George Frederick Keck: How A Modernist Master Shaped the Chicago Skyline

Chicago has long been a hotbed for Modernist architecture, with the likes of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Walter Gropius all calling the city home at various points in their careers. At Optima®, we are always delighted to showcase the groundbreaking work of Modernist architects who have left an indelible mark on our urban landscape. Today, we are opening the aperture to focus on George Fred Keck, an architect whose innovative designs and pioneering spirit greatly influenced the development of modern architecture in Chicago and beyond.

Born in 1895 in Watertown, Wisconsin, George Fred Keck was destined to become a trailblazer in the world of Modernist architecture. After studying at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Keck established his own firm with his brother William in 1926 — Keck & Keck. The siblings’ shared passion for Modernism and sustainability led them to create designs that were both environmentally-conscious and ahead of their time.

Keck-Gottschalk-Keck Apartments. Photo: Ryerson & Burnham Archives Archival Image Collection

Keck’s most famous work is undoubtedly the House of Tomorrow, a groundbreaking design he created for the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair, also known as the Century of Progress Exposition. The house showcased innovative ideas such as floor-to-ceiling glass walls, central air conditioning, and even an attached garage with an electric door opener. These cutting-edge features not only made the House of Tomorrow a sensation at the fair, but also laid the groundwork for the modern home as we know it today. 

With Keck’s commitment to sustainable design came a fascination with solar energy. In the early 1940s, he and his brother William designed the first solar-powered house in the United States. Known as the Keck-Gottschalk-Keck Apartments and located at 5551 South University Avenue in Hyde Park, this remarkable dwelling relied on south-facing windows and a solar heating system to maximize the capture and use of solar energy. This early foray into sustainable design would pave the way for future architects to embrace environmentally conscious practices.

House of Tomorrow. Photo: Chicago History Museum, Hedrich Blessing Collection

As we celebrate the life and work of George Fred Keck, we at Optima® are once again reminded of the transformative power of Modernist architecture. Keck’s innovative designs, environmental consciousness, and commitment to pushing the boundaries of architectural form have left an unforgettable mark on the city of Chicago and on the world of architecture.

The Chicago World’s Fair

There are many highlights from Chicago’s vast history, and one of the truly iconic moments is the World’s Columbian Exposition, also known as the Chicago World’s Fair. Held in Chicago in 1893, the World’s Fair proved Chicago’s creative ingenuity and persistent work ethic. The Exposition was socially and culturally influential — so how did the Chicago’s World Fair come to be such a spectacular success?

In the 1890s, the world was changing, and world’s fairs had been successful in Europe as a way to bring people together with progress (London’s 1851 Crystal Palace Exhibition — one of the first Modernist structures — was a prime example). Leaders across the country on a local and national scale agreed to finance a fair; they just needed the right location. Through a battle of finances, persuasion and voting, Chicago won with a large lead over New York. That left the city with an incredible amount of pressure to pull the whole thing off. 

Thankfully, Chicago had an incredible team of talented planners, architects and visionaries to get it done. Designed by famous figures such as John Wellborn Root, Daniel Burnham, Frederick Law Olmsted and Charles B. Atwood, the Exposition was a paradise of neoclassical architecture, and the white color of the buildings inspired its nickname, the White City. Art, music, inventions, technology and culture from around the world were featured. The fairgrounds were joined together by lagoons and canals. In the end, more than 27 million people attended the World’s Columbian Exposition during its six-month lifespan, and it became a marker of American — and Chicagoan — history.

The fair’s legacy is still evident all over the city. Daniel Burnham took lessons learned at the fair for his 1909 Plan of Chicago, which in turn, influenced city planning around the world. The neoclassical architecture informed many designs that still stand today, such as Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry and the Art Institute of Chicago. The Ferris wheel was even famously invented to debut at the Exposition. 

Perhaps most important, the Exposition deeply touched the millions of visitors who left with new ideas and inspiration. The Chicago World’s Fair paved the way for Chicago’s vision of the future, and countless others.

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