They were built to demonstrate the promise of home technology for the World’s Fair. What happened to them?
By Lindsay Fullerton
Perched on the edge of Lake Michigan and surround- ed by the bucolic Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, five retro-futuristic houses hover mirage-like above the shoreline. Constructed with flat roofs, boxy exteriors and fanciful colors, this assembly of homes is unlike any of the structures in the surrounding area. Some in striking hues, their geometric forms arrestingly contrast with the neighboring dunes and verdant forest. Seemingly out of place, they are also out of time: these are the last remaining major structures from Chicago’s 1933 Century of Progress World’s Fair.
Civic boosters began planning the Century of Progress World’s Fair in the 1920s to celebrate Chicago’s forthcoming 1933 centennial. However, organizers of the Fair, drawn mostly from Chicago’s business elite, felt that it needed another more universal theme, and they settled on the scientific and technological progress of the previous century. The Fair’s President, Rufus C. Dawes, stated the theme “dramatizes the achievements of mankind, made possible through the applications of science to industry.” Fair organizers also sought to highlight scientific progress and technology, in the belief that these systems could help alleviate the Great Depression, which was at its depths in 1933. Organizers’ emphasis on scientific and technological progress carried through to all exhibits and the modern architectural designs of Fair buildings. While the Fair presented a vision of the American dream predicated on the utilization of the latest technologies, during the height of the Great Depression many of the presented innovations remained out of reach for the average visitor. And so while Fair organizers’ celebration of the latest and the greatest would be trumpeted by industry for years to come, its innovations—particularly the Homes of Tomorrow—remain symbols of stark inequalities during and after the Fair.
The Century of Progress Fair also marked the forty-year anniversary of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. While the Century of Progress organizers hoped to emulate to epoch-defining success of the 1893 Chicago Fair, they did not seek to copy its architectural style. Whereas the 1893 Fair was a neo-classical “White City,” the Century of Progress organizers and architectural committee adopted art deco and modern architecture, with sleek, geometric designs, painted in a palette of bright colors and accented by neon tubes and electric floodlights.
The Homes of Tomorrow Exhibit, to which these five houses once belonged, was a showcase of technological progress in home construction and architecture, featuring mass-produced and pre-fabricated elements made of new materials, with the latest in appliances and furnishings. According to the official 1933 Fair Guidebook, the exhibit’s “group of eleven houses are designed to show progress in architecture, comfort and economy.” In 1933, companies like Masonite and Good Housekeeping sponsored homes in the hopes of featuring their wares and attracting new customers. Though affordability was a stated goal of the exhibit, it is unlikely that many of the innovations presented would be affordable to fair-goers. In the midst of the Great Depression, many of the homes were more aspirational than attainable. Eight of the homes in the
exhibit embraced modernist design and the latest innovations in construction: state-of-the-art, man-made materials and pre-fabricated, mass-produced elements. The homes also featured a plethora of laudatory advertising brochures and pamphlets for visitors to take home. These brochures included information on how consumers could obtain the home’s materials or trimmings. Organizers added more homes for the second year of the Fair in 1934, and the original homes received new furniture and other updates.
Despite its architectural and cultural impact, the Century of Progress disappeared from Chicago’s landscape. As in most World’s Fairs, the organizers chose to construct temporary buildings, which were quickly demolished after the end of the Fair in 1934. However, real estate developer Robert Bartlett spirit- ed away five model homes before they could meet a similar fate: the Cypress Log Cabin, the Wieboldt-Rostone House, the Armco-Ferro House, the House of Tomorrow, and the Florida Tropical House. These homes now stand just fifty miles from their original site on the fairgrounds along the shores of Lake Michigan between 12th and 39th Streets and Northerly Island, the man-made peninsula jutting into the lake.
After the close of the Fair in 1934, Robert Bartlett bought a total of sixteen exhibited structures as a publicity stunt in the hopes that they would attract people to his nascent lakefront resort community in northwestern Indiana. “The reason we bought these model homes,” Bartlett said, “is that they represent what we find are the most outstanding examples of modern home building, combining beauty and practical value.” Of the five houses that still stand, Bartlett moved four from Chicago across Lake Michigan to the Indiana Dunes by barge, while the Cypress Log Cabin was moved by truck. Bartlett bought other structures from the Fair for what would be become the lakeside Beverly Shores community, including a sixth Home of Tomorrow, the Modern Country Home (no longer standing), as well as structures from the Fair’s Colonial Village. The only remaining structure of the colonial group is a replica of Boston’s Old North Church, which is now a private residence.
