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Prefab Modernism and Preservation

May 12, 2010

Photo by Jack Boucher, Historic American Building Survey (HABS), National Park Service, taken 1994. Click to visit NPS website on the house

Dwell magazine’s April 2010 issue focused on prefab construction, and included a brief feature highlighting efforts to preserve a prefab example from the 1933 World’s Fair in Chicago.

One of 11 “Homes of Tomorrow” featured at the fair, the Armco-Ferro Enamel House was one of five buildings trucked from the fairgrounds to the Indiana Dunes to enjoy a useful residential life.

Now located within the boundaries of the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, the National Park Service manages the land and long term leases for the structures are offered through a partnership with the Historic Landmarks Foundation of Indiana (HLFI).  Long-neglected, the buildings were featured on the HLFI’s Endangered List in 1993.

My personal favorite is the House of Tomorrow, designed by Chicago architect George Fred Keck to include a garage and airplane hanger on the ground floor.  Apparently, in his vision of Tomorrow, every family would own an airplane.

One of the measured drawings from the HABS file for the Armco-Ferro House, click image to visit HABS file at Library of Congress

All the houses were built using innovative materials and techniques and the Dwell article notes the challenges faced by the new residents of the Armco-Ferro House when trying to restore the building to its former glory.

Since their “Preservation” heading doesn’t seem to rate a place on the online digital archive, let me recap what you won’t find in the online edition of Dwell’s April 2010 issue.

Chicago couple Christoph and Char Lichtenfeld envisioned the Armco-Ferro House as an ideal holiday home on Lake Michigan.  Their idea of a holiday might not be the same as yours or mine.  Christoph, a recently retired manufacturing engineer,  felt up to the challenge of the renovation and started work in 2005.

The 2,400 square foot Armco-Ferro Enamel House (Robert Smith Jr., architect) has two stories and an atrium.  When assembled in 1933 the factory-made sections of roll-formed steel and sides of baked-porcelain enamel went up in just 11 days.  Renovating the house 77 years later would not be as quick or simple.  When it comes to restoration, the period use of innovative materials in often untested applications calls for creative modern solutions.  There are lots of folks who can tell you how to repair an 18th century wooden window frame.  Those with experience rehabbing a modern era prefab are harder to come by.

Dwell writes

In the 77 years since it was erected, ‘ the structure had been completely compromised,’ Christoph says.  Ultimately, saving the house meant building a new foundation; replacing the siding which was too badly corroded to save; and supplanting significant portions of the walls with new sections of corrugated 22-gauge steel.  Christoph also replaced all floors with a system of interlocking steel Z-panels.  Fabricated on press brakes and bolted together to create sturdy, hollow ‘pans,’ the panels mimic the original floor, which was spot-welded together at the factory.

The World’s Fair prefab homes were futuristic in concept but not built for the ages.  The Lichtenfelds hope to have the home in full working order this year.  ‘The problem with steelwork is that it is just so time-consuming,’ Christoph says.  But time has had its benefits, too. ‘With all its flaws, we slowly learned to love this house,’ Char says.

— Tomorrow Never Knows, Jay Pridmore, Dwell, April 2010

Learn more about the Century of Progress Homes from the National Park Service Park Cultural Landscapes program.

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