The Lichtenfelds and their work in progress, July 2010
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
* * *
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.
* * *
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.
* * *
Currently, command central for the project is a future bedroom that on the day of my visit features dry-wall dust, extension cords, and debris. As Christoph and I talk, he shows me hundreds of digital photos documenting stages of the renovation. That’s when he asks whether I think he’s crazy. I hesitate, looking around, knowing that the interior will retain little of the historic house (the original kitchen was too small to accommodate a modern refrigerator) and that the project is still a year or more away from completion. To one side of us, just 60 feet away, the House of Tomorrow sits boarded up, an eyesore. Work is continuing slowly on the Wieboldt-Rostone House, but it is temporarily sided in plywood, too. And down the road, the Cypress Log Cabin, the residence Christoph first considered, has been fully restored for two years and now is occupied. In answer to his question, I want to shout: “Yes! You’re crazy!” But I also want things to work out for this well-meaning, hard-working couple—both active and vibrant—who really had no idea what they were getting into. “They have an amazing view on this,” says Zeiger of Indiana Landmarks. “They are spending resources, time, and effort to make sure the house lasts a hundred years. Hats off to them—they’ve stayed with it.”
There are still obstacles and unanticipated costs to face: The historic area has no water service; Beverly Shores has told the Lichtenfelds they’ll have to pony up $18,000 for access. (The couple is appealing.) They also have to settle on an exterior that Indiana Landmarks will approve, since the original material—painted enamel—is no longer practical. (They are considering painted corrugated steel panels.) The Lichtenfelds have eaten into more than five years of their 30-year sublease, though they have yet to occupy the home, and there is no guarantee the lease will be renewed for their children. The family’s investment is now three times the original budget.
Still, even that restored cypress cabin doesn’t outwardly disturb Christoph’s equanimity. “I made a big mistake,” he says matter-of-factly. “Absolutely.”
* * *
When I talked to him by phone recently on a hot summer day, Christoph sounded as upbeat and pragmatic as ever. “We had a milestone this week: electricity in the house!” he said. What’s more, his six adult children and six grandchildren were beginning to see what he had seen all along. “They had questioned why we were saving this place. But now they’re getting pretty excited.” Charlotte, he told me, was taking classes to keep her physical therapist’s license in anticipation of soon going back to work.
“Guess what I’m doing today?” he asked. “I’m a big soccer fan, and I’m watching three World Cup games down in the basement. It’s very cool down here.”
Yes, the views from the rooftop deck are terrific. But sometimes a man just wants to enjoy his home, his way, however long it takes.
The Century of Progress homes are open for tours once a year: October 23rd and 24th in 2010. The tours always sell out; for reservations, contact Jennifer Gregor at email@example.com.