Among the houses on the shores of Lake Michigan, The House of Tomorrow, designed by modernist architect George Frederick Keck, was the most forward-thinking. The 1933 Official Guidebook describes it as a “ ‘laboratory’ house, for the purpose of determining the attitude of World’s Fair visitors to the idea of an utterly different home.” Exhibit organizers did not position the House of Tomorrow as attainable or affordable, and it was instead intended to show the most cutting-edge technologies—per the guidebook—“price has been no object when build- ing this house.” While the rest of the model homes were free to visit, the House of Tomorrow’s separate ten-cent admission charge highlighted its special appeal and exclusivity. The steel frame structure boasted concrete floors, a flat roof, floor-to-ceiling glass windows on each of its twelve sides, and all utilities and wiring were concealed away from view in the center
part of the house. The top two stories consisted of living space, while the first floor included a hangar for a personal aircraft, the ultimate in modern luxury.
Bolstered by the success of the House of Tomorrow, Keck debuted a second house in a different section of the Fair in 1934. The Crystal House showcased many similar novelties to the House of Tomorrow, but featured a rectangular shape, along with many more mass-produced and pre-fabricated elements. Though a future where the average citizen owned an airplane did not come to pass, other innovations featured in the House of Tomorrow did, including passive solar heating, open floor plans, air-conditioning, flat roofs, and pre-fabricated units. The House of Tomorrow also featured cutting-edge appliances that are now commonplace: the dishwasher and the “iceless” refrigerator. However, further modifications of the House of Tomorrow over the years significantly altered its appearance, covering over many of its windows, making it nearly unrecognizable from its original form. After their success at the Fair, George and his brother William continued to design homes throughout the Chicagoland area, using some elements and innovations from the House of Tomorrow, though modified and adapted for the needs of the typical homeowner, and coupled with a use of pre-fabricated elements championed by the Crystal House. The use of mass-produced elements in home construction highlighted at the Fair increased dramatically after World War II with its attendant increase in demand for housing.
The Armco-Ferro and Rostone Houses are both significant for the use of modular, pre-fabricated elements in pioneering new materials. Armco Steel (American Rolling Steel Company) and Ferro Enamel Corporation developed the Armco-Ferro House, designed by Architect Robert Smith Jr., to show- case their “Frameless Steel House” with an exterior covered in a new building material: mass-produced steel panels coated with porcelain enamel. Armco- Ferro produced the pre-fabricated panels in uniform heights, but with various widths that builders could easily assemble into structures. Promotional materials advertise durable, customizable frameless steel houses that are “built like your car.” Of those homes remain- ing in Indiana, this house fit most closely the fair organizers’ stated goal of being affordable, though not for everyone (the 1933 construction cost was $4,500, which is approximately $86,000 in 2018). All interior furnishings were also mass-produced and the official brochure stated that the furniture “Is not costly and you will be able to buy it in department and furniture stores all over the country.” Armco-Ferro took great pains to show that their affordable houses, though factory-made, could still be customizable.
In the Rostone house, Rostone Inc. (manufacturer of its new, eponymous building material) showcased its mass-produced stone product made up of quarry waste, shale, and alkali. Pre-fabricated in standardized sizes, Rostone had a stone-like appearance, but with the benefit of being available in a variety of sizes and colors at low cost. To create the house’s structure, pre-sized Rostone panels were bolted onto a steel frame, which Rostone claimed could be ar- ranged in almost any configuration. Again, custom- ization was key: “Do not, however, confuse it with the so-called ‘mass production’ houses which are supposed to made only in a certain few set designs” urged the official Rostone brochure. The structure, designed by Indiana architect Walter Scholer exhibits a modernist style with Mediterranean touches, and was clad entirely in tan Rostone panels, featuring an expansive rooftop deck and solarium. The company also featured Rostone in the interior of the building and the fireplace. Though at the time of installation, Rostone claimed its new material would last decades, by the 1950s, the panels had begun to fail. While the proprietary materials used in the Armco-Ferro and Rostone houses were not commercial successes, they are credited with paving the way for later homes that utilized pre-fabricated, mass-produced materials after WWII and beyond, such as Lustron homes.
