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NextImg:‘House of Tomorrow’ from 1933 World’s Fair has a future thanks to $2 million federal grant

The future of architecture was on display along the south lakefront 90 years ago today.

There, as part of Chicago’s forward-looking 1933 World’s Fair, stood 11 exhibition houses billed as homes of the future by virtue of their design, building materials or construction methods.

The standout was the House of Tomorrow, a two-story, 12-sided glass home that stunned fairgoers with marvels we take for granted now: air conditioning, a G.E. dishwasher, an attached garage and — for the homeowner of the future who’d have everything — a built-in airplane hangar.

And now the house, which is among five fair homes that were shipped across the lake by barge in 1935 and re-erected along the water’s edge in Beverly Shores, Indiana, in what is now the Indiana Dunes National Park, is poised to shine once again.

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Architects this month are finishing up construction documents for the rebuilding of the home’s unique exterior and concrete interior floor slabs.

The work would be a critical first step in returning the home — which had been altered over the years and is now shrouded in protective construction wrapping — to the way the dwelling looked when it was a darling of the 1933 World’s Fair.

“Nobody has seen the house as it [looked during the fair] because they changed the main level before [the house] even was put on the barge to bring over,” said Todd Zeiger, director of the Northern Regional Office of Indiana Landmarks, a non-profit organization that has been a lead advocate — along with the Indiana Dunes National Park officials — for the restoration and reuse of the fair houses.

“This will be a remarkable transformation,” Zeiger said.

North America’s first glass house

Work on the House of Tomorrow will be paid for with a $2 million grant from the Great American Outdoors Act, funded through the U.S. Department of the Interior. The fair houses are owned by the National Park Service.

Charles Hasbrouck, a director at bKL Architecture, is overseeing the project. The firm specializes in high-rise design, but that skill brings with it an expertise in dealing with glass-skinned buildings such as the House of Tomorrow.

“It’s the first all-glass house built in North America,” Hasbrouck said. The house predates Mies van der Rohe’s revolutionary glass Edith Farnsworth House in Plano, Illinois from 1951, or architect Philip Johnson’s 1949 Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut.

The house was designed by George Fred Keck, a Chicago architect who, along with his brother William, designed modernist houses across the area for nearly 50 years after the fair.

Among their most noteworthy designs is the minimalist Keck-Gottschalk-Keck Apartments at 5551 S. University Ave., which looks contemporary enough to have been built last year — but were erected in 1937.

Hallmarks of the Kecks’ later work can the found in the House of Tomorrow, such as using big windows that can bring in enough sunlight to heat the house.

All in all, the house was a perfect fit for the largely tech-based fair — named A Century of Progress.

“It was very ambitious,” Hasbrouck said of the house. “And Keck learned from the — I won’t say mistakes, but he learned a lot from having constructed that house.”

A ‘long term view’

Robert Bartlett brought the homes from the fair to Indiana to draw attention to the new town of Beverly Shores he developed.

But the homes got battered spending decades next to unforgiving Lake Michigan. And not much money was invested in their repair when the buildings fell under National Park Service ownership.

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The pink Florida Tropical House is among four 1933 World’s Fair houses in Beverly Shores, Indiana that have been restored since 2000.

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That changed in 2000 when Landmarks Indiana entered an agreement with the feds that allowed it to lease the homes for free for 30 years to anyone who could pay the hefty price tag for the properties’ restoration.

The agreement fixed up and saved four of the houses: the Cypress Log Cabin house; the blocky Wieboldt-Rostone House, which showcased the use of synthetic materials in home construction; the metal-clad Armco-Ferro House; and the flamingo-pink Florida Tropical House.

Repairing the House of Tomorrow, with its one-of-kind construction and dilapidated state, was too big a financial lift for most.

But now its time has finally come.

“Indiana Landmarks is a great organization, and they really take a long-term view,” Hasbrouck said. “And that’s what you have to do on these preservation projects. But I think we’re all very excited that it’s going to get done — and it’s going get done properly, too.”

Lee Bey is the Chicago Sun-Times architecture critic and a member of the Editorial Board.

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