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Back to the Future

Five handpicked tenants are restoring forward-looking houses from the 1933 World's Fair in the Indiana Dunes.


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Developer Ross Gambril specializes in shopping malls and industrial parks--recent projects by his firm, Eon Properties, include a sprawling "lifestyle center" on 53 acres of Indiana farmland. But four years ago he and his son, Joe, began a very different project: restoring a 70-year-old home built as a display "house of the future" for the 1933 Century of Progress World's Fair in Chicago. The Wieboldt-Rostone House was a showcase for a new brand of synthetic stone exterior. According to the sales brochure, Rostone--a blend of alkali, shale, and limestone--came in an array of "pleasing colors," demonstrated that "beauty and permanence in a modern home need not be expensive," and cut down on the possibility of fire and termite damage.

This was probably all true, except for the part about permanence. By 1950 the house's Rostone exterior had begun to deteriorate, and when Gambril started the rehab it quickly disintegrated into a pile of stone chips and dust. To protect what was left, he covered the outside of the house with a layer of plywood while he tried to find a precast concrete that would match the color and texture of the original.

The situation indoors was just as grim. The house had been leaking for years, and rust had eaten away at the 98 steel columns that held the place up. On one wall the bottom two feet of every column had disintegrated. The terraces on the top of the house had 10 to 20 inches of various roofs on top of the original. "We took probably over 53 tons of material off the two roof terraces by hand," says Gambril. "There were 11 different layers of roofing."

To be fair, the Rostone house was never designed to be lived in. It was supposed to be torn down, along with four other houses of the future, after the fair ended in 1934. But a real estate developer named Robert Bartlett sensed an opportunity. He bought all five homes for a song and transported them--along with six other fair buildings--by barge to Beverly Shores, a 3,500-acre resort he was developing along Lake Michigan in the Indiana dunes. He hoped the publicity the houses' journey generated would attract buyers to the resort.

And indeed, curiosity seekers from Chicago took the train to Beverly Shores, where Bartlett greeted them at the depot. "He'd put you in a limousine and bring you out here and run people through these houses of tomorrow, like a sales pitch," says Todd Zeiger, director of the northern regional office of the Historic Landmarks Foundation of Indiana. "He really used these houses much like they were used at the fair--to entice people."

But curiosity didn't translate into sales. "It was his vision that he was going to develop this to be a Florida-esque type of area, but his timing was not that well," says Zeiger. "The Great Depression had hit, and then World War II came along. He ended up selling out all of his interests."

Seventy years later the five futuristic houses are still standing--five of the other six fair buildings were demolished years ago. "They're period pieces, but at the same time they're very livable houses," says Tim Samuelson, cultural historian for the city of Chicago. "They have a timeless quality," enduring as examples of what people in the 30s thought "modern" would become. True, one of the architects predicted that in the future every family would own an airplane, but they were prescient in other ways--for example, the House of Tomorrow used passive solar energy to cut heating bills.

The Century of Progress fair, which sprawled out of Grant Park to cover Northerly Island, was a celebration of humankind's ingenuity and the power of industry, rooted in the hope that innovations in engineering, architecture, and technology would ultimately lift the country out of the Depression. Efficiency of the kind seen on Henry Ford's assembly line was stressed in the exhibits and in the running of the fair itself. Lenox Lohr, the military engineer who directed operations, put together a tight schedule for tearing down every exhibit at fair's end, and that schedule was rigorously followed. "To have a tangible remnant of that particular fair is very important," says Samuelson, "because not a lot survives from it."

Samuelson has made the hour-long trip to Beverly Shores many times, usually with Century of Progress enthusiasts in tow. "I even used to go when the houses were empty," he says. "At one point it seemed as if they were going to be torn down." The eroding sand dunes they were built on also threatened to level them.

In 1980 the National Park Service bought the homes, granting the tenants long-term leases but without making upkeep a condition. Zeiger says the houses continued to deteriorate because the tenants "had no incentives to do anything but Band-Aid fixes." The porcelain-enameled Armco-Ferro House, the inspiration for the mass-produced Lustron homes that still dot the Chicago suburbs, suffered severe water damage, most of which could have been prevented if the tenants had just fixed the roof and gutters. "By the time we got to it it was rusting like a bad '57 Chevy," he says. "There were buckets of water coming in." In 1997 Historic Landmarks added the five homes to its list of the ten most endangered landmarks in Indiana.

