House of Tomorrow declared a “National Treasure”

house of tomorrow
Public Domain Wisconsin Historical Society

George Fred Keck designed the House of Tomorrow for the 1933 Century of Progress Exhibition in Chicago, and it was a wonder, seen by eight hundred thousand people.

It had everything a modern house needed: air conditioning (a must with all that glass), the first GE residential dishwasher, and an innovative open floor plan, "all of which Keck believed could improve the quality of daily life for people grappling with the grim realities of the Great Depression." Oh, and it had an airplane hangar in the basement because Keck thought everyone in the future would get around that way.

house of tomorrow interiorChicago History Museum/Public Domain
“At a time when millions of Americans were out of work and the nation was facing enormous economic challenges, the House of Tomorrow was a source of hope for a better future,” said David J. Brown, executive vice president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. “George Keck’s groundbreaking design, along with futuristic household amenities, reflected a central theme of the Century of Progress — the power of science and technology to dramatically improve people’s lives.”

Now the National Trust for Historic Preservation has declared the house a National Treasure, a designation that will help the local organization to raise money for its restoration. Indiana Landmarks notes on their website:

The House of Tomorrow was among the first residential buildings to employ a glass curtain-wall structure, predating both Mies van der Rohe’s renowned Farnsworth House and Philip Johnson’s Glass House by many years. It was also among the first buildings in America to use passive solar energy as a sustainable heating and cooling technique.

I have bold-faced that statement because it is hard to see what is passive and sustainable. On Curbed, Patrick Sisson writes that "Keck envisioned a flowing, open home, wrapping the living space in what he called “curtain walls” of glass, connecting residents with the outdoors, and providing passive solar heat. "Tony Denzer, in his book the Solar House, suggests otherwise. He writes:

When Keck designed the House of Tomorrow for the Century of progress position in Chicago, he did not specifically intend to build a solar house- such a concept was unknown. Rather, he meant to create a futuristic provocation… At the time, Keck and his team did not mention solar heat at all. In fact, the promoted the house as having been “designed around an air conditioning system.”

pop mech© Popular Mechanics

Popular Mechanics Magazine in 1933 backs him up; there is no mention of solar except for lighting.

The frame is exposed, forming part of the decoration, and heating ducts are also used for ornamentation. Movable wardrobes, easily cleaned, replace closets, wall serve to admit light by day, indirect lighting is provided by night, and heating, cooling, and ventilating are controlled by a central unit and air conditioning system.

House of Tomorrow movedIndiana Landmarks/via

In the end, the house overheated constantly; the air conditioning system couldn’t cope with the sun and the crowds. Even after the house was moved and the full windows were replaced with smaller ones, and the house was surrounded by trees, it still overheated.

The house was also designed around the principles described in our earlier post about fighting disease with design; according to Popular Mechanics:

Popular sciencePopular Science/Screen capture

It is a housekeeper’s paradise, since there are no corners for dirt to collect, walls, floors and ceilings can be washed, and as there are no open windows and all air is cleaned, the only dirt likely to find its way inside must com through the doors.

Denzer notes that when the house is restored to its full glazing, it will require ten tons of air conditioning. That is hardly passive or sustainable, but it is still a wonder.

House of Tomorrow declared a “National Treasure”
But is it passive and sustainable?

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