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30′s Era “Home Of Tomorrow” To Undergo Historic Preservation

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(Jessica Hill/\P Photo)

(Jessica Hill/\P Photo)

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By STEPHANIE REITZ, Associated Press

NEW LONDON, Conn. (AP) _ Shedding paint flakes the size of
dinner plates, the rusty steel house huddled in a corner of
Connecticut College’s campus appeared for years to be more of an
eyesore than a historic treasure.

As one of few 1930s steel houses of its type still standing
nationwide, though, the prefabricated cottage holds a pedigree on
par with many better-known architectural jewels –and now it’s
getting its chance to shine again.

A crew of restoration specialists spent much of the past week
dismantling the boxy two-bedroom, 800-square-foot structure and
meticulously marking each piece to be sent to a Philadelphia
conservation firm.

Once every panel, beam and other item is cleaned of corrosion
and special rust-resistant treatments are applied, they’ll be
returned to New London next year. Then, it will be reassembled on
the same foundation where Winslow Ames had the structure erected in
1933 after falling in love with the so-called “homes of tomorrow”
that year at the World’s Fair in Chicago.

Ames, founding director of the Lyman Allan Art Museum adjacent
to the Connecticut College campus, rented the yellowish-gray
painted steel cottage to Navy officers and other tenants until he
moved to Missouri in 1949 and sold it to the college.

It was used as faculty housing through 2004, when the cost and
trouble of upkeep became so great that the college stopped renting
it out and removed the plumbing and heating. It deteriorated
quickly as the college, unsure what to do with it and unaware of
its historic value, focused its efforts and money on other
projects.

“It looked like what people might have thought of as an old
rusty shed,” said Douglas Royalty, a conservation specialist
overseeing the restoration with the college’s art history
department chairwoman, Abigail Van Slyck.

steel house conn college ap photo jessica hill 30s Era Home Of Tomorrow To Undergo Historic Preservation

(Jessica Hill/\ap Photo)

“But when I first saw it,” he added, “I could tell that the

college had something really special here.”

Three-quarters of a century ago, Ames thought he had something
pretty special, too.

He and his wife, Anna, used part of her inheritance to buy the
one-story steel house from General Houses Inc. for about $4,500, or
about $78,000 in today’s dollars.

Then, having purchased land from the museum for $10, they had
the 21- by 37-foot home assembled as gawkers watched from Mohegan
Avenue and local news reports chronicled the community’s largely
puzzled reaction to its boxy design.

“It comes from a time when modernism and prefabrication were
really bubbling up in America,” Royalty said, noting the nation’s
enchantment with Henry Ford’s assembly line and the need for
affordable housing amid the Depression.

Although General Houses received significant attention in
national publications for its so-called “machine for living,” it
ultimately made fewer than 100 of the structures. It was defunct by
the start of World War II as the American housing aesthetic changed
and steel was in demand for the war effort.
Different types of prefabricated houses were built in the 1950s
and, later, the proliferation of mobile homes firmly ensconced the
concept in American culture, but the General Houses venture and
similar Depression-era experiments were largely forgotten.

The passing decades saw a succession of tenants in Connecticut
College’s steel house, a structure that was so tightly built that
moisture became trapped within the insulated walls and gave
corrosion a firm foothold.

Jim and Abbie MacDonald, who moved into the $90-per-month rental
home in 1974 as newlyweds, recalled fondly that it warmed up
quickly in the winter, but the moist interior put them on constant
watch for mildew, especially in their books.

Their posters and other wall dDecor were secured by magnets and
the 13 windows, which provided a nice cross-breeze on pleasant
days, were covered by Abbie’s handmade corduroy curtains when
blazing sun threatened to heat the home like an oven.

“It was our little honeymoon cottage,” said Jim MacDonald, a
reference librarian at the college, who lived in the home with his
wife through 1979. “It’s amazing how small it seems now in
retrospect.”
John Carr, principal conservator of Milner + Carr Conservation,
said the Philadelphia-based firm hasn’t taken on a project quite
like the steel house before, but has used similar techniques to
restore old diner cars from trains.

Like a skyscraper, the steel house has no frame and gets its
strength from the beams and flanges connecting the walls and roof
panels. That makes it even more important that every item is
properly recorded and photographed for the rebuilding process.

“Nothing is going to be interchangeable,” Carr said. “It has
to go back together in the same way it was taken apart.”

The restoration project is being funded with more than $100,000
in grants from the Dr. Scholl Foundation, the Connecticut Trust for
Historic Preservation and other donations.

The building will eventually be used to house Connecticut
College student groups that encourage conservation, such as its
clubs for bicycling advocacy, renewable energy and sustainable
gardening.

Carr said he knows of two other early 1930s steel houses, but
that they are disassembled and in storage. Neither he nor Royalty
know of others still standing, though they don’t discount the
likelihood of others, like Connecticut College’s steel house, that
could be quietly rusting away as their historic value remains
unknown to their owners.

“They’re pretty rare, honestly, but they’re out there,”
Royalty said.

     (Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press.  All Rights Reserved.)

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