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Keck brothers bring mid-century modern home

by Dan Obermaier
(C) 2000

T he Chicago area boasts some of the finest 20th Century architecture anywhere, with luminaries including Frank Lloyd Wright and Mies van der Rohe living and working there. But when it comes to single-family residences, no one put more Midwesterners into genuinely modern, affordable and livable homes than Keck & Keck, the brothers George Fred and William.


Keck house near Chicago, click to tour!

The Kecks grew up northwest of Milwaukee. The elder, George Fred, studied engineering and architecture at state schools in Wisconsin and Illinois. Settling in Chicago in 1921, he worked as a draftsman at several offices before striking out on his own. During these early years, Fred made a point of seeking out the modernist works then emerging, mostly in Europe. By 1927 Keck and his partner Vale Faro, an avowed modernist, had designed their first frankly modern residence. The unbuilt house, a flat-roofed stucco cube with bands of casement windows, had elements of early, yet-unnamed International Style as well as Wright's organic style -- elements which would appear again and again throughout Keck's 46-year career.

After Faro and Keck parted ways, Keck's modernist footing broadened through his contact with the Chicago Workshops, a group of artists modeled upon the Austrian Werkbund and founded by former members. This contact ultimately led to his role in the New Bauhaus, which had broad impact on design in Chicago.

In 1937, an industrial arts school broke away from the Art Institute of Chicago with the goal of training designers using Bauhaus methods. This group, with help from Keck, brought Laszlo Moholy-Nagy to Chicago as its new director. This New Bauhaus had the "old'' Bauhaus' director, Walter Gropius (by that time at Princeton), as its mentor/sponsor. And it boasted as teachers and lecturers important figures including Gropius, Alvar Alto, R. Buckminster Fuller, Henry-Russel Hitchcock, Richard Neutra and Man Ray. Keck served as architecture department head and part-time teacher at the New Bauhaus for five years while continuing his practice.

Also in 1937, Mies van der Rohe arrived in Chicago as head of architecture at the Armour Institute (later Illinois Institute of Technology). Keck witnessed the transformation of the IIT campus by the master of the International Style, whose work he had long admired. Unfortunately, this admiration was not mutual and throughout his decades in Chicago, Mies consistently snubbed Keck. According to one colleague, Mies threatened to leave Armour Institute unless Keck played no role there after it absorbed the Chicago Bauhaus, which had collapsed under wartime economic pressures. Keck apparently never knew the reason for Mies' behavior, but was hurt by it.

Among Keck's most important early commissions were the Miralogo Ballroom (1929, Wilmette, on the present site of Plaza Del Lago shopping center) and two houses for Chicago's Century of Progress World's Fair, the House of Tomorrow (1933) and the Crystal House (1934). The Miralago was one of the earliest Midwestern buildings in the European modern style. Its structure and lines were International Style, while its interior applied ornament was Art Deco. The fair houses, built of steel framing and glass exterior walls using Chicago skyscraper construction methods, were structurally and stylistically far in advance of other homes of the period, including other concept houses displayed at the fair. The Crystal House, in particular, with its exterior truss frame, was as stunning and elegant as more celebrated steel houses designed decades later. Both houses were furnished using metal and leather pieces, including items from Heywood-Wakefield's Lloyd division and some pieces designed by Keck and fabricated in Chicago. The fair houses exposed hundreds of thousands of visitors to an entirely new kind of living, and doubtless made converts of many.

Following the fair, wealthy clients from Chicago's North Shore suburbs began hiring Keck to design homes for them, starting a tradition that lasted for the remainder of Keck's career. The North Shore is home to more Keck houses than any other area. Among the best known works following the fair is the Bruning House in Wilmette, an International Style white stucco design featuring a two-story half-round staircase in glass block and exterior metal venetian-type blinds which run on tracks and recess into valances when drawn up. This blind system is typical of Keck's experimentation with controlling light, temperature and ventilation in houses with large expanses of glass. Exterior blinds marked other Keck designs of the '30s, but ultimately he stopped using them because of maintenance problems. It was also during the '30s that Keck experimented with shallow rooftop pools, which cooled the house in summer by evaporation, as well as broad eaves carefully designed to shade summer sun but admit winter sun, and radiant floor heating.

During the 1940s Keck refined his work on passive solar heating with the Sloan House (1940) and the Solar Park subdivision (1942), both in north suburban Glenview. It was during this time his designs moved in a more organic, Wright-inspired direction -- more wood, stone and brick, less exposed steel, and more frequent use of crescent-shaped floor plans. He also experimented with forced air heating through hollow floor tiles, an ancient Roman method resurrected in the 20th Century by a handful of architects.

Spence House

The Sloan House also was the first to use Keck's favorite ventilation innovation, which appeared on many of his designs for the remainder of his career. Instead of casement or double-hung windows, the windows are fixed in their frames. Outside air enters through louvered panels beneath - or on later houses next to - the fixed panes. On the interior, cabinet-type doors over the louvered panels can be opened or closed as desired. Unlike standard windows, these vents keep out both rain and intruders, so can be left open as long as temperature and wind are favorable. Because of their size and quantity, the vents while open create the effect of an outdoor pavilion rather than an enclosed structure. The Spence House in Bensenville (1941), for example, remains comfortable without air conditioning on all but the hottest days because of these vents and the proper placement of wide eaves and shade trees.

During the '40s, Keck developed successful pre-fabricated houses, including the Green's Ready-Builts. A subdivision of these homes went up in Rockford in 1945. Although quick and simple to build, they offered some of the best elements of high-style modern design to families of modest means.

Fred Keck's brother William, whose studies included classes at the Chicago Bauhaus, joined his brother's practice as a partner in 1946. William's presence as manager of the office enabled Fred to spend more time with clients, interviewing them, visiting them in their homes and learning about how they live. While some modernists focused on their own personal vision, the Kecks focused on modern solutions that best served their clients' needs.

In the '50s and '60s, Keck returned to a more International Style aesthetic, although frequently he continued to use cedar and, like Wright, concrete block. He also continued to use crescent-shaped floor plans, especially for large, expensive houses with a view. And Keck continued to innovate, such as the motorized retractable dome over the central courtyard swimming pool of the Weinrib House in Highland Park (1961). The commissions during this period came faster than ever before, with postwar affluence and greater market demand for modern design.

The Kecks created hundreds of elegant, livable houses in the Chicago area and elsewhere. Unlike more famous contemporaries, who talked about bringing fine architecture to the masses but failed to do much about it, the Kecks created houses that were affordable and came in on budget. Their mark on the public's consciousness is such that today, three decades after the firm was dissolved, North Shore real estate agents listing these houses routinely use the phrase "Keck house'' at the top of their newspaper ads.

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Sources: "Keck & Keck," Robert Boyce, Princeton Architectural Press, 1993. Video "Keck + Keck Architects," produced, written, and directed by Edward S. Hall in cooperation with the Chicago Athenaeum Museum of Architecture and Design, 1993. "The American House Today," by Katherine Morrow Ford and Thomas H. Creighton, Reinhold publishing, 1951. "82 Distinctive Houses from Architectural Record," edited by the magazine's editors, F.W. Dodge, 1952. Interview with Peter Beltemacchi, associate professor of city planning, IIT, 1999.

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