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.
“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 décor 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.