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College awarded $100k to renovate historic steel house

Connecticut College´s historic steel house
Connecticut College´s historic steel house

Connecticut College has received $100,000 in grants to continue with the next phase of renovations to the college´s notable steel house.

Manufactured by Chicago-based General Houses Inc., the prefabricated house was erected in 1933 for Winslow Ames, the founding director of New London´s Lyman Allyn Art Museum. The college acquired the property, located at 130 Mohegan Avenue, in 1949.

The College was awarded $50,000 from the Dr. Scholl Foundation, which previously granted the College $28,500 to complete lead-paint abatement in an earlier phase of the renovation. A second $50,000 grant was provided by a family foundation. The foundations and the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation had previously awarded the College grants totaling $15,500 for preservation planning. 

"In the next phase of the project, we will restore the steel panels that serve as the walls and siding for the structure to give it the look that it would have had historically," Abigail Van Slyck Connecticut College´s Dayton Professor of Art History and director of the college´s Architectural Studies Program, said. Van Slyck is overseeing the restoration project with Doug Royalty, an historic preservation specialist with expertise on General Houses Inc., the Chicago-based manufacturing company that produced the house.

Winslow Ames purchased the steel house after attending the 1933 Chicago World´s Fair, where several prefabricated houses were being touted as the answer to the housing crisis of the Great Depression. Fascinated by the steel "machine for living," and excited about the possibilities of prefabricated housing, Ames and his wife built both the steel home and a two-bedroom house assembled from panels of specially formulated asbestos cement on two small lots on Mohegan Avenue. Both were sold to Connecticut College in 1949.

The second house, now known as the Winslow Ames House, was rehabilitated in 1994 and is used as office space by the college. The steel house was used as faculty housing until 2004 and has remained largely unchanged from the original. It is listed on the State Register of Historic Places, and a nomination to the National Register of Historic Places is pending.

"The steel house is a very early example of modern architecture in the United States," Van Slyck said. "It has long been thought that modern architecture was a European innovation brought here after World War II. These houses are examples of homegrown modernism in 1930s American architecture." Van Slyck added these "houses of tomorrow" are very rare. "As far as we can tell, to have two of them together is unprecedented," she said.

When the renovations are complete, the college plans to use the steel house for student-centered activities related to the environment. The bedrooms will likely be used as office space for student groups, while other areas of the house may be used for meeting spaces and a classroom.

"In the future, there is a possibility that the house could be used to model sustainable technologies," Van Slyck said. "Both of the college´s prefabricated houses were built to be single family homes, and they have very small footprints. They can serve as inspirations for green living."

February 19, 2010