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Ahead of its Time

A new book looks at the Chicago Mid-century Modernism Movement

   Chicago is well known for its architecture and for being the home of the grandfather of modernism, Frank Lloyd Wright, but even locals know little about the architects that followed in his footsteps, creating homes from the ‘40s to the ‘60s that incorporate the same green technologies seen in new construction today.
   Gary Gand, a concert sound engineer and musician, wanted to bring the little known school of architecture to the attention of Chicagoans and the rest of the country. In 2004, he, his wife and some friends founded Chicago Bauhaus and Beyond, an architecture preservation organization that conducts tours and promotes the protection of architecturally significant houses built from 1930 to 1970.
   While traveling, Gand and his wife, Joan, had fallen in love with Palm Springs and the modernist homes owned by Hollywood’s elite in the 1930s. Hollywood contracts at the time specified that actors must be only two hours away from the studio. Away from the paparazzi, they could do anything they wanted and formed a community in Palm Springs, where many Hollywood stars still own homes today.
   Liberace had five houses, and Bing Crosby had two, along with other stars like Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin. Gand and his wife played for a charity function in Bob Hope’s home, still owned by his wife. “It looks like a flying saucer and is 18,000 square feet,” says Gand. “It’s so big our rock quartet was set up in the fireplace.”
   They eventually purchased a second home out West, lamenting the fact that no one knew about the great modernist architecture that existed in the Midwest. The Gands already lived in a modernist home built by the architectural firm of Keck and Keck, featured in the book. Purchased by them in 1986, the Minsk House, located in Riverwoods, shares the same zip code as Deerfield. The suburb was built with lots measuring a minimum of two acres and has no sidewalks or streetlights.
   They first drove past the house at night, unable to see anything but a fluorescent light burning in the kitchen. It looked like a black box from the street. They walked in the next day and saw the entire back of the house consisted of uninterrupted glass looking onto the woods. He asked the gentleman sitting there if it was his house. On confirmation, Gand said, “I’ll take it.” The owner asked, “Do you want to see the kitchen?” Gand said, “Does it have one? I’ll take it.”
   Riverwoods was the perfect setting for houses by the architectural firm of Keck and Keck. They built nearly 900 projects around the Midwest and were the first to use fixed Thermopane windows flanked by vents for air circulation. At the time, the windows were considered a waste of money due to the cheap cost of heating. Today the Gands use their air conditioning for about a week in the summer and enjoy reasonable heating bills in the winter.
   Ahead of their time, Keck and Keck trademarks included passive solar, flat roofs, indirect lighting, radiant heat in the floors and modular design. In fact, they showed two revolutionary house sat the Columbian Exposition in 1933: The Crystal House, which was the first steel and glass residence to use passive solar heating, and the House of Tomorrow. “These guys mapped the movement of the sun every day of the year and measured the angles of the sun in the summer,” says Gand. “Our house stays cool in the summer and in January the sun pours into the house onto the black slate floors, which get heated.”
   A couple of years ago he approached the famed architectural photographer Julius Shulman, whom he had met in Palm Springs, to do a book on the subject. In the recently released Julius Shulman: Chicago Mid-Century Modernism by Gary Gand, Rizzoli New York, 2010, Gand worked with Shulman and his partner Juergen Nogai to showcase Chicago-area homes that best represent mid-century modernism.
    The book features homes by Harry Weese, Edward Dart, Bertrand Goldberg, Burton Frank and Robert Hausner, among others, whose homes appear in surprising places.
   Goldberg, who designed Marina City, designed the 4,000 square foot HeimbachHouse, which has been restored and is a private residence in Blue Island.
  In Olympia Fields is the Miller House, designed by Edward Dart of Water Tower fame. Current owner Joe Kunkel says, “This house feels like a retreat into optimistic 1950s California modernism, with a Zen-like peacefulness brought about through high-quality natural materials including limestone, slate, wood siding, and fine walnut cabinetry. The expansive walls of glass, high ceilings in entertainment areas, and private spaces with rocks and walnut make the design very beautiful and comfortable.”  Deer, birds and even the moon can be seen from inside the house.
   The Gidwitz House in Kenwood was designed by architect Ralph Rapson and built during World War II. So unusual was the design, the neighbors constructed a 13-ft high fence to block out the sight of the new house. In 2003, the house underwent a three-year renovation. Every window had to be replaced. Many of them were 10-ft wide, a width very difficult to find these days. A submarine engine had been hooked up to a compressor for the HVAC system. Material and systems used by the army and navy were often used.
   Today the house stands out among the historic mansions in the neighborhood. “I studied business and law and spent a lot of time in Europe so my taste leaned toward an International Style dwelling,” says the owner. “I still get a chill as I come upon a structure that is so radically different, yet substantial enough to stand shoulder to shoulder with historic landmarks from an earlier time. This is a remarkable house.”
   On a small hill on the shore of the Des Plaines River is the Hausner House, built by Robert Hausner for his own family and sold in 1988.  After surveying the home, a feng shui master said it was “located and constructed to meet the most stringent requirements for living in peace and harmony with the natural environment.”
   Many of these homes still exist from the North Shore to the west and south suburbs. Unfortunately, many others were bulldozed during the McMansion era, when the value of the land became greater than the value of the house.
   “We are now entering a period where these houses are hitting the 50-year-old mark, which is a crucial time for any style movement,” Gand says. “Just when these houses are old enough to be thought of as icons, they can also be misconstrued as eyesores.”

Published: June 07, 2010
Issue: Summer 2010 Urban Living