chicago area.

George Keck completed his degree in architecture in 1920, after starting out at the University of Wisconsin studying engineering and then transferring to the University of Illinois for architectural engineering. After a brief stint working in New York City, he moved to Chicago and started his own firm in 1926. His brother joined him a few years later, and in 1946, the architecture firm Keck & Keck was born.

Keck’s background in engineering likely influenced his developing architectural designs and ideas. The architect Le Corbusier, whom Keck looked up to, asserted in his book Toward an Architecture (1923) that architects should approach their work as engineers approach theirs—by always looking for improvements in their designs.

This must have clicked with Keck, because he designed the mechanical systems in the House of Tomorrow first. Then, he moved on to the floor plans, and lastly he designed the building’s appearance. This inside-out approach differed dramatically with the way contemporary architects approached their work.

However, Keck didn’t want to design the way contemporary architects did. Though it may seem anachronistic that the House of Tomorrow was conceived in the early years of the 1930s, it gives a hint at the future direction of architecture into full-blown Modernism. Keck’s vision matched with that of Le Corbusier and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Europeans who were already experimenting with the International Style and minimalist approaches.

Like with the International Style, Keck prided functionalism over everything else. In his own words, Keck explained that the House of Tomorrow was “to demonstrate mechanical equipment and building materials;…to not find a specific form to a house, but to find solutions to the many and varied contemporary requirements of a residence in a simple and direct manner.”

He wanted to show the public that efficiently designed residences could be assembled quickly and replicated all over the world, eventually improving people’s lives and society in general.

“Keck was the only major architect in Chicago doing Modern. There was nothing else modern to look at except the Art Deco office buildings of Holabird and Root.”

Robert Bruce Tague

While Keck’s architectural vision can (and should) be considered progressive, he didn’t suffer from tunnel-vision or baseless optimism. The airplane hangar at the House of Tomorrow, for example, was likely inspired by the growing fascination with aviation and Charles Lindbergh’s flight across the Atlantic Ocean. Though it seemed fantastical to many then—and to many today—Keck noticed the current trend and incorporated it into his designs.

Keck’s impact was far-reaching. According to Robert Bruce Tague, the chief draftsman in the Keck’s office for ten years starting in 1934, “Keck was the only major architect in Chicago doing [M]odern. There was nothing else modern to look at except the Art Deco office buildings of Holabird and Root.” When Keck passed away in 1980, his firm could claim almost 1,000 houses and municipal buildings as their work.

Keck and his work laid the foundation for new ways of approaching architecture and design. The House of Tomorrow predates two of the most popular glass houses, Philip Johnson’s Glass House and Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House. While his modern houses can be found scattered throughout Chicago and the Midwest, The House of Tomorrow may be George Keck's most famous work, as it achieved what he most hoped for—that the house show the public how new technology and modern design was attainable and probable.

Meghan White Headshot

Meghan White is a historic preservationist and a former assistant editor for Preservation magazine. She has a penchant for historic stables, absorbing stories of the past, and one day rehabilitating a Charleston single house.

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