Thirteen years ago Zeiger's predecessor at Historic Landmarks began talking with National Park Service officials about preserving the homes. The officials acknowledged that it would be a good idea to find private individuals who were willing to adopt the homes and finance and oversee their restoration, but they would only agree to a five-year lease arrangement, even though the leaseholders would have to put in years of work, spend hundreds of thousands of dollars, and face an incalculable number of headaches. "It wasn't a workable concept from a financial and private-sector standpoint," says Zeiger, who took over the project nine years ago. "So I took the concept they had and fiddled with it and fiddled with it and kept talking and not going away."

By 2001 he'd worked out a deal in which the National Park Service would grant a 30-year lease with an option to renew for a second 30 years. The leaseholders pay $1,500 a year in rent, plus utilities. The lease is void if the property falls into disrepair, and the houses can't be sublet or lived in by anyone but the leaseholder or the leaseholder's family. "We want to see continued progress," says Zeiger. "We don't want them to sit and not have anything happen. Basically our criteria is, if it's safe, secure, and dry we're happy."

Once the leases are up, possession of the homes reverts back to the National Park Service, and the leaseholders get none of their money back. "The return is their enjoyment of the property," says Zeiger.

It's taken him five years to find five people of the "right bent." He fielded countless inquiries from people who'd heard about the houses from stories in the local and national news, and while many were willing to write big checks to fix up the houses, they also wanted to replace old windows, tear down walls, and build additions. "We were looking for people in sync with our philosophy of restoration," Zeiger says. "They have to understand that going in, you can't make alterations."

"We went through an extensive interview process," says Susan Barnes, who's restoring the House of Tomorrow, a 12-sided glass house with a minimalist steel frame. "You couldn't just call and say, 'Hey, I want this house.'"

The Florida Tropical House, a gracious modern waterfront home designed by Miami architect Robert Law Weed, was the first house to be snapped up, by William Beatty, owner of an industrial-punching-machine company in Hammond. Its roof terrace was modeled on the storm-proof deck of an ocean liner, and it had generous concrete overhangs that allowed the windows to stay open during gentle rains, bringing the outdoors in. The focus of the interior was on color--yellows, corals, and blues.

Christoph Lichtenfeld, a retired General Electric engineer, fell in love with the rusty shell of the Armco-Ferro House, a small, boxy beige structure built by the Ferro Enamel Corporation, the world's largest producer of porcelain enamel at the time, and the American Rolling Mill Company, a rolled-sheet-steel producer. The only one of the five houses that met the fair's design criteria of "a house that could be mass-produced and was affordable for the average American family," it has interchangeable porcelain-clad corrugated steel panels that are inserted into a framework of stainless steel channels. Water was supposed to drain through holes in the channels, but the holes were too small, water backed up, and the panels rusted.

Lichtenfeld and his wife, Char, are doing much of the restoration themselves. "He's approached this much like an engineer would," says Zeiger. "He's very meticulous, which is outstanding. He's been able to figure out the problems with the channels and actually locate a manufacturer that can replicate the steel panels."

Zeiger says Barnes was the ideal candidate for the House of Tomorrow because she's an architect specializing in preserving historic homes in the Chicago area and she grew up in a home in Aurora designed by William and George Fred Keck, the House of Tomorrow's architects. The Kecks were early practitioners of sustainable design: they built their homes in tune with the landscape, and in the 1950s they designed roofs that held rainwater to cool the house during the summer and egg-carton grids that reduced the amount of sun that fell on passive-solar houses on hot summer days.

During the fair the three-story House of Tomorrow was considered the piece de resistance; according to a 1990 interview with William Keck, fair visitors had to pay an extra ten cents to tour it. The first floor featured an airplane hangar where the owners could park their "flying flivver," a workshop outfitted with lathes for making and fixing airplane parts, and--in a fit of post-Prohibition glee--a cocktail room. There were also an early water-cooled air conditioner and exposed ductwork painted in primary colors. Upstairs the kitchen was a model of efficiency, outfitted with a hand-cranked dishwasher and an electric-eye door to the dining room to make it easier to bring dishes to the table--the middle class could no longer afford servants.

Barnes, who's also vice chair of the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, a body appointed by President Bush, remembers clearly her first tour of the house. "My reaction was, 'Oh, I think we've got some real work here,'" she says. The glass-walled exterior had been partially covered with copper cladding and the original storefront-glass windows replaced with smaller windows that could be opened in hot weather. When they built the house the Kecks decided not to spring for expensive thermal-pane windows that opened because they didn't think anyone would actually live in it. They also didn't foresee that in the summer the master bedroom would heat up so much as the sun beat against the 9-by-12-foot windows that the air conditioner couldn't keep up.

