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Christoph returned the next day to investigate. Though the crumbling Cypress Log Cabin was still available, he decided it would be too costly to renovate. “It looked totally decayed,” he recalls. He settled instead on the Armco-Ferro House, which was at the time being used by two suburban Chicago couples as a weekend retreat.
Before applying for the lease, Christoph spent three months researching what it would take to restore the structure. He consulted with two architects and a couple of engineers. It was clear that the enamel exterior panels, which had rusted, would have to be replaced. The roof leaked, despite assorted patch jobs over the years. Nonetheless, in May 2005, the Lichtenfelds signed on, promising Indiana Landmarks they would restore the house to its original state, with allowances for some modern conveniences and smarter construction where necessary.
The Lichtenfelds first moved the house to excavate and install a basement (one of those modern conveniences) and then moved it back. Even with this disruption, Christoph says, “we had no idea what we’d find.” Comfortably middle class, but hardly rich benefactors hell-bent on historic preservation at any cost, the couple did not have endless dollars to pour into the renovation. But Christoph Lichtenfeld is nothing if not resourceful.
On his near-daily drive to the house, Christoph passed the headquarters of Northwest Indiana Ironworkers Local 395 on Interstate 94. He started to think, I wonder if I could get them involved? One day he stopped and explained the situation. The apprenticeship coordinator, David Hall, visited the site and thought it was a perfect fit: a worthy nonprofit project that offered apprentices a chance to hone skills and learn teamwork. The union would supply the labor at no charge. “You don’t get opportunities like this very often,” Hall says.
Rich Hertaus, an instructor who was the foreman of the project, quickly recognized Christoph’s dedication: “I said, ‘I will help you. Your dream has become my dream.’” By now, the Lichtenfelds were $120,000 into the renovation. “It was too late to turn back,” Charlotte says. “We didn’t want this to be our life’s failure.” Over a total of three months in 2006 and 2007, the ironworkers donated about 2,500 hours of labor. Christoph provided the materials; Charlotte rose at 5 a.m. every day to make 14 lunches for the workers.
Before the ironworkers could get started on the interior, the failing roof had to be tackled—a task that led to the first hint that disaster loomed. When Christoph climbed onto the roof and drilled down, the drill bit stopped at four inches. Not bad—removing four inches of roofing material wouldn’t be all that difficult. Except that the drill bit had actually hit tile, and another ten inches of material sat underneath. Eventually a whopping 27 tons of old roof had to be removed.
Then the ironworkers started exploring beneath the exterior, revealing the extent of the trouble. The house “probably would have been condemned had people known,” Christoph says. Mold, water damage, and rot were everywhere. The structure was dangerously unstable. Steel side panels that had been sitting on the sand for 70 years had rusted away. The Lichtenfelds bought a boom truck to protect workers on the upper floors. Though the ironworkers managed to replace all of the horizontal surfaces on the first, second, and third floors without taking the house apart, it would have been easier to tear the place down and start over. But that would have compromised the historic authenticity—a no-no in Indiana Landmarks’ book.
“One of the low points was when we took up the hardwood floor in the bedroom,” Charlotte recalls. “When we pulled off the felt that had been put on the steel for soundproofing, the steel came crumbling off, stuck to the felt.” She fetches a piece of the steel to show me. It looks like a Parmesan crisp, lacy and delicate. At one point, she tells me, an ironworker fell through the first floor, his legs dangling into the basement.
Once the house was stabilized, Christoph supervised work on the interior, hiring men to do dry wall, electrical, plumbing, carpentry, and floors. The septic system had to be replaced. Christoph spent months searching for a firm to restore two doors and 32 iron windows. A company in New York wanted $17,000 for the job; Christoph ended up with an outfit in suburban Harvey that agreed to do the work between other gigs—a job that took nearly three years. Through 2008, 2009, and on into this summer, the Lichtenfelds kept writing big checks.