On the Road: 1933’s Vision of the Future at the Century of Progress Homes

Tucked away on a stretch of Indiana dunes beachfront are five homes built to showcase innovation and industrial progress for Chicago’s 1933 World’s Fair, the Century of Progress International Exposition. The fairgrounds, along the Chicago lakefront from 12th to 39th streets, celebrated "Science Finds, Industry Applies, Man Adapts." (Northerly Island Park is on the general fair site.) The five houses, known as the Century of Progress homes and funded by commercial sponsors, were open for tourists’ visits during the fair. Afterwards, the houses were floated (or in one case, dismantled and trucked) to what is now the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore near Beverly Shores, Indiana. There were actually 12 houses on display at the fair but only five were moved. The Armco-Ferro House. When the fair ended in 1934, Robert Bartlett, a real estate developer, bought the five houses to promote his new resort community in Beverly Shores, Indiana. The area is known as the Century of Progress Architectural District. The houses are owned now by the National Park Service and managed by Indiana Landmarks. The current residents have long-term leases, which require them to undertake substantial restoration and upkeep. On the rainy day we visited recently, we toured the beautiful lakefront neighborhood with park ranger Shane and toured the interiors of four of the houses with knowledgeable docents stationed throughout. We could take photos outside but not inside any of the houses. The Armco-Ferro House, designed to be affordable and mass-produced, is frameless, constructed of corrugated steel panels, and clad in porcelain-enameled steel panels produced by the Ferro Enamel Corporation. The architect was Cleveland architect Robert Smith Jr. The system later became a prefab system developed by the Lustron Corporation. The rooms are modestly sized but the living room is spacious and has a fabulous lake view. Display board showing the House of Tomorrow after restoration. The House of Tomorrow, designed by Chicago architect George Fred Keck, was an innovative glass house that preceded both the Mies van der Rohe 1951 Farnsworth House in Plano, Illinois, and Philip Johnson’s 1949 Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut. The House of Tomorrow included innovations such as air conditioning, a dishwasher and a ground-floor hangar for the family airplane. Now the 12-sided all-glass house is shrouded in protective house wrap and the interior is in dismal shape, waiting for restoration. However, as we walked through the house, we found one beautiful wall of small walnut parquet blocks, the material used for flooring through the entire house. The Cypress Log Cabin, constructed entirely of cypress and sponsored by the Southern Cypress Association, was closed that day so we were not able to see the interior. It was built to show the many uses of cypress, which is now considered an endangered tree. On the World’s Fair site, the house was designed in a mountain lodge atmosphere with fences, arbors and bridges decorated with cypress knees; these were not replicated when the house was moved. The Florida Tropical House. The Florida Tropical House, sponsored by the state of Florida, is located on the beachfront side of the district (as is the Wieboldt-Rostone House). It’s the best-known and most memorable of the five homes because of its flamingo pink façade (of lightweight concrete stucco). Designed by Florida architect Robert Law Weed, the house blends indoors and outdoors with a dramatic two-story living room and a large open rooftop terrace. In the living room, an aluminum staircase leads to a second-floor overhanging balcony. The house’s two bedrooms and its only bath are on the first floor. The Wieboldt-Rostone House. The Wieboldt-Rostone House is framed in steel and was originally clad in an experimental material called Rostone, composed of shale, limestone and alkali. Rostone turned out not to be as durable as planned and by 1950 was severely deteriorated. The exterior was recovered with a concrete stucco called Permastone. Designed by Lafayette, Indiana, architect Walter Scholer, the house was sponsored by Rostone, Inc., and the Indiana Bridge Company. It’s now partially finished and furnished and undergoing restoration. The current resident was there to tell us about his plans and progress. The Century of Progress homes are open for two-hour tours one day each year but you’ll have to wait until 2018. Tickets go on sale about a month in advance. And they go quickly, so don’t delay your ticket buy. For information, you can call the Indiana Dunes Visitor Center at 219-395-1882. If you're in the neighborhood for lunch, a stop at Bartlett's Gourmet Grill & Tavern is a must for homey atmosphere and good food. The cafe is named, of course, for the man who floated houses across the lake. Photos by Nancy S Bishop.
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Nancy S Bishop

Nancy S. Bishop is publisher and Stages editor of Third Coast Review. She’s a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and a 2014 Fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. You can read her personal writing on pop culture at nancybishopsjournal.com, and follow her on Twitter @nsbishop. She also writes about film, books, art, architecture and design.