In the Chicago suburbs, mid-century modern homes are almost all custom. Sure, there are a few areas where you know you’re likely to find more than others, but the rest of them are sprinkled all over the suburbs in various concentrations. Sometimes they’re in places you’d expect to find them, but often they’re not, existing in locations that can be downright surprising.
The same can be said about homes designed by Keck & Keck, the brothers (George “Fred” and William) credited with creating the first “solar house” in 1942 in Glenview. There are a few places where you know you can see a bunch of Keck & Keck homes, but otherwise, they’re sort of peppered around the suburbs. And, yes, sometimes in places you might not expect to find them.
One such house is Keck & Keck’s Spence house. Built in 1948, the house sits on an oversized lot in Bensenville. In typical Keck & Keck fashion, the house is oriented so that the primary window line faces south. It just so happens that south, in this case, overlooks the home’s spacious lawn, then across the street to the Fischer Woods Forest Preserve.
While Bensenville may not exactly be one of the Chicago suburbs’ centers of modernism, the great location within the White Pines subdivision is truly consistent with the types of locations where many modern homes were built. Specifically, being in a place where the homeowners enjoyed great views of nature.
All of this in addition to being in a great position within the Chicago suburbs as a whole – close to O’Hare airport, just minutes from highway access, and close to all of the shopping and restaurants in Oak Brook and more.
The Kecks, who earned renown in 1933 for their House of Tomorrow (which they designed and built for Chicago’s A Century of Progress world’s fair), virtually pioneered the concepts that would inform passive solar home design, focusing on what they referred to as the six pillars of their solar program: Orientation, shading, Thermopane, ventilation, plan and rooftop pools.
It was actually Keck’s Wilde House in Watertown, WI (where the Kecks were born and grew up) that was the first they designed with the intent of using passive solar principles. But their 1942 house for Howard Sloane in Glenview gets the credit, thanks to a Chicago Tribune article about the house in which they coined the term “solar house”.
Not every house the Kecks designed and built incorporated all six principles of their solar program, or in the same way. For instance, the Sloane house had multiple shed roof sections to maximize the solar gain during the winter months, whereas the Spence house in Bensenville has a flat roof (an aesthetic the Kecks preferred from about 1941 onward).
But one thing that almost all “later” Keck & Keck houses incorporated is fixed-pane windows in combination with a series of louvers with interior screens and doors. The louvered openings allowed the Kecks to incorporate large windows and also provide ventilation. If it was comfortable inside, you’d leave the louver doors closed. But if you wanted some cross-ventilation, you could open the doors in various places get a breeze going through the home.
Over the years, a number of Keck & Keck homes have had their louvered vents deprecated, removed, painted over (or shut) or replaced with casement windows.
The Spence home, however, is still very much original in terms of the Keck’s overall design, and has been offering its owners, Liz and Dan, a comfortable, easy lifestyle for the last two and a half decades.
“I saw this home advertised on a Sunday real estate TV show in September,” says Liz. “It was featured for an open house that day. I liked the look of it, and that afternoon, we visited the open house. We immediately fell in love with the look. Nature, views, a large lot, and it being a one-story home was also very appealing. The wood in the interior was warm and welcoming. I knew nothing of Keck & Keck at the time, but loved the home they designed.”
Originally, the home at 4N151 Briar Lane had a smaller footprint – and was on a smaller lot. At some point, a smaller parcel of land to the north was purchased by the owners at the time, who were the 2nd owners, and they took the opportunity to expand the home by adding a new garage and converting the original garage into additional living space.
As a result, what was once a beautifully designed, but smaller home now features two large, open living spaces in addition to three bedrooms, a small office, Dining area, Kitchen, laundry and three full baths, making the whole thing a much more grand affair.
Built of brick and glass, plus the wood used for the louvers, the home is configured as an L shape, with the primary volume running east-west to offer south and north views, and a the second volume running north-south at the west side of the home.
