Photo courtesy Lee Lewellen
On an ashen, late-November day, 60-mile-per-hour winds frothed the waters of Lake Michigan, cowed a stand of evergreens, and violently rippled the stem-to-stern protective housewrap covering the House of Tomorrow. Though the structure maintains its iconic layer-cake silhouette against the gray sky, beneath the insulation, much has changed since it arrived here in 1935. Years of exposure to the elements have yielded thick brown rust on the exterior steel porch railings, while the metal railings inside, kept bone-dry by preservation efforts, remain their original stark white. Previously encased in glass, the home is now darkened by protective plywood blotting out the sun, save for one temporary pane.
The one-of-a-kind architectural wonder has been in survival mode for more than 80 years. Constructed as an attraction at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair, the house has weathered its share of storms and strong wind advisories, plus a move across state lines and bouts of both neglect and restoration attempts gone wrong. Still, it stands. Not bad for a model home that took less than three months to construct and was never meant to endure beyond the exposition, much less be inhabited.
When it debuted, the dodecagonal (that’s 12-sided) glass-and-steel home, with floor-to-ceiling glazed single-pane windows on its second and third floors, offered scenic views at every turn. The fair billed it as “America’s first glass house,” which now carries great architectural significance—it predates two of the most popular modern houses in America, Philip Johnson’s Glass House of 1949 and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House of 1951, both National Historic Landmarks. Some interior walls were covered with black and gray Carrara plate glass, and the flooring was black walnut. Each room displayed furniture and lighting designed specifically for the house.
The House of Tomorrow was a hit at the World’s Fair, one of the few attractions permitted to charge an entry fee of its own, on top of general admission. Millions of visitors toured the futuristic home on the lakeshore, waving to fairgoers below as if they might, at any moment, depart on an epic cruise.
Now, the dilapidated interior resembles the underwater ruins of a sunken ship. Sitting high and dry on a dune in Northern Indiana, the House of Tomorrow looks like a billboard for Kimberly-Clark in its mummified state and seems slight in comparison to the hopeful house conceived to boost the morale of the American people. For a few years, Indiana Landmarks, the caretaker, has been offering a free 50-year lease for whomever will rehab it and live there, and it recently came out with a $2.5 million restoration plan the lessee can follow. After the Miller House in Columbus, the House of Tomorrow has a decent claim on being the most architecturally meaningful residence in the state. It has even been deemed a National Treasure. But as more and more tomorrows become yesterdays, its name is threatening to sound like a cruel twist of irony.
George Fred Keck, the House of Tomorrow designer, grew up admiring a forward-looking home, an eight-sided, pre–Civil War house in his hometown of Watertown, Wisconsin. Without electricity, the Octagon House’s maker, a pioneer named John Richards, installed a ventilation system and running water. Keck’s ancestry was another early influence. “Keck was steeped in the German culture of his family,” says Dave Erickson, an archivist at the Wisconsin Historical Society who has been processing the museum’s Keck collection. “He kept an eye on what was going on in Germany and with European Modernism.”
Settling in Chicago in 1921, Keck worked as a draftsman at several top offices, including Daniel Burnham’s company, before striking out on his own. His Modernist ideals broadened and led to his role as founding director of the School of Architecture at the influential New Bauhaus academy in Chicago. He later helped convince esteemed Hungarian artist László Moholy-Nagy to assume leadership of the art school, carrying over principles of the Bauhaus in Germany.
Hoping to gain recognition of his own at the World’s Fair, Keck translated his boyhood fascination with the Octagon House and his European Modernist design sensibilities into a modern structure using the latest materials and technologies: the show-stopping House of Tomorrow.
It was a marvel even amid the spectacle of that year’s fair, a vibrant rainbow city full of neon. More than 39 million people—greater than the current population of Canada—attended the two-year event. The theme, A Century of Progress, intended to extol times ahead and deliver a much-needed shot of optimism to a nation in the grips of the Great Depression. Exhibitions showcased the latest in technology and design. A watercolor postcard portrays the house looming against a bright orange sky. “Of the dozen or so model homes in the exhibit, all made of brick and wood, the House of Tomorrow really stood out,” says Chicago historian Jim Laukes, who is making a documentary on the Kecks.
The house was built around a spiral staircase, impaled through its center by a cylindrical utility chase. The tube housed electrical wiring and brought up conditioned air, and a ring of steel beams radiated out from it like dancers on a maypole. The beams supported the roof and allowed it to cantilever out on all sides, so the glass windows wouldn’t bear the roof’s weight. Keck installed protective steel turnbuckles to keep the house from twisting sideways; otherwise, the giant sheets of glass would have shattered.
Petal-shaped rooms flowed from one into the next. A Pierce-Arrow Silver Arrow roadster, one of just five ever built, was parked in the attached garage, next to a replica of a Charles Lindbergh plane in the hangar (because Keck thought the typical family would own an airplane by now).
Other amenities, while oddities at the time, would become the status quo—the first dishwasher by General Electric, central air conditioning, and a garage door that opened with the touch of a button. The airplane hangar, likely inspired by the zeitgeist (a growing fascination with aviation), was far-fetched for its time, though not a far cry from today’s four-car-garage reality.
After the fair’s end, the house, along with four others in the exhibit, caught the eye of Robert Bartlett, a real-estate developer behind Beverly Shores, Indiana, a vacation destination for Chicagoans. The homes would be the perfect gimmick to attract new tenants, so he barged them across the water and slid them up the dunes on wooden poles to their final destination.
