Live Rent-Free in Indiana's Historic House of Tomorrow (On One Condition)

This story is part of Treehugger's news archive. Learn more about our news archiving process or read our latest news.
Conceived for the 1933-1934 Chicago World's Fair, this iconic fixer-upper sits atop a sand dune located in America's newest national park. (Photo: IndianaDunesNPS/Flickr)

Earlier this month, Indiana enthusiastically shed its national park-less status when the former Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, established in 1966, was named America's 61st national park.

Poised for a substantial profile boost thanks to the Congress-approved re-designation, Indiana's newly minted national park encompasses 15,000 ruggedly dramatic acres of windswept beaches, primitive pine forests and marshland located at the point where the dented western corner of the Hoosier State and the southern tip of Lake Michigan meet.

Known for its soaring titular sand dunes, rich biodiversity and close proximity to Chicago, Indiana Dunes National Park is also home to an ailing architectural landmark that's newly hot on the market. And it can all be yours, rent-free, in exchange for performing an estimated $2.5 to $3 million in repairs and upgrades.

Named the House of Tomorrow, this singular single-family residence with heavy spaceship vibes is part of a historic architectural district located in the heart of Indiana Dunes National Park. It's also the only building in Indiana to be declared a National Treasure by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Battered by the elements and in need of serious TLC, the futuristic 5,000-square-foot dwelling has been owned by the National Park Service since the early 1970s and has sat empty since 1999. But through a unique leasing agreement with the nonprofit Indiana Landmarks, the House of Tomorrow is ready today to welcome new occupants who are ready, willing and financially able to restore the structure to "approved specifications" before they're granted a 50-year sublease.

"Leasing the House of Tomorrow offers an unparalleled opportunity to live in a stunning work of architecture that comes with an equally spectacular view," said Marsh Davis, president of Indiana Landmarks, in a press statement. "We've engaged a stellar team of architects and engineers, and we now have the specifications — approved by the National Park Service — to bring yesterday's House of Tomorrow into the future as a living, sustainable home."

House of Tomorrow under renovation
The House of Tomorrow, pictured here in 2010, has suffered from considerable deterioration despite its National Treasure status. (Photo: Chris Light/Wikimedia Commons)

The deluxe future of domestic living, 1930s-style

Not to be confused with other houses of tomorrow, Indiana's House of Tomorrow was designed for the 1933-1934 Chicago's World's Fair by modernist architect George Fred Keck, a pioneer in passive solar home design.

Also known as the Century of Progress Exposition, this Chicago World's Fair — lesser known than its 1893 predecessor — was a riotous, color-drenched celebration of streamlined Art Deco architecture and technological innovation with a special emphasis on newfangled building materials and construction techniques. Making their earth-shattering debuts at the fair were electric stovetops, wireless speakers and Miracle Whip ... American ingenuity at it's finest!

Condiments aside, one of the most far-out features of the fair was the House of Tomorrow, a dodecagonal demonstration home stuffed with the snazziest Depression-era technology that money couldn't buy: central air conditioning, an "iceless" refrigerator, automatic dishwashers, dimmer switches, glass curtain walls, an attached garage with a push-button door and a small airplane hangar on the ground floor — you know, for parking the family plane used to zip around town in.

Artist rendering House of tomorrow
Twelve-sided and brimming with newfangled innovations, the House of Tomorrow was a crowd-pleasing centerpiece of the 1933-1934 World's Fair. (Photo: The Newberry/Wikimedia Commons)

Wildly popular with visitors, the House of Tomorrow — an audacious three-story structure that looks like "a cross between a Victorian summer pavilion and a colossal aquarium" as Frances Brent writes for Modern magazine — received over 1.2 million guests over the course of the fair, each coughing up an extra 10 cents to tour the inside of the house which, by the way, took only two months to construct.

After the conclusion of the exposition, Chicago developer Robert Bartlett purchased the House of Tomorrow along with four other homes featured as part of the fair's Homes of Tomorrow Exhibition. All five structures were transported via barge to Pine Township, Indiana, where Bartlett reconstructed them atop sand dunes with plans to use them as model homes for a residential resort community along Lake Michigan that ultimately never materialized.

Once relocated, a few decidedly practical alterations were made to the House of Tomorrow, including the installation of operable windows and the reconfiguration of the ground floor space previously touted as an airplane hangar.

