Indiana Landmarks helps preserve historic World’s Fair homes

BEVERLY SHORES, Ind. (AP) — Moving buildings from the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair to Beverly Shores was no small task. Restoring those homes hasn’t been easy, either.

“Welcome to ‘This Old House’ on steroids,” Ross Gambril said during a recent Indiana Landmarks program.

Gambril is just about finished restoring the Wieboldt-Rostone House on Lake Front Drive, just west of the bright pink Florida Tropical House, where his neighbors Bill and Lisa Beatty live.

Each year, except 2020, tenants of the five historic Century of Progress homes open up their homes for tours. That’s part of the agreement they signed when they agreed to lease the homes.

The other main part was to restore the homes in lieu of rent.

“I have over 8,000 pictures of the house, all the work, all the various stages,” Gambril said, and he runs the slideshow during the annual showings.

“I look at that and I realize I am certifiably crazy,” he said.

“The things Bill and I went through the average person could not comprehend,” Gambril said.

When the Wieboldt-Rostone house was built, construction took 101 days. It has taken Gambril 18 years to get the house back in shape.

“The house was unattended for 17 years when I was — dare I say lucky — to get it,” he said.

Todd Zeiger, northern Indiana regional director for Indiana Landmarks, gave a brief history of the homes.

“We get to tell the story, but these folks are the heroes.”

The Century of Progress exhibition, the 1933 World’s Fair, was attended by millions, “a hugely successful fair in the middle of the Depression,” Zeiger said.

Robert Bartlett brought four of the homes by barge across Lake Michigan. The fifth was trucked in.

“I’ve moved about a dozen houses in my career. It’s always a taxing and challenging thing,” Zeiger said. And that’s without using barges.

When the National Park Services launched Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, as it was known then, in the 1960s, it inherited a number of historic structures, including the World’s Fair homes.

By the 1990s, “these houses were really starting to become a problem.”

The porcelain enamel Armco Ferris House was rusting. The Cypress Log House was in need of a new foundation and had to be gutted. The House of Tomorrow is still in poor shape.

“The park had no use for these houses, didn’t really have some money for restoration,” Zeiger said.

To save the homes, Indiana Landmarks and the National Park Service offered “free” homes to the anyone with the ability to save them — at the tenants’ own cost.

“Through the last 27 years or so, these houses have transformed thanks to the people amazing work of private parties who are doing it,” Zeiger said.

“This was basically to me a nice little hobby project, or so I thought,” Gambril said.

One of the challenges was that Rostone, a new man-made material in the 1933, was touted as more durable than stone.

“Well, they lied,” Gambril said.

Acid rain wasn’t kind to Rostone, so it deteriorated. In the 1950s, the house was reclad with Permastone, another man-made material, Zeiger said.

When Gambril, a veteran ironworker, first looked at the house, he noted eight columns that needed to be repaired. He was wrong.

He said 104 columns had to be repaired on the house, and it took a lot of time to do that.

“The house was vacant for 17 years. Had it stayed unattended for another two to three years, there wouldn’t have been anything to it. It would have imploded by itself.”

Replacing columns wasn’t the only time-consuming project.

The house had been used by park ecology staff, who conducted experiments in the basement and lived upstairs. The long-vacant home had mold in the basement when Gambril took on the project. Cleaning it up took 55 gallons of bleach and two and a half years.

The stone around the front door is Rostone. Gambril removed the Rostone, ground it up, mixed it with a Portland cement binder and put it back up.

Elsewhere, the replica stone is held in place by clips designed by the Rostone company, which sponsored the home in the World’s Fair.

The original flooring in the living and dining rooms were quarter-sawn oak parquet. Two bedrooms were handmade walnut parquet. The wood had to be taken up, reglued and put back down. “It took two and a half year to restore the flooring,” Gambril said.

The house has 22 rooms and 7,000 square feet, “which is way more than I bargained for, and part of the reason it took 18 years to do the work.”

“For all intents and purposes, the house in pretty much complete at this point,” Gambril said. Only a few punch list items remain.

The Florida Tropical House has 18-foot ceilings, a loft and an aluminum staircase. “Hey, these are modern stuff today, and this was 1933,” tenant Bill Beatty said.

His first wife heard about the “free” house on a Chicago TV news program and wanted to check it out.

His reaction? “The place is a dump! It’s been vacant for seven years.”

The house was designed to be concrete — hurricane-proof, bug-proof, termite-proof.

But it was built differently because it was only meant to last one year during the fair.

It had a wood frame and stucco exterior.

“We have a papier mache house!” Beatty said.

When work began, there were surprises galore.

“Everything we opened something up, it was the heartbreak hotel,” he said.

When the 8-foot overhang was opened up, it was totally rotted out. When the walls were opened up, Beatty found places where the wires had been stripped and bare wires just left inside the wall.

The observation deck had 60 feet of aluminum handrail missing. That and handrails had to be replicated.

To deal with the “tremendous amount of settling,” Beatty had 91 piers put in to stop the house from sinking 1/16th of an inch a year. “They said if they went any further, they would start destroying the house.”

New stucco was needed, so Beatty had it put on and found a section under the balcony that was reasonably unfaded so he could get paint to match the original color — flamingo pink.

Indiana Landmarks and the National Park Service are looking for a tenant willing to take on the House of Tomorrow, a pioneer in passive-solar technology. It was designed for what lifestyles in the 2030s were predicted to be, complete with a dishwasher in the modern kitchen.

The airplane hangar on the lower level attracts attention.

“The airplane hangar door always faced the lake at the fair, so it was always just an exhibit,” Zeiger said.

The house needs extensive work to make it work for modern lifestyles.

“These are rehabilitations, so we try to balance the best of the old and the best of the new,” Zeiger said.

Seawall work was done this year for the Rostone and Florida Tropical houses, which are on the north side of Lake Front Drive.

There used to be a gentle taper out to the lake, but erosion ate it away.

“It was almost 1,000 feet to the water when we got the house, and we had a tremendous sand dune build up in front of the house, and it had to be 40 or 50 feet,” Beatty said. “Now it’s down to eight feet.”

Now there’s a cliff not far from the back door.

“This eroded last January. Unfortunately, we did not get the ice shelf we normally have. One day in January, in about six hours, both Bill and I lost about two-thirds of an acre of back yard,” Gambril said.

“It was scary,” Beatty said.

The erosion had exposed older seawalls at both properties.

Florida Tropical House is now protected by a 32-foot seawall, two-thirds of which is underground. Rostone house added four feet to the top of the 15-foot seawall.

“When we finished the work, we backfilled about halfway up, and within about three days, just this last week, that sand was all washed away, and now the top five feet of the original seawall is showing,” Gambril said.

“At least now the house is reasonably protected,” Beatty said.

The leases have been renegotiated, and each tenant has 55 more years after 2020.

“They’re protected for the next 55 years, we know that,” Zeiger said.

“The privacy is the challenge,” Beatty said.

“This is my full-time residence, and yeah, it gets trying at times,” Gambril said. “I’ve had people knock on the door at 10, 10:30 at night and want to come in and see.”

“Financially, it was the dumbest thing I’ve ever done,” Beatty said. “The personal satisfaction is probably the best thing I’ve ever done it.”


Source: The Times