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The Depot at Beverly Shores

SANDS OF TIME
Beverly Shores and Valparaiso, Indiana

getaway-chicago logo Prospects didn’t look good. Unless more was happening than met the eye, the Getaway Guys weren’t particularly hopeful. 49 miles from Chicago and perched above Lake Michigan in Beverly Shores, Indiana are five of the eight known remnants of A Century of Progress, the Chicago World’s Fair of 1933-34. Of a dozen plus demonstration houses built for the fair, the House of Tomorrow, the Rostone House, the Armco Ferro-Enamel House, the Florida Tropical House and the Cypress Log Cabin now reside in various states of restoration at the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore.

beverly1Built to demonstrate innovative techniques and materials, the Dunes Five along with their Fair brethren were (according to most accounts) one of the most popular exhibits at the Fair. Despite the Great Depression and a virtual cessation of residential construction, thousands waited in line to walk through these sample houses. Back when houses were still typified by traditional designs and materials, such as those featured by Sears, Roebuck and Company in their now legendary catalogue, the houses highlighted at the ’33 Chicago World’s Fair were pretty radical in some instances. A number incorporated features now beverly2taken for granted( but unheard of at the time), several used materials rarely used in home construction and most were designed and built with economy in mind. Some were built with stuff nobody ever heard of before! At least three houses were definitely not for the proletariat; George Keck’s House of Tomorrow  (the most popular) and his Crystal House and Robert Weed’s Florida Tropical House. Some utilized prefabrication as a cost cutting means; a residential construction technique that never caught on, but nevertheless served a vital purpose about a decade later when Uncle Sam called for housing for millions of military personnel and defense workers. Stran-Steel, a demonstration house exhibitor became a major fabricator of the famous Quonset Hut in which thousands upon thousands of service and factory personnel lived during World War Two and thousands of discharged G.I.’s and their families lived in the post war period.

In 1935 a developer named Robert Bartlett purchased the Dunes Five for a reported $2,500.00 each and transported the aforementioned demonstration homes across Lake Michigan on barges to their present location where he hoped to entice future home owners to build on lake front property and property “near” the lake front. Included in his planned development mix for the southern tip of Lake Michigan was a supposed Riviera-like development with hotels and leisure facilities. One assumes the Depression and World War II killed the idea.

What happened to the Dunes Five afterward appears to be a little foggy. Did anyone live in the houses between 1935 and 1986 when they were listed on the National  Register of Historic Places? In 1984 the Historic Landmarks Foundation of Indiana began a leasing program to recruit lessees willing to restore the houses. (The Landmarks Foundation of Indiana website is slightly less than user friendly and therefore seemingly useless in recovering information related to the Dunes Five.)

beverly3When Neil and Alan visited late in 2007 they found the houses troubling. The Rostone House appeared to be an abandoned project going nowhere. Surrounded by a chain link fence with a seemingly abandoned pickup truck in the front yard, this 1933 survivor seemed to be the most threatened of the five. Next door, the Florida Tropical House appeared to be in better shape, at least salvation wise. The exterior was stable and the interior looked promising. Across Lake Front Drive the situation appeared slightly better (up to a point). The Cypress House was in pretty good shape and apparently being taken care of by people interested in historic preservation. The Armco Ferro-Enamel house was crawling with steel workers restoring what time beverly4and neglect had rusted away. Privileged to get a peek at the interior and to speak briefly with its owners, the Getaway Guys were not only impressed with the amount of labor and materials going into this restoration, but with the amount of decay suffered over the decades. Next door was the saddest sight of all. The now legendary House of Tomorrow was boarded up and wrapped in tattered poly wrap. While speaking with Ferro-Enamel people the Guys were told the House of Tomorrow was available. Seemingly someone had attempted a restoration, but gave up; possibly because the project cost too much or because they really weren’t prepared to devote their lives to a legendary house.

beverly5For a change the Guys couldn’t find anything to argue about. They agreed their favorite house was the Florida Tropical House and they also agreed that some of the Dunes Five looked destined for oblivion.

