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'Rusty the Steel House' is being restored

Connecticut College's steel house, 'Rusty,' before the restoration.
Connecticut College's steel house, 'Rusty,' before the restoration.

Connecticut College's historic steel house, affectionately known as 'Rusty,' is getting a complete makeover.

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 property was used as faculty housing after the College acquired it in 1949; it was last occupied in 2004.

Now, with a $101,500 grant from the Connecticut Department of Economic and Community Development (DECD), the house is being completely restored. The DECD grant matches previous grants awarded to the College for the project, including a $50,000 grant from the Dr. Scholl Foundation and a second $50,000 grant from a family foundation. The Dr. Scholl Foundation had previously awarded the college $28,500 for lead paint abatement in an earlier phase of the renovation, and the Dr. Scholl Foundation, the family foundation and the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation had previously awarded the college grants totaling $15,500 for preservation planning.

As part of the restoration, crews from the conservation company Milner + Carr spent several weeks on campus this fall carefully dismantling the structure and transporting it to Philadelphia, where each piece will be cleaned and restored. (Alison Thomson, a junior architectural studies major, chronicled the process on and on Facebook.) When the entire process, which includes treating the steel panels to make them rust-resistant, is complete this spring, the house will be reassembled on its foundation at 130 Mohegan Avenue.

"The steel house is a very early example of modern architecture in the United States," said Abigail Van Slyck, associate dean of the faculty and the Dayton Professor of Art History at Connecticut College. "These houses are rare, and this restoration project will ensure that we don't lose this important piece of American history."

And while Rusty got little attention for many years, the little steel house is finally enjoying some time in the spotlight. In September, an Associated Press story about the ongoing restoration was published by nearly 200 news outlets, including Newsday, Forbes, Huffington Post, CBS News, CNBC, Minneapolis Star Tribune, Miami Herald, San Francisco Chronicle, Charlotte Observer, Las Vegas Sun, Houston Chronicle, Atlanta Journal Constitution, Seattle Times and Anchorage Daily News.

It's recognition that Doug Royalty, a historic preservation specialist who is managing the project along with Van Slyck, says is well deserved. Royalty was on campus to visit the Winslow Ames house, the College's other prefabricated house, which was restored in the early 1990s, when he recognized the historical significance of the rusty building next door.

"It looked like what people might have thought of as an old rusty shed," Royalty told Associated Press reporter Stephanie Reitz. "But when I first saw it, I could tell the College had something really special here."

When the restoration is complete, the steel house will be used as a hub for Connecticut College's sustainability efforts and for student-centered activities related to the environment. In conjunction with the renovation of the house, President Leo I. Higdon Jr. has announced a new fund that will provide small grants to students to pursue innovative ideas for improved environmental sustainability on campus.

"Both of the College's prefabricated houses were built to be single family homes, and they have very small footprints," Van Slyck said. "They can serve as inspiration for green living."

- Alison Thomson '13 contributed to this article

November 17, 2011