Featuring a striking modern design, the Florida Tropical House was primarily selling a glamorous lifestyle that would have likely been out of reach for the average fair-goer. The state of Florida sponsored the house to advertise the exotic image of the state, in the hopes of attracting residents and investment. Architect Robert Law Weed designed the Flamingo-pink, art-deco style stucco house to reflect Florida’s tropical climate and landscape. To further cultivate the tropical image, an essay in the house’s official brochure described Florida as a place “of sunny skies, blue waters, colorful flowers, swaying palms, the odor of orange blossoms and vistas of attractive homes set in tropical bowers, a land of contentment…” The house featured a large, open living space, including a two-story living room, and a large roof terrace with expansive lake views. The art deco archi- tecture displayed by the Florida Tropical House was a contemporary of the still-preserved architectural gems of Miami Beach, where Weed designed many other buildings in a similar style.
If the House of Tomorrow cuts the most striking figure, the Cypress Log Cabin, set back from the shore, blends into nature with its traditional silhouette. The Southern Cypress Manufacturers Association of Jacksonville, Florida funded the Cypress Log Cabin, designed by architect Murray D. Hetherington as a “mountain lodge or rustic vacation cabin in the woodlands,” per its official brochure. The home was not designed to display the latest architectural trends, but was instead intended as a showcase for all things cypress, a wood native to swampy areas in the American South. The home showcased cypress’ versatility and durability, from exterior siding, blinds and flooring, to more fanciful touches like footbridges, carved animal heads, lamps, and furniture (which were not moved to Indiana). However, in keeping with the scientific emphasis of the Fair, cypress’ technical advantages are also touted in the home’s official brochure, including “a natural preservative [in] its innermost cell” that has to be imitated in other woods through the addition of creosote.
Ever since the Beverly Shores area was connected to Chicago by rail, it has been an attractive location for developers and well-heeled Chicagoans both past and present. Chicago real estate scion Frederick H. Bartlett (brother of Robert) purchased three-thou- sand acres of land where the houses now stand in 1927 with the intention to turn them into a resort. The stock market crash of 1929 thwarted these plans, and in 1933 Frederick sold the land to his brother. Robert Bartlett rapidly started developing the purchased land into a resort community with a series of freshly-built stucco homes, and other amenities including a hotel and a theater. However, the country was still in the depths of the Great Depression while the Robert Bartlett development was underway. Even after Robert’s acquisition of the Century of Progress homes, lots sold at a slower pace than anticipated, and World War II stalled the project further. Robert Bartlett withdrew from the project in 1946, and the few hundred residents voted to incorporate them- selves into the town of Beverly Shores in 1947.
Over the years, many of the original Fair structures in Indiana were destroyed. Years of battering wind and water took their toll on the remaining homes, and they passed through many owners, falling into various states of disrepair and modification. Beyond cosmetic differences, erosion of the lake shore further threatened the very existence of the structures. The federal government established the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore on the site in 1966, though the homes at the time were still in private hands. The Fair homes eventually gained a new life when the National Park Service acquired them in 1980, and the houses made it to the National Register of Historic Places in 1986. The Fair houses changed hands again in the early 2000s, when four of the five homes were leased by Landmarks Indiana (a historical preservation non-profit) from the National Park Service, and then sub-leased to private citizens for thirty-year terms. As of 2019, these new owners are working to restore the Fair homes to their original state, with their own fi- nancing. The House of Tomorrow, left in the gravest state of disrepair, is still seeking an occupant who will rehabilitate the structure.
Today, as they hug the windswept shore of the Indiana Dunes, the Homes of Tomorrow stand as an embodiment of the Fair organizers’ and participating companies’ touting of the consumption of science and technology, even in the depths of the Great Depression. It is perhaps fitting, then, that the Homes of Tomorrow only survive today as the result of a publicity stunt to help sell more houses. Whether in Chicago, or after their move to Indiana, the Homes of Tomorrow assured visitors that a brighter future for both themselves and the nation could be theirs for a price. However, despite the grandiose promises of their brochures, the Century of Progress homes remained symbols of an out of reach dream for many. ■
This essay appears in Midwest Architecture Journeys, available for pre-order from Belt Publishing.
Lindsay Fullerton is an independent scholar whose work on social media and the history of technology has appeared in Critical Studies in Media Communication, Culture & Critique, and the International Journal of Communication. A third-generation Chicagoan, her current book project about the 1933-4 Century of Progress World’s Fair in Chicago engages her longstanding interest in the history of World’s Fairs and her home city. Currently based near Cleveland, Lindsay holds a B.S. from the University of Pennsylvania and a PhD in Media, Technology, and Society from Northwestern University.
Cover image of the Armco-Ferro House (Century of Progress, 1933 Chicago Fair). Source: Historic American Building Survey, Dept. of the Interior. Public Domain image via Wikimedia.
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