Inside, the original modernist cabinetry and finishes had been replaced with 70s kitsch, walls had been added, and a Scandinavian freestanding fireplace from the 60s had been installed. A tenant who worked at a seafood restaurant had glued hundreds of clamshells to one of the original walls, and Barnes's workers had to spend hours removing them with a chisel. But the elegant steel spiral staircase, which supports the weight of the entire house, was intact. "You could tell the original intent of the building was still there," Barnes says. "It's got great bones."

The steel frame was so strong that Barnes's contractor had a relatively easy time installing a new heating and cooling system. "They didn't have the formulas we have today--what kind of steel size can carry certain loads," says Barnes. "They overdesigned just to be on the safe side."

Barnes plans to use the House of Tomorrow as a year-round weekend home for her family. "It's not only extremely beautiful and eye pleasing, it's really practical how it was thought out," she says. "When you live in something of that caliber you really appreciate it."

The nearby Cypress Log Cabin, which is being restored by Flint Alm, a plumbing contractor from Saint John, Indiana, is basically what it sounds like--a log cabin made of cypress. In the 30s cypress was touted as the material of the future by the Southern Cypress Association because, unlike pine or oak, it usually doesn't rot. At the fair, according to a 1933 brochure, the house was landscaped with "fences, arbors, and bridges [and] decorated with cypress knees carved to suggest animal heads, reptiles and fantasy creatures." The only whimsical detail that remains is the dovecote over the entrance. Behind the main cabin is the long, narrow "demonstration house," which was used for displays of the "many decorative and practical commercial uses of tide water red cypress." To make the oddly configured place a little more livable, Judith Collins, the National Park Service architect overseeing the Beverly Shores project, is allowing Alm to attach the demonstration house to the main house--the biggest concession she's made to any of the leaseholders.

Alm isn't sure he and his wife will be able to live in the cabin year-round as they'd hoped, because they can't install new windows and they can't add insulation in certain areas because they'd have to remove the original cypress siding, which would likely damage it. Most of the siding is intact, though Alm did have to replace four or five timbers that had rotted. New ones weren't easy to find--southern cypress forests are now protected. He wound up paying a fortune to a company that reclaims old logs from the bottom of rivers and lakes.

The Cypress Log Cabin didn't have a foundation--it had been unceremoniously plopped on a dune--and most of its substructure had rotted. Alm had to find a team of contractors who could lift the house with a crane and dig a foundation, and to give themselves enough room on the cramped dune they had to divide the demonstration house into four sections and move them to a nearby cul-de-sac. Putting in the foundation, says Alm, went a lot slower than you might think: "If you're digging sand it just keeps filling back in."

Ross Gambril knew he wanted the Wieboldt-Rostone House the minute he saw it. "I found out about this house when I was probably six or seven years old," he says. His father had toured the houses of the future during the fair, and he took his son to see them in Beverly Shores and told him the story of how they were brought by barge from Chicago. "I've known the history of the houses here my whole life, and my dad was the one who showed 'em to me," Gambril says. "My dad died when I was 23. Everything I do I do based on what he told me and what he taught me. And now I get to do this with my son, who's 29. It's the ultimate father-and-son project."

The home wasn't finished when it first opened. "They started building the house on February 15, 1933, and opened it up May 27," says Gambril. "So they had 100 days to build it, and they ran out of time." He plans to build the second fireplace and dressing room that were included in the original drawings.

He's already taken up all the parquet flooring from the hallways and one bedroom and is having it remachined and reglued. "You have a little jig to fit the various pieces together," he says. "It's basically the jigsaw puzzle from hell." His restoration should be complete by next year, along with Beatty's. Zeiger expects the three other houses to be finished by 2008. (Tours will be offered annually, starting sometime next year.)

Barnes thinks the Beverly Shores project is revolutionary and predicts it will become a model for other landmark restorations on federal land. "Our national parks and forests have very interesting historic structures in them, and the reality is that there's going to be more and more need as the properties get older and older to have similar projects like this," she says. "If this program had not come to be, there would not have been sufficient money to have done anything with these buildings. There's a very high likelihood they may have gone away."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Lloyd DeGrane, courtesy of Todd Ziegler.

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