Feature: Houses of Tomorrow Exhibit Explores Solar Design From the 1930s to Today

When the Homes of Tomorrow exhibit opened at Chicago’s 1933 Century of Progress, George Fred Keck’s design for a solar-powered glass house was a radical move into the future. Today, we can celebrate the evolution of solar power over the years, as well as its role in the 21st century home and in the climate emergency. The Elmhurst Art Museum’s new exhibit, Houses of Tomorrow: Solar Homes From Keck to Today, addresses that radical idea and its evolution. The exhibit displays photos from the glass house and some of Keck’s other home designs, from the Keck & Keck architectural practice with his brother, William Keck. The museum exhibit explores how the Keck brothers became the first “solar architects” with historic photos, architectural artifacts and design diagrams. Inspired by Corbusier and a devotee of the international style in architecture (before Ludwig Mies van der Rohe arrived in Chicago), George Keck designed homes in the Chicago area for years. One of his noted designs was the 1939 Sloan house in Glenview, considered one of the first solar houses. (Keck designed a second model home for the world’s fair in 1934. The Crystal House was a prequel to the work of Mies and Marcel Breuer.) Howard M. Sloan house in Glenview, 1940. Hedrich Blessing photo courtesy Chicago History Museum. George and William Keck built hundreds of innovative mid-century homes throughout the Midwest as the first “solar architects.” Their development of passive solar energy and other modern construction methods were precursors to today’s sustainable building practices, which are more relevant than ever before. The solar house’s evolution until today and tomorrow was also defined in a moderated conversation on sustainable architecture at the museum last weekend. The three local architects who participated were Nate Kipnis, Tom Bassett-Dilley and Doug Farr. The discussion was moderated by architect Alicia Ponce. Panel members Nate Kipnis, Tom Bassett-Dilley and Doug Farr. Photo by Nancy Bishop. Bassett-Dilley pointed out that Keck “did all the experiments” and that by the 1970s, architects had his work to build on. The architects also acknowledged that glass walls are not the best energy solution today. The architect’s tools (glass, steel and concrete) and the “eye candy of glass boxes” aren’t part of the solutions needed for zero-energy homes today, Farr said. Farr warned that time is of the essence with the 2030 climate emergency commitment; the scarcest resource isn’t money, it’s time. Even a 2050 or 2070 target could be difficult to reach, he said. Kipnis described his links with Keck such as growing up in Highland Park, the site of Keck’s Teplinsky house. Kipnis’ firm uses “high design/low carbon” as their marketing tag line. Portrait of William and George Fred Keck, 1947. Courtesy of Chicago History Museum. The high performance building for energy efficiency in the future, Farr said, will have thick walls, not thin, and a moderate amount of glass. The architects also agreed that the best sustainable design is urban density and walkability where homes share party walls and roofs, not spread-out suburban single-family homes. Farr referred to this urban density as the living city, where everything is connected. Suburbs are one of the worst investments we can make, Kipnis said, even with the effort to build solar and geothermal homes. The glass House of Tomorrow and four other homes from the 1933 Century of Progress were preserved when the fair closed; the houses were moved to the Indiana Dunes in Beverly Shores, Indiana. The Keck house, regarded as one of the most innovative houses in modern architectural design, was among the first residential buildings to employ a glass curtain-wall structure, predating by many years both Mies van der Rohe’s renowned Farnsworth House in Plano, Illinois, and Philip Johnson’s Glass House. The house featured many new ideas from the first GE dishwasher to a personal airplane hangar. We reported on the homes in 2017; they are open for tours once a year. (The next tour will be in September.) Four houses are occupied by tenants who have 50-year leases in return for their continuing renovation of the homes. A similar lease is available on the glass house for someone who will commit to carry out the renovations needed on the House of Tomorrow. More info here. Houses of Tomorrow: Solar Homes from Keck to Today continues at the Elmhurst Art Museum, 150 S. Cottage Hill Ave., Elmhurst, through May 29. The museum is open afternoons Wednesday-Sunday. Tickets are $15 and $12 for seniors. Did you enjoy this post and our coverage of Chicago’s arts scene? Please consider supporting Third Coast Review’s arts and culture coverage by making a donation by PayPal. Choose the amount that works best for you, and know how much we appreciate your support!
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Nancy S Bishop

Nancy S. Bishop is publisher and Stages editor of Third Coast Review. She’s a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and a 2014 Fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. You can read her personal writing on pop culture at nancybishopsjournal.com, and follow her on Twitter @nsbishop. She also writes about film, books, art, architecture and design.