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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The Armco-Ferro House, then and now

The Armco-Ferro House was one of 14 models built for the homes exhibit at the Century of Progress fair. Sponsored by corporations and designed by leading architects, the residences were meant to showcase the latest technologies and designs in home construction. The Ferro Enamel Corporation and the steel maker American Rolling Company (Armco) collaborated on a model designed by the architect Robert Smith Jr. that was supposed to serve as an example of a house that could be mass produced and affordable. It was essentially a box constructed of corrugated steel panels fastened together and covered with nearly 500 cream-colored porcelain enamel tiles produced by Ferro. Each of the two floors spanned 1,200 square feet and included four rooms, providing excellent cross ventilation. The kitchen was downstairs, the two bathrooms upstairs.

By several measures the structure was groundbreaking: It inspired the Lustron homes—houses that were built just after World War II for returning vets and designed to be maintenance free and affordable (some of them still exist in Beverly)—as well as many enameled steel gas stations built around the same time. “There’s been a lot of research done on the Century of Progress houses; students have done doctoral dissertations on them,” says Todd Zeiger, director of the northern regional office for Indiana Landmarks.

Visitors to the Century of Progress encountered the model houses on the lakefront near 23rd Street. When the fair ended in 1934, a developer named Robert Bartlett bought the Armco-Ferro House and four others and shipped most of them by barge to Beverly Shores, then a new development. He hoped they would attract visitors who might be interested in buying land.

The Armco-Ferro House ended up on a hill across a road from the lake in what is today the Century of Progress historical district, which includes the 12-sided House of Tomorrow, the Cypress Log Cabin, the Wieboldt-Rostone House (originally finished in Rostone, a shale, limestone, and alkali combo that was billed— incorrectly—as indestructible), and the pink Florida Tropical House. Bartlett never had much luck selling the Beverly Shores lots and in the 1940s sold off the model homes to private buyers. After the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore was established in 1966, the National Park Service bought up the homes. Most other houses on park property near what is now Beverly Shores were demolished, but these historic residences were spared and leased to individuals. The occupants, however, had little incentive to plow money into upkeep, and Zeiger says funding maintenance was not a priority for the park service.

In the late 1990s, the park service and Indiana Landmarks came up with the plan to exchange subleases for promises of restoration. Several years later, the Lichtenfelds, who had been looking for a lakefront vacation home, heard of the offer, jumped in the car, and drove to Beverly Shores to take a look. By the time they got there, it was dark. They couldn’t see a thing. A harbinger, perhaps, of what was to come.

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