Bartlett modified the House of Tomorrow’s original windows, making them operate like conventional casement windows for more air flow. He also made a few other changes to the ground floor, which no longer required an airplane hangar. He found a buyer in 1938, and the home was still occupied when the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore was established in 1966. In the 1970s, the National Park Service purchased all five of Bartlett’s historic houses. The owners were allowed to stay until the late 1990s, at which point the NPS leased the homes to Indiana Landmarks. The preservation group performed architectural triage on the House of Tomorrow with help from the Efyromson Family Endangered Places Acquisition Fund, adding a new roof and stabilizing and weatherproofing the structure. Landmarks and NPS decided the Century of Progress homes should be rehabbed by new lessees rather than turned into attractions (because they weren’t prepared to run them and there’s no room for a parking lot). But some of them had not been well-maintained.
As of today, four homes have been restored and occupied in exchange for a free long-term lease. Adventurous tenants who had both money and a philanthropic bent restored the flamingo-pink Florida Tropical House, the synthetic-stone Rostone House, the cabin-style Cypress Log House, and the porcelain-enamel Armco-Ferro House. But the grande dame, the House of Tomorrow, the largest and most unusual of the five, remains empty.
Keck had a long, successful career designing private residences, which isn’t an easy way to sustain a small architecture firm. He is now considered the godfather of passive solar heating with a cult following to match, and the House of Tomorrow is one of his earliest examples (albeit an accidental one). But he lacks the notoriety of his contemporaries, which might make putting up with the fuss of restoring the house less attractive to the already-narrow field of potential soulmates.
Despite some updates made by the House of Tomorrow’s previous owners, a major intervention is now needed to make the house livable again and avoid demolition—a word no one is using, though eventually an unwanted house inevitably becomes endangered. There has been one, although ill-fated, attempt to rehab the House of Tomorrow in recent years. The prospective tenant was Susan Schanlaber Barnes, a preservationist who grew up in a Keck-designed home and, according to The New York Times, remembered meeting Keck as a child and hearing him discuss the House of Tomorrow. It seemed promising—Barnes was George W. Bush’s appointee to lead the Historic Preservation Commission. But according to Indiana Landmarks, Barnes deviated from the agreed-upon restoration plans, and they sued to end the lease. Landmarks says the case was resolved in its favor in 2010, but by then, according to court documents, the group had kicked Barnes out and claimed she left $140,000 in damage.
Todd Zeiger, northern regional director of Indiana Landmarks and restoration manager for the Century for Progress homes, says Barnes’s experience doesn’t mean the house is too difficult to renovate. But it does have challenges. Bill Beatty, who refurbished the Florida Tropical House, knows perhaps better than anyone. “I can’t begin to estimate the sweat equity that went into restoring this house, but I’ve got a million-dollar view,” says the semi-retired business owner whose leased home sits on the sandy lakeshore. “It’s one of the stupidest things I’ve ever done. And the most satisfying.”
The House of Tomorrow is double the size of Beatty’s stucco house—do the sweat-equity math. But the work isn’t the stumbling block for potential lessee. “It’s technical, but not Herculean,” Zeiger says. Landmarks may even come through with materials and labor sponsorships (which happens to be the strategy Keck used when constructing the house). The challenge is finding a tenant who wants to live in the house Keck envisioned. Landmarks won’t approve anyone who isn’t committed to the original design; restoring the 12-sided glass exterior is non-negotiable. And the person has to be OK with spending $2.5 million and never owning the house.
“It’s one of the stupidest things I’ve ever done,” says Bill Beatty, who restored the Florida Tropical House. “And the most satisfying.”
On the plus side, Landmarks has a team of Chicago-area architects and engineers ready to execute its restoration plan. “We can utilize new materials that replicate Keck’s design,” says Zeiger, “and allow it to stand for another 100 years without having to go through this again.” The plan contains quite a bit of wiggle room to accommodate today’s way of life, including 21st-century finishes and a modernized layout (Keck crammed two bedrooms, a bathroom, a living room, and a kitchen onto the second floor). The intention is also to make the house as green as possible, picking up where Keck left off with geothermal heating; smaller, more efficient HVAC systems; and radiant-heat floors. “We want this to be the House of Tomorrow for tomorrow,” says Ed Torrez, president and principal of Bauer Latoza Studio, and one of the architects on the restoration team.
The free-lease arrangement received a plug on The Today Show, and a lot of pipe-dream applications have landed on Zeiger’s desk. “Folks don’t necessarily read past the headlines, so they think that they can just, literally, pitch a tent and then restore the house, which isn’t going to happen,” Zeiger says.
It’s easy to fret about anything at all happening at the House of Tomorrow as Zeiger awaits viable proposals. It has been 20 years since the handoff to Landmarks, although the group hasn’t actively searched for a tenant for that entire time. Zeiger has faith. The free lease isn’t a publicity stunt, like the one that landed the House of Tomorrow on Indiana shores in the first place, and a Landmarks leadership group is working on identifying potential suitors.
“It’s a successful model,” Zeiger says. “We just need to find the right person.”
And if they don’t? Landmarks isn’t close to thinking about that. The House of Tomorrow, built on a foundation of optimism, might ultimately live on thanks to its adopted environment of Hoosier pragmatism. “There isn’t a manual on how to do this sort of thing,” Zeiger says. “We’ll figure it out.”