South Side Couple Renovates Historic ‘House of the Future’

THE MONEY PIT: When a South Side couple agreed to restore a “house of the future” from the 1933–34 world’s fair in exchange for a free long-term sublease, they had little idea how thoroughly they—and their savings—would be absorbed by the past

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Charlotte and Christoph Lichtenfeld in front of their work in progress, the Armco-Ferro House
The Lichtenfelds and their work in progress, July 2010

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The Armco-Ferro House, then and now

Relaxing on a folding chair on a rooftop deck, sun-drenched Lake Michigan spread out before me, I could almost imagine what the Lichtenfelds were thinking when they first signed on to this project in 2005.

It appeared to be a terrific deal: Fix up a historic house from Chicago’s 1933–34 Century of Progress world’s fair and in return get a free 30-year renewable sublease on the residence, now transplanted to National Park Service land on Lake Michigan near Beverly Shores, Indiana. The advantages seemed legion: access to an uncrowded, unspoiled beach; a family retreat just 50 minutes from the South Side of Chicago, where the Lichtenfelds live; a chance to own a piece of local history. All that in exchange for a restoration job that would take, the couple estimated, about a year and a half and cost between $150,000 and $200,000.

Or so Christoph and Charlotte Lichtenfeld thought almost six years and half a million dollars ago.

After being awarded the lease for the so-called Armco-Ferro House, built of steel for the fair, the couple discovered the structure was in much worse shape than anyone (architects and engineers included) had imagined. Though the house seemed basically solid, rot, mold, and rust were eating away beneath the exterior. The Lichtenfelds have had to replace 85 percent of the original building: All that’s left is the exterior steel walls, railings, windows, doors, and electrical and bath fixtures. They have devoted an average of five days every week for the past five years driving back and forth from their home in Beverly, on Chicago’s South Side, to supervise the work. They bought a boom truck. Filled 12 Dumpsters with rotted material. Spent months searching specialty restorers. Became friends with the man who services the portable toilet. “We dreaded coming when it was raining,” Charlotte says, recalling the leaky roof. “We’d work in 15- to 20-degree weather.”

Two years into the project, Charlotte, 59, a trim woman with a gray bob, quit her job as a physical therapist to help her husband manage the renovation. Christoph, 68, a native of Germany and vice-chairman of the Chicago-Hamburg Sister Cities committee, had already retired from his job as an engineer. Now the house has become his life’s work. “Do you think we’re crazy?” he asks me, a smile teasing his lips.

 

Photograph: Andreas E. G. Larsson

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