Restoration of 1930’s “House of Tomorrow” moving forward

CHICAGO (WANE)  A house built for the 1933-34 Chicago Century of Progress World’s Fair that currently sits atop a sand dune in northwest Indiana may one day return to its original condition due to the efforts of several organizations.

The House of Tomorrow showed World’s Fair visitors during the Great Depression what homes of the future might look like with the utilization of modern technology and how that technology could improve their lives.

Indiana Landmarks, a nonprofit preservation organization headquartered in Indianapolis, aims to restore the House of Tomorrow while sharing Chicago architect George Fred Keck’s goal of making it a visionary dwelling.

At a monthly talk on Tuesday sponsored by AIA Chicago’s Historic Resources Committee, Indiana Landmarks and the National Trust for Historic Preservation announced the team that will lead the rehabilitation of The House of Tomorrow.

Last fall, the National Trust named the site a National Treasure and with Indiana Landmarks launched a $2.5 million campaign to restore the house.

At the time of its display at the World’s Fair, the media called it “America’s First Glass House.” The glass curtain-wall structure predates Mies van der Rohe’s 1951 Farnsworth House in Illinois and Philip Johnson’s 1949 Glass House in Connecticut.

The large expanses of glass introduced the concept of passive solar energy as a sustainable heating technique for the first time. Four years later, Keck developed Thermopane glass with the Libbey-Owens-Ford company. In his long career—he died in 1980—he designed 300 passive solar houses, most in the Chicago area.

Keck also introduced new inventions and modern conveniences in the House of Tomorrow, including an “iceless” refrigerator, the first-ever General Electric dishwasher, and an open floor plan—an innovation in 1933.

To create the twelve glass sides, Keck designed a central hub of posts connected to girders that radiated like the spokes of a wheel. A central steel core contained mechanical equipment. The cantilevered girders provide support for the concrete-slab second and third floors, along with slender steel columns, allowing clear spans for open interior spaces. The rehabilitation will peel away deteriorated surfaces to reveal the original wheel-and-spoke steel structure, and restore the house using smart glass and other cutting-edge technologies and products.

When the World’s Fair closed in 1934, Chicago developer Robert Bartlett used barges and trucks to ship the House of Tomorrow and other Century of Progress structures to Beverly Shores, an Indiana town he was attempting to develop as a vacation destination for Chicagoans. Five Century of Progress houses were sold and remained in private hands until the land became part of the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore between 1966 and the early 1970s.

All five were listed in the National Register of Historic Places in the 1980s, but by the mid-1990s the homes were in alarmingly poor condition. Since there was no public money to restore the houses, Indiana Landmarks proposed a solution that hadn’t been previously considered: long-term leases.

Indiana Landmarks leased the Century of Progress houses from the National Park Service, and over the last 15 years has subleased four of the five to individuals who restored them in exchange for a long-term residency. The restoration cost for each house—borne solely by the sub-lessees—reached over a million dollars. The House of Tomorrow, however, posed unusual challenges and led Indiana Landmarks to tackle the rehabilitation itself.

“With help from the National Trust, we’ve put together a stellar team of Chicago architects, engineers, and preservation and sustainability experts, all of whom are enthusiastic to work on restoring this important Chicago landmark that happens to live in Indiana,” says Todd Zeiger,director of Indiana Landmarks’ northern office in South Bend and House of Tomorrow project manager.

To contribute to the restoration of the House of Tomorrow, a rare World’s Fair survivor that will burnish George Fred Keck’s legacy, visit https://www.indianalandmarks.org/about/special-projects/house-of-tomorrow/.

Information for this article was provided by Indiana Landmarks