Restoring the Homes of Tomorrow, Today

2011-03-20T00:00:00Z 2014-07-22T16:09:53Z Restoring the Homes of Tomorrow, TodayBy Madeline Szrom nwitimes.com
March 20, 2011 12:00 am  • 

Beverly Shores, Indiana, may seem like a typical beachfront community—quiet and quaint. However, on a particular road, known as Lakefront (or Lakeshore Drive), there are five examples that prove how atypical it is. Travel left far enough on Lakefront Drive and you'll be struck with the Pepto Bismol-pink exterior of the Florida Tropical House, just one of the five historic structures built in 1933 for the Chicago World's Fair. During the peak of the Great Depression, the fair, themed "A Century of Progress," brought the future to life with an exhibit titled The Homes of Tomorrow, which brought famed architects together to construct homes that highlighted the modern designs and great architectural developments of the time.

After the fair ended in 1934, the Armco-Ferro, Wieboldt-Rostone, Florida Tropical and House of Tomorrow were shipped to Beverly Shores on a barge, while the Cypress Log Cabin was disassembled and taken by truck. Once there, the homes were mainly neglected until the mid-1980s. After a short battle with the National Park Service, the Indiana Landmarks organization created the Century of Progress Project to rehabilitate and restore the houses. The NPS leases each home to Indiana Landmarks, which subleases them to individuals willing to put forth the money and time necessary for renovations. "There are three primary things we look for," says Todd Zeiger, Indiana Landmark's Northern Regional Office director, of finding the proper sub-lessee. "One is experience working on historical property, or worked on renovations before. Two, they have to agree that whatever they are going to do has to be reviewed and pass approval. Three, they have to have the financial capacity to do the work." Subleasing a home also entails allowing it to be open to the public once a year in late October for tours of each house.

The People Behind the Homes of Tomorrow

Even more impressive than these unique and historic structures are the people that lease them. "Each of the sub-leesees had specific skills and/or interests that meshed well with the specific house they were interested in," Zeiger says. The Beatty, Gambril, Lichtenfeld and Alm families have dedicated their time, money and devotion to restoring the rare homes back to their original grandeur.

Florida Tropical House

In 1998 Bill Beatty, 73, and his first wife Marcy leased the Florida Tropical house. "Marcy saw the Florida house being offered for free to a restorer on a news broadcast on one of the Chicago TV stations," says Beatty, the chairman of a family-owned heavy machinery sales and repair shop. "It appeared to require the least amount of work." The process proved to be arduous, however. "It always looked overwhelming," Beatty says. Wondering, why spend so much time, money and energy on a semi-permanent residence that you will never actually own? "That's a good question," Beatty quips. "It is one of the dumbest things I have ever done."

With 23 years of his lease still remaining, the Beattys gradually restored the once dilapidated and sun-streaked Florida Tropical house back to its bright pink roots. "Preserving these homes is important, as they are five of the only actual physical items that were in the Century of Progress Fair," Beatty says. As days turn to weeks, the Beattys, Bill and present wife, Lisa, 49, are closer to finally residing in their newly restored home.

Wieboldt-Rostone House

The second sub leaser, Ross Gambril, 61, is no stranger to historic renovation. Gambril is a commercial real estate developer and general contractor. On his roster of projects, he is restoring the lobby of a building near the Hancock skyscraper to its original 1924 state as well as writing a book called Lost Chicago, which details historic buildings in Chicago that have been torn down. "Destroying history isn't a good idea," Gambril says. He explains that he chose the Wieboldt-Rostone house because it's pure art deco and, "I'm a purist."

While Gambril's experience and knowledge certainly proved helpful in a project of this magnitude, it was still a challenge. The Wieboldt-Rostone house stood vacant for 17 years, and as it sits directly on the shore of Lake Michigan, it is subjected to the brunt of the harsh weather conditions throughout the seasons. "Had this home stayed unoccupied for another two or three years, it would've imploded," Gambril says. It took him and his crew two years to finally craft a plan and, after that strenuous stage, the most difficult part of the process began. "We had to remove everything to expose all the steel and find out what we had to do. Going in there were eight columns that needed to be restored, but I missed the other ninety-six," Gambril admits through a burst of laughter.

One of his men needs his opinion and a hand on one of the outdoor balconies that are by anyone's standard massive. His long white hair blows furiously in the freezing wind, crisis averted. It's clear that he's the alpha figure. That's even more apparent when he adds that if you don't do something right, it's not worth doing at all. Gambril and his team have come a long way from the mess that was the Wieboldt-Rostone house, and now with drywall in the near future it's obvious that even through the utmost adversities and snags he's remained content in his choice. "The whole thing has been an absolute joy," he says as he takes the last sip from his Coors Light.

Armco-Ferro House

Across the street sits the adorable Armco-Ferro house. While it's more petite than the Wieboldt-Rostone home, its worn-out steel frame and rusting insides proved to be an enormous task for 68-year-old retired manufacturing engineer Christoph Lichtenfeld and his wife Char, 59, who practices physical therapy. "There was water running down, corroding everything," Mr. Litchtenfeld recalls wearily. "Had anyone known what it would've been like, it would've been condemned or no one would've taken it." But the Lichtenfelds persevered, began labor in 2005 and are now in their sixth year of the 30-year lease.

In 2006 they stumbled upon a group of ironwork apprentices, part of Iron Worker Local 395. "I stopped and talked to the apprentice school about the project and showed pictures," Mr. Lichtenfeld says. Luckily the ironworkers decided to lend their experience. "I had up to fourteen apprentices here—grown men in their twenties to thirties. They were the cream of the crop," he says. The Lichtenfelds provided the materials and the apprentices installed them, but even with the help, the project was still labor-intensive. "We took all the windows out because they were rusted, there were holes all over and everything was rusted out," Mr. Lichtenfeld says as he looks around the now stable and almost complete home from the living room he sits in. "Repairing the structure's steel was the worst. It was a hellhole you didn't want to be in."

Things are better now, easier for Christoph and Char. "The best part is now, is finishing up; it goes so fast now." Although the process has been backbreaking and beyond overwhelming, the Lichtenfelds wouldn't take any of it back. "Now I'm happy," Mr. Lichtenfeld says with enthusiasm and contentment. "We have brought life back to this house."

Cypress Log Cabin

The Cypress Log Cabin is almost invisible when traveling down Lakefront Drive, fitting in perfectly with the rest of the trees and shrubs that surround it. It's the only one of the five homes that is entirely finished, complete with full-time residents. Flint and Jamie Alm are the saviors to the Cypress cabin, which was in such bad condition the Lichtenfelds decided against subleasing it. Raccoons had found a home in its abandoned shell, causing the smell to be unbearable. Luckily the Alm family agreed to take the once ruggedly beautiful cabin, and with extreme work and dedication, transform it to its original beauty.

House of Tomorrow

The most delightfully strange structure is the only house left without a sublease. "It was lived in until 1999 by a private party and we entered into the project after they moved out," Zeiger says. Once the House of Tomorrow was part of the Century of Progress Project, it was soon subleased. Things didn't go as anticipated. "We had a problem with the party leasing it so we had to revoke their sublease. We're caught in limbo right now," Zeiger reports rather sadly. The House of Tomorrow currently remains open to applicants willing to take the responsibility of restoring it to its true form.

Progress on the homes, with the exception of the House of Tomorrow, is in the mid to late stages. According to Zeiger, "persistence, perseverance and the ability to creatively approach very problematic situations during the rehabilitation projects" are qualities that each family has illuminated over the years.

Because of this, the homes will soon look as they once did and will be ready to last at least another 77 years.

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