Come September, in-the-know architecture buffs will flock to a remote bluff overlooking Lake Michigan, the site of a little-known—and rarely offered—historic home tour. Clustered together here on a single block in northwest Indiana—with Chicago’s downtown skyline looming in the distance—are five one-of-a-kind midcentury homes. It’s an unlikely modern-design find set in the midst of what’s now America’s 61st national park, a designation Indiana Dunes earned in February 2019 (in what used to be known as the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore).
All five structures were part of Chicago’s 1933 World’s Fair and are today listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The fair’s theme was a “Century of Progress,” and sponsors from across the nation backed different architects to display dwellings that seemed positively far out at the time. The corrugated steel-paneled Armco-Ferro House (below) promoted prefabricated homes as the wave of the future.
The state of Florida sponsored the flamingo-pink Florida Tropical House (top) to entice visitors to consider buying real estate in what was then considered to be distant Florida. There was the art deco Wieboldt-Rostone House, and one traditionally constructed home, too—the Cypress Log Cabin built by, who else, the Southern Cypress Manufacturers Association (a still-standing organization that promotes the use of cypress wood in buildings).
But it was perhaps the futuristic features on display in the glass House of Tomorrow that most amazed 1933 fair-goers—wonders like an automatic garage door, central air-conditioning, and one seemingly impossible novelty that General Electric promised every house could one day have—a dishwasher. Architect George Fred Keck’s groundbreaking design was a precursor to the minimalist modern architecture of Mies van der Rohe.
“The House of Tomorrow really pushed the technological and design envelope more than any of the other Century of Progress homes,” says Todd Zeiger, director of the northern regional office of the nonprofit preservation group Indiana Landmarks. “Keck was on the cutting edge. You could find this kind of open floor plan in Germany in some Bauhaus architecture that predates this, but this is pretty early for an all-glass house in America.”
After the World’s Fair, an ambitious developer bought the five Century of Progress homes, transferring them from their original Chicago-based fair location across Lake Michigan on a barge, in hopes of attracting Chicagoans to his newly planned lakefront resort development. The Great Depression put an end to most dreams of owning a lake house, however, and these modern marvels eventually fell into disrepair. The National Park Service (NPS) took ownership in 1976, after what was then called the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore was established around them in the 1960s.
Over the past two decades, the NPS has leased the homes to Indiana Landmarks, which then subleases the properties to people willing to invest their time and money into restoring them, in exchange for getting to live there rent-free in a long-term 50-year lease. Through this process, four of the homes have been fully restored and are now tenant-occupied (through 2069, when the NPS will retain full ownership), but one remains in need of a caretaker: the once pioneering and now deteriorating House of Tomorrow.
Considering this futuristic yet historic house as a fixer-upper opportunity? Better have your checkbook ready. Indiana Landmarks estimates it will cost someone almost $3 million to restore. And after that, they won’t even own it, but they will be able to live in it under the unique 50-year lease arrangement with the National Park Service.
“This is not a wise real estate decision. The people who’ve subleased and restored the other four homes are interested in history and see this as a way to give back and have a legacy in Indiana,” say Zeiger. Bill Beatty, who subleases the Florida Tropical House, sums it up as “the worst financial decision I’ve ever made, but the best life decision.”
Those with $35 to spare can tour the homes with park rangers on the one day a year they’re open to the public—September 28 in 2019—via the Century of Progress Homes Tour. Mark your calendars: Tickets go on sale online through Indiana Landmarks on August 5 at exactly 9 a.m. EST. In case you’re thinking you could decide last minute to join the tour, last year’s spots sold out in 28 minutes. (If you’re flat out of luck on nabbing tickets or find yourself in this neck of the woods on another date, you can always drive by the houses to view their exteriors.)
After touring the homes, stick around to explore some of the 15,000 acres of wetlands, dunes, and prairie at Indiana Dunes National Park, one of the most biodiverse in the U.S. national park system. “Even though you have national parks that have hundreds of thousands of acres, we have more plant species than virtually all of them,” says Indiana Dunes park ranger Bruce Rowe.
Another perk to this park? Admission is free. And unlike Yellowstone and Yosemite, you likely won’t encounter crowds hiking the 15 miles of beach and 50 miles of trails. Northwest Indiana’s reputation as a massive manufacturing corridor has kept this area largely off the tourist radar.
Don’t wait too long to visit though. Some two million people pass through the park each year, but Ranger Rowe expects the new national park status to bring in more visitors. “The day after the national park designation, we started getting calls and emails from all over the country.” Keep in mind you’ll have to ignore the smokestacks in the distance and focus instead on the bucolic beaches and one-of-a-kind architecture in front of you.