Inside, the home is indeed warm and welcoming, with slate floors under plank and beam wood ceilings in an interesting configuration that has the planks installed between the beams rather than above them, as we’d typically see in post-and-beam homes. Exposed brick adds to the color, texture and sophisticated feel of the home.
The doors that close off the louvers are all wood and enhance the warmth and character of each space where you find them. The closets in the bedrooms add to that warmth, using the same wood as on the original louver doors. A different type of wood (possibly Weldtex striated plywood), textured in a vertical pattern, is used on accent walls in various rooms and spaces, with the texture being so fine that it almost looks like grass cloth until you get up close.
There’s another type of warmth that Liz and Dan also appreciated: The in-floor radiant heat.
“We love the in-floor hot water heat,” says Dan. “It’s always warm. We never have cold floors, dust or noise, and the temperature feels even throughout the house. The system is perfectly suited for a home with such a timeless design.”
Although Liz and Dan aren’t sure if the Kecks were involved in the addition of the new garage, and the transformation of the family room and addition of the third bath, they know it’s one of their favorite places to spend time.
“We spend a lot of time in the family room,” continues Liz. “I love the wet bar and the convenience of being able to grab a snack and a cold drink from the little fridge there. But to be honest, we live in all the spaces of the house. Our office up front is such a great space to spend time, read a book with a glass of wine. There’s so much light and warmth in that space because of the big windows facing south and west.”
The south-facing windows offer spectacular light and views, and nowhere is this more evident than in the living room.
“The living room brick wall with the fireplace, the long low hearth and the built-in bookcase is a favorite of mine,” says Dan. “The south windows allow unobstructed views of the forest preserve, with beautiful, changing scenery as the seasons change.”
If you love a modern home with natural materials, the living room is a feast for the eyes. Between the plank and beam ceilings, expansive brick fireplace wall, slate floors, wood paneled wall at the east end and the rustic wood separating the living room from the office / den (complete with built-in lighting feature), there’s no shortage of beauty here.
In the Primary Suite, you’re again treated to exposed brick walls, and a clever arrangement for closet space. The closets were built on-site and in place, and feature long windows above to add soft, north light. It’s a wonderful detail that prevents that side of the room from feeling dark.
The Primary Suite features its own bathroom, which Liz and Dan rehabbed recently. The secondary bedrooms, which also benefit from large, south-facing windows, share a bathroom in the hall opposite the bedroom doors, and then there’s the third full bath that was added near the family room when the 2nd owners had the addition put on.
Of course no conversation about a great modern home would be complete without discussing the relationship with nature that such a home provides. Not just from the expansive windows, but also the outdoor spaces, such as the large patio on the back o the house with its geometric planter areas.
“We live with nature,” says Liz. “It’s a peaceful escape from the busy city. We have a quiet country-like feel here, but it we’re close to the city and to so much else. The forest preserve is a wildlife sanctuary for many bird varieties. We often see deer and other animals. This is a great place to walk or ride a bike or stop and visit with neighbors walking their dogs.”
After a little over 25 years, Liz and Dan are going to relocate out of state to be close to family. The Spence residence has been a wonderful home for them, just as it was for the original owners and their kids.
“One Fall afternoon, the son of the original owners was in town for a high school class reunion and was interested to see his old home,” says Dan. “We gave him a tour, and he shared some interesting stories about living here as a youth. He was pleased that the house was maintained and kept as he remembered it.”
So now that it’s time for Liz and Dan to pass the baton of stewardship onto new owners, what will they miss most about the house?
“So much!” exclaims Liz. “I’ll miss the convenience of everything being close at hand – shopping, restaurants, easy access to the interstate and highways to go wherever we’re going. I’ll miss the nature we see outside our windows on a daily basis. Entertaining on the patio with friends and family. Dan and I will always have fond memories of living in this home for the rest of our days. We have relished the ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ from visitors who are amazed by this special house. So many have been kind to tell us ‘You have a beautiful home!’, and we definitely agree.”
Click any image below to view larger.