History does not make room for everyone: many talents fall through the cracks. And even those who have enjoyed their time in the sun often find themselves in the shade on the road. In the 1930s, brothers George Fred Keck and William Keck enjoyed the kind of public profile that architects crave. Their House of Tomorrow was the hit of Chicago’s Century of Progress exhibit, with over a million visitors paying ten cents extra to walk through it. Although they went on to design hundreds of homes, the Kecks never enjoyed the enduring fame of Frank Lloyd Wright or Mies van der Rohe, men who are so firmly associated with design in Illinois. But with The houses of tomorrow: solar houses from Keck to today — on view at the Elmhurst Art Museum through May 29 — the pair get another (and very timely) shot in the spotlight.
Born and educated in Wisconsin, Fred Keck opened his practice in Chicago in 1927 (William joined in 1931) and made a decent business designing conventional suburban homes for real estate developers. Long keen to exercise a more modernist approach, both in terms of design and materials, Fred went to town with The House of Tomorrow, creating a twelve-sided, three-storey glass and steel affair around a central mechanical core and equipped with locally made tubular furniture. While its futuristic appearance and curious amenities (including a hanger for a small plane) captivated visitors, the project also set Keck on the path to exploring the possibilities of passive solar heating when he noticed, thanks to its extensive use of glass, how beautiful the interior has become, even in winter.
After the fair, Keck spent years experimenting with various materials and design strategies to perfect his vision for a solar home. Flat roofs, southern exposures, and measured eaves to mediate the sun’s rays all played a role. While designing a house for real estate developer Howard Sloan, Keck turned to professionals at the Adler Planetarium to follow the path of the sun for three months so he could determine the dimensions of the house’s overhangs. “With the simple notion of using the passive solar idea to save money on their fuel bill, he was able to build hundreds of homes in the Chicagoland area, many of which are still inhabited today,” notes Sarah Cox, Director of Collections and Exhibitions at the Elmhurst Art Museum. “He even created a formula to help him calculate how much his customers would save on their heating bills if they chose a passive solar home design.”
The Elmhurst Museum of Art (whose main permanent exhibit is the Robert McCormick House designed by Mies in 1952) draws on material from the Kecks’ quarry (Fred died in 1980, William in 1995), using historical photos, architectural artifacts and design diagrams to chronicle and assess their impact on residential architecture in the area.
The house that started it all is still standing, but in worse shape. When the Century of Progress exhibit closed, Chicago developer Robert Bartlett moved The House of Tomorrow (along with several other homes built for the fair) to Beverly Shores, Indiana. It passed through several hands before being acquired by the National Park Service in the 1960s. It is currently unoccupied and Indiana Landmarks is accepting proposals for restoration as a single-family residence with a 50-year lease.
Many Keck and Keck houses fared much better. More conventional than The House of Tomorrow, they are excellent examples of Mid Century style – nicely scaled, warm with wood and brick, and oriented satisfyingly towards the landscape. A three-bedroom, three-bathroom house in Glencoe, where the brothers have built several homes, sold last summer for $780,000. In a 1940 magazine article, Fred extolled the virtues of his job – including his passive solar ability – telling readers that if they made forty to fifty dollars a week they could afford a 5 $000.
When the price of fossil fuels fell after World War II, Keck’s solar card was harder to play. Big cars, new appliances, and more, more, more were the order of the day. And truth be told, the architect’s ease with space and materials was probably as much of a selling point as his energy-saving ideas. But while we’re all wondering how to negotiate a warming planet, Keck looks powerful in the moment.
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