It was 80 years ago this month that construction began on Fred Keck's "House of Tomorrow" at Chicago's Century of Progress exposition.
Keck said he 'discovered' solar heating when he found workers inside the house wearing only shirtsleeves on a frigid winter day. This is the legendary 'shirtsleeves story' which I deconstruct in the book. Still it is clear that the House of Tomorrow set Keck on a powerful, decade-long inquiry that culminated in the solar house movement of the 1940s.
My friend Jim Laukes, an independent scholar formerly of the National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT), wrote the following tribute:
Well done and salutations on your 80th birthday, House of Tomorrow
Still holding out on a bluff overseeing the assaulting waves of a tumultuous inland sea, The House of Tomorrow, designed primarily by Chicago architect George Fred Keck for the 1933 Chicago Century of Progress Exposition has gained iconic stratospheres unanticipated at its inception. Rare is the book on any aspect of American World’s Fairs which lacks a photo and mention of it.
As a precipitously late entry into the Home and Industrial Arts group, it made an unusual fit. Neighboring Model Homes proclaimed sponsors such as aptly named Southern Cypress Manufacturers’ Association, American Lumberman’s Association, Brick Manufacturers Association, Masonite Corporation, Stransteel Corporation and the ‘breezy’ State of Florida which chose reinforced concrete as prime material. The glass and steel House of Tomorrow stood out on the proverbial limb, awaiting the huff and puff of a Neptunesque big bad wolf which might proverbially progress in blowhard destruction from straw to wood to brick. Recall that this grouping was only a few hog hollers east, and downwind, from the broad-shouldered stock yards. Steel-reinforced concrete stood as an obvious improvement, be it for wolves or hurricanes. (Straw was unrepresented in 1933 – see 1871 calamity - for fire safety reasons alone.) But those twelve sided expanses of single strength plate glass? Hubris or prescience?
Another exception awarded the House of Tomorrow was the commercial status of ‘concession’ – the ability to charge a 10 cent fee. Entry tickets to the Fair were 50 cents unless discounts applied and most exhibits were included. A 1931 Century of Progress rulebook for the Model Homes in the Home and Industrial Arts group defined them as exhibits and admission fees were expressly forbidden. Somehow this latecomer managed a ‘unique’ place on the Midway to Manna. More on this and related repercussions such as Chicago-style backroom business practices in a later writing.
If icons need heroic if not also tragic proportions, a saga of solar heating will perform nicely here. A story arose some years after the Fair closed that during a stage of construction, a few workmen had shed their winter coats while laboring inside the enclosed space. But the furnace was not yet operating. It's known as "the shirtsleeves story." This led Keck to begin speculation that the sun streaming bountifully through the glass was a readily available, cost-efficient source of space heating. In many retellings, this took on a form akin to Isaac Newton’s gravitas apple. Sometimes the date of this accidental epiphany was set in February or less specifically after a freezing night. With construction just getting underway in April, it’s likely that the glazing was not completed until very late in April or, more probably, in early May. Two books, The Solar Home: Pioneering Sustainable Design by Anthony Denzer (just published) and Let it Shine: The 6000 Year History of Solar Energy by John Perlin (available August 2013) elaborate on aspects of this tale.
As a self-proclaimed practitioner and student of Modernism, Keck’s model home should not be considered ahistorically. Estimable efforts by Mies van der Rohe such as the Barcelona Pavilion and the Tugendhat House deserve vital consideration. As the paths of Mies and Keck would intersect at a later date, this must be pursued in further writings.
So, Happy Birthday, House of Tomorrow, and here’s a toast to a hundred more!
And on the subject of Keck-related anniversaries, it's been 20 years since the last serious scholarly study of Keck's work: Robert Boyce's Keck & Keck: The Poetics of Comfort. That's far too long for a figure of Keck's significance.