Getting Ready To Shine Again

New London - No one realized the tiny steel house shedding paint on the edge of Connecticut College campus had any value.

That is, until Doug Royalty, a conservation specialist, happened upon it while doing some historical research about prefabricated houses from the 1920s and '30s.

Two years ago he was looking at the Winslow Ames House, a two-bedroom, prefabricated asbestos panel house from 1933 that the college renovated in 1994. He spotted the house next door. It had been used as faculty housing until 2004, but the 800-square-foot house, made of steel walls inside and out, was now empty and deteriorating.

Royalty immediately recognized it as another prefab house, touted in 1920s as the wave of the future to combat the country's housing shortage.

In 1933, after attending the World's Fair in Chicago, Winslow Ames, founding director of the Lyman Allyn Art Museum, purchased both houses and had them erected near the museum along Mohegan Avenue (Route 32). The college purchased both buildings in 1949.

”These were modern designs by very forward-thinking architects,'' said Royalty. “It was wildly experimental, especially in conservative old New London. There were only a few places like them at all at the time.''

Today, he says there are maybe six houses left in the country like the Ames House, which was built by General Houses. And the steel house, which was built by General Houses' competitor, American Houses, is even rarer.

”There aren't very many remaining,'' he said.

Abigail Van Slyck, the chairwoman of the college's art history department and director of its architectural studies program, had no idea the steel house was as important as the Winslow Ames House until Royalty knocked on her office door.

”Doug recognized instantly what was there,'' she said.

Under the director of Van Slyck and Royalty, the college is collecting grants and working on plans to renovate its most recent discovery.

The Dr. Scholl Foundation has awarded the college a $28,500 grant to support the rehabilitation, and in 2007, the college received a $7,000 Historic Preservation Technical Assistance Grant from the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation.

The grant will be used for lead paint abatement, Van Slyck said.

”It may not be glamorous, but it is an essential first step in preserving this rare early example of prefabricated, modern housing. Once the abatement is completed, it will be easier-and safer-to allow visitors to see the innovative, frameless structural system and super-efficient planning of this 800-square-foot house,” she said.

It also has a one-car attached garage, which Royalty said was innovative for its time.

Eventually, the house will become a showcase for living a greener life. Steel is a recyclable material and the house itself leaves a small footprint, she said.

”Our vision is that is be a sort of headquarters for student clubs interested in environmental issues,'' she said. Bedrooms could be turned into offices and the living room could be meeting space, she said. “Environmentalism is such an important thing on campus now, and around the country and the world.''

In July 2007, the house was listed on the State Register of Historic Places and a nomination to the National Register of Historic Places has been approved by the State Historic Preservation Board.
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