East on Lake Front Drive and then south on Broadway, an important stop before or after visiting the Dunes Five is The Depot of Beverly Shores, a combination train station, museum and art gallery designed by Arthur Gerber (1878-1960) for Samuel Insull’s South Shore Line in 1929. Constructed in an optimistic Mediterranean Revival/Florida development style, Mr. Insull’s station was designed to reflect a sunny, carefree (maybe even indolent) lifestyle not too far from the Board of Trade. Along with Mr. Bartlett’s plans for Beverly Shores, Sam Insull’s Train Station sank into disuse and obscurity. Restored as a transit station and a museum too, this interesting place is an important link in understanding what happened and what didn’t happened in Beverly Shores, Indiana. Aside from the interesting exhibits devoted to Beverly Shores, The Depot of Beverly Shores sells a number of fascinating books related to the near transformation of a bunch of sand dunes into a hopping place. Opening on September 28, 2008, the Depot of Beverly Shores will host an exhibition called World’s Fair Houses Renovation Continued.  Answers to many Dunes Five mysteries may be provided.

beverly6Leaving Beverly Shores the Guys headed for the not very far away Chellberg Farm and Bailly Homestead (www.nps.gov/indu/planyourvisit/index.htm), an early 20th  century farm (still working)and an adjacent fur trading outpost from the very early 19th century. The brick Chellberg house is furnished in period furniture and acts as a backdrop for costumed demonstrations related to 19th century canning and cooking in an authentic kitchen. On the day the Guys visited volunteers in voluminous period costumes were just cleaning up after a cooking demonstration for a variety of school groups. It was a warm day and despite windows and doors being open to create a cross draft, the place was still hot, which reminded the Guys about the less than romantic realities of country cooking down on the farm. Escaping the kitchen, the Guys headed up the trail leading to the Bailly Homestead and the site of the fur trading outpost where they studied a number of interesting historical markers and marveled at the isolation early settlers must have experienced.

Taking their leave of the Chellbergs and Baillys Neil and Alan drove over to Valparaiso, Indiana and its namesake University. They wanted to see the Chapel of the Resurrection and the Brauer Museum of Art. Designed by Charles Stade and Associates, the Chapel was dedicated in 1959 and almost 50 years later it appears to be an excellent, intact example of post World War II modernist architecture, little altered and methodically maintained. The Guys thought it a credit to the University that this iconic example of period architecture hasn’t been altered in any discernible way. Very close by is the Brauer (www.valpo.edu/artmuseum). beverly7For a small university, the Brauer Art Museum has in addition to its impressive collection of Contemporary art, a very interesting and diverse collection of 19th and 20th century works as well. It also has an archive of works by Junius Sloan (1827-1900), an artist of the Hudson River school who ended up in the Chicago area after the Civil War, painting subjects related to the scenery around Lake Michigan from Milwaukee to the Indiana Dunes. When Sloan’s works are displayed it’s easy to comprehend the near wilderness character of the area well into the late 19th century.

For an early dinner the Guys stopped at Bon Femme Café on West Lincolnway in downtown Valparaiso. Neil had eaten at Bon Femme in the late ‘90s when traveling  with an art dealer friend and for someone who can’t remember what happened yesterday, Neil had instant recall. Bon Femme Café (219-531-0612) is a congenial place with a nice menu, attentive help and reasonable prices. Both Getaway Guys thought it a good place to dine. A trip to see the Dunes Five, to visit The Depot of Beverly Shores, to stop at the Chellberg Farm and Bailly Homestead and then walk through The Chapel of the Resurrection and the Brauer Museum of Art may sound like a lot to do in a day, but the Guys never felt rushed and were back in Chicago by early evening.

Postscript: Along with Bill and Chris Bell, Neil and Holly visited the Dunes Five on a recent Saturday. Holly had seen the houses about 20 years ago and the Bells had only heard of them. Progress is being made. While the House of Tomorrow remains wrapped in poly wrap and looking forlorn and the state of the Florida House appears to be the same as it was last year, the problematic Rostone House was being worked on and structural repairs to The Armco Ferro-Enamel House appear to be finished. Neil had a chance to speak with the Rostone owner and his stories about problems encountered in restoration were similar to those expressed by the owner of the Armco Ferro-Enamel House last year. Damages to both dwellings exceeded those anticipated and repairs have been hindered by the experimental building techniques and materials used in the 1930’s.  June 2008

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