Preservation group seeks to assure future for House of Tomorrow

By Blair Kamin

October 18, 2016

One of the wonders of Chicago's 1933-34 World's Fair was the House of Tomorrow, a 12-sided, three-story peek into the future. It had huge plate-glass windows, one of General Electric's first dishwashers, central air conditioning and an attached garage (rare at the time) with room for an airplane as well as a car.

Designed by Chicago architect George Fred Keck, the house is revered in architectural circles as a forerunner of mid-20th century glass houses, like Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's Farnsworth House. Yet it now sits empty and deteriorating, high on a wind-blasted sand dune in the Beverly Shores section of the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. With the house covered in a protective wrap, little of its original design is visible other than the ship-like railings of its outdoor terraces.

On Wednesday, the Washington, D.C.-based National Trust for Historic Preservation will take a first step toward changing this deplorable situation when it declares the house a "National Treasure." The honorific designation, which the trust has previously given to threatened structures such as Houston's Astrodome, has a clear purpose: Raise funds for a $2 million restoration.

"We see (the House of Tomorrow) as a Chicago landmark in Indiana," Marsh Davis, president of Indiana Landmarks, a statewide preservation advocacy group that nominated the house for the honor, said during a tour Monday.

Is this project a good idea? Absolutely, despite its seeming improbability and attendant financial hurdles. An avatar of innovation, the House of Tomorrow forms an essential strand of Chicago's architectural DNA. Restoring it would be another jewel in the city's architectural crown. Losing it would be a black mark, even though it sits in northwest Indiana.

Through its innovative construction techniques and use of modern appliances, the House of Tomorrow advanced the theme of the fair, which was titled "A Century of Progress International Exposition." Yet like most architectural experiments, it had its share of hiccups. At times, as I learned Monday, the glass house got so hot inside that it had to be closed to visitors.

To keep things cool, the restoration would introduce insulated, double-pane windows rather than the single-pane originals. The kitchen, which still has the original General Electric dishwasher, would be refurbished, as would the living areas and the third-floor solarium. First, though, the house would be stripped down to its original steel structure — a circular core from which steel beams radiate like spokes from a hub. Then it would be rebuilt according to plans devised by Chicago architect Bill Latoza.

"We want to see it reborn as a new House of Tomorrow," said Todd Zeiger, director of Indiana Landmarks' northern regional office. The house is dry inside, he said, courtesy of a roof put on some eight years ago.

If you need convincing that restoration projects such as this can succeed, look no farther than the meticulous work done on four other houses from the 1933-34 fair that are now in Beverly Shores: the Florida Tropical House, which has an exterior that is Flamingo pink; the Cypress Log Cabin, which looks as woodsy as its name suggests; the Armco-Ferro House, which has a facade of glistening steel; and the Art Deco Wieboldt-Rostone House.

By barge and truck, Chicago developer Robert Bartlett brought the Century of Progress houses to Beverly Shores to promote his plans to turn the area into a vacation destination. But that dream died with the economic hardships of the Great Depression.

The houses deteriorated until the early 2000s when Indiana Landmarks began leasing them from the National Park Service, which controls the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. In turn, the landmarks group gave long-term leases for the homes to people who put sweat equity and private money into restoring them — even though they're not owners.

"From a financial standpoint, it's one of the dumbest things I've ever done. From a personal standpoint, it's one of the best things I've done," said Bill Beatty, 79, who lives in the Florida Tropical House and enjoys views of Lake Michigan from its rooftop decks. "It's great to sit up here with … a cooler full of beer and the binoculars."

In addition to seeking contributions for the House of Tomorrow restoration, Indiana Landmarks expects to borrow money to get the project going, Davis and Zeiger said. The goal is to begin work next spring and finish the job in 2019. Once that's done, the group plans to issue three-year subleases to people whose rent would help pay down restoration costs.

Will the plan work? Perhaps. But the "National Treasure" designation doesn't always protect threatened structures from the wrecker's ball. Consider what happened a few years ago to Chicago's old Prentice Women's Hospital, a powerfully sculpted example of 1960s concrete construction designed by Marina City architect Bertrand Goldberg. The National Trust named Prentice to the treasures list, but Northwestern University went ahead and demolished it.

The House of Tomorrow deserves a better fate.

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