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Retro-Futuristic “House of Tomorrow” Declared a National Treasure

The property in Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore is seeking $2 million to return it to its 1933 World’s Fair glory

(Wisconsin Historical Society)
smithsonian.com

There are lots of interesting tidbits about Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. For starters, it’s a surprisingly natural piece of land on the edge of the very unnatural industrial sprawl of Gary, Indiana. It’s got an unusual quaking bog, a mat of sphagnum moss over a pond that waves like a waterbed. And it’s got its own retro-futuristic neighborhood, including the House of Tomorrow, a 1933 vision of a future world where houses were made of glass and required airplane hangars. But the future hasn’t been kind to the house (or personal aircraft); today the property is in severe disrepair. But the structure was recently named a National Treasure by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, a designation the group hopes will help jumpstart an effort to raise the $2 million needed for restoration.

The House of Tomorrow, along with four other homes were part of a display at the 1933-34 Chicago World’s Fair called a Century of Progress. There, the home, designed by modernist architect George Fred Keck, attracted 1.2 million people who paid 10 cents each to see inside the futuristic abode.

The house was a 12-sided, three-story glass and steel structure full of inventions that were wonders at the time: central air conditioning, an "automatic" or "iceless" refrigerator, a dishwasher, passive solar heating and a revolutionary open floor plan. There was also a garage and airplane hangar on the lower level. “At a time when millions of Americans were out of work and the nation was facing enormous economic challenges, the House of Tomorrow was a source of hope for a better future,” David J. Brown, executive vice president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation says in the press release. “George Keck’s groundbreaking design, along with futuristic household amenities, reflected a central theme of the Century of Progress — the power of science and technology to dramatically improve people’s lives.”

After the World's Fair, The House of Tomorrow, along with the five other homes from the exhibition, were sent by barge and truck from Chicago to Beverly Shores, a small upscale neighborhood along Indiana’s Lake Michigan Coast that a developer was attempting to turn into a vacation destination. According to Will Higgins at The Indianapolis Star, the National Park Service took possession of the Century of Progress houses as part of an expansion of the Indiana Dunes in 1966. It gave the current residents 30-year leases. Higgins reports that home owners diligently maintained four of the properties, including a bright pink home called the Florida Tropical House and the Cypress Log Cabin, a mountain-style lodge designed to show the many uses of cypress wood. Those homes are still meticulously maintained, but the House of Tomorrow fell into disrepair. It is currently boarded up and wrapped in plastic.

While the National Park Service would like to restore the property, they currently have a $12 billion maintenance backlog, which prevents them from taking on new projects. That’s why the NTHP stepped in. They hope fundraising efforts will raise enough money to begin restoration of the property in spring of 2017. The House of Tomorrow is one of just 80 places in the United States given the National Treasure designation, and the first property in Indiana.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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