House of Tomorrow and Armco-Ferro House, Beverly Shores, Indiana
The House of Tomorrow and the Armco-Ferro House pictured in the late 1930s. Five structures comprise the Century of Progress Architectural District. (Photo: Historic American Building Survey/Wikimedia Commons)

Historic structures saved by subleasing heroes

In 1938, Bartlett started selling his cluster of relocated world's fair leftovers — now all contributing properties to National Register of Historic Places-listed Century of Progress Architectural District at Indiana Dunes National Park — to private owners.

After being used as vacation properties by, in some cases, multiple owners for several decades, the homes were acquired by the National Park Service when the newly created Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore was annexed into the community of Beverly Shores in the 1970s. And with that, the structures eventually fell into various states of disrepair, some faster then others. As Indiana Landmarks writes, "homeowners became lessees, with little incentive to maintain the historic homes."

In the early 2000s, Indiana Landmarks, under a leasing agreement with the National Park Service, came to the rescue and commenced restoration efforts on all five structures in the Century of Progress Architectural District: the boxy, steel-framed Armco-Ferro House; the rustic, mountain lodge-styled Cypress Log Cabin; a flamboyantly pink modernist beach retreat named the Florida Tropical House and the Weibolt-Rostone House, a largely prefabricated structure clad in an artificial stone material that was considered wildly innovative in the 1930s.

Restoration efforts at the House of Tomorrow — the "most architecturally innovative and historically significant of the collection" per Indiana Landmarks — also kicked off around the same time. Restoring the 80-some-year-old abode, however, proved to be particularly challenging due to its "unusual architecture and degree of deterioration." And so, major rehabilitation efforts were put on hold while work on the other homes continued.

In 2017, Modern detailed the dire condition the House of Tomorrow was (and still is) currently in.

The exterior has rusted, and the drywall has disintegrated so you can barely identify original paint colors. Much of the Carrara glass simply disappeared from the walls. Clad in protective wrapping, it looks like a gigantic stack of hatboxes mysteriously deposited on Lake Michigan's shore.

Today, the four other homes in the Century of Progress Architectural District have been fully restored by lease-holders and are open for once-a-year public tours. It's these preservation-minded individuals who "adopted" the homes from Indiana Landmarks under long-term subleasing agreements — agreements similar to the one now again being offered for the House of Tomorrow — that ultimately saved them through sweat equity and financial largesse.

Interior of House of Tomorrow
Featuring central air and a kitchen filled with electric appliances, the interior of the House of Tomorrow was pretty far-out for the early 1930s. (Photo: IndianaDunesNPS/Flickr)

"The other four have been restored by heroes just like we are looking for the House of Tomorrow," Todd Zeiger, director of Indiana Landmarks' northern regional office, tells South Bend, Indiana-based CBS/FOX affiliate WSBT 22. "They are the ones that have come in, put their time and talent and treasure into restoring these houses."

Zeiger relays to Blair Kamin of the Chicago Tribune that each restoration project required about $2 million to complete.

As Bill Beatty, longtime resident and de facto savior of the Florida Tropical House, previously told Kamin: "From a financial standpoint, it's one of the dumbest things I've ever done. From a personal standpoint, it's one of the best things I've ever done."

The House of Tomorrow looks to the future

After years of hiding under protective covering, it's now the House of Tomorrow's time to shine as Indiana Landmarks launches a proposal submission and tenant-selection process to revive the most influential of the Century of Progress homes at Indiana Dunes National Park.

To reiterate, the $2.5 to $3 million price tag involved with restoring the structure is the responsibility of its new resident. No grants, tax credits or other incentives are available and any parties that show serious interest in taking on the project must first prove they have the financial resources to do so.

Restoration of House of Tomorrow, Indiana Dunes
Care to sublease a futuristic fixer-upper located in a national park? You'd better bring your checkbook and a passion for major restoration projects. (Photo: IndianaDunesNPS/Flickr)

What's more, applicants must complete the restoration within a specific timeframe, and the work performed must follow design plans developed by Indiana Landmarks and the National Trust in collaboration with a host of architecture firms specializing in historic restoration. According to Indiana Landmarks, the goal of these plans is "to return the best of the 1933 Keck design while incorporating modern technology and conveniences to make the home livable in the next century."

In other words, the House of Tomorrow, which is currently uninhabitable, must be restored in a very specific manner for the rent-free 50-year lease kick in. Unapproved alterations to the structure are verboten and any outside contractors brought in to help must have related experience. It's also made clear that although National Park Service is leasing the home to Indiana Landmarks, which in turn, is leasing the home to a yet-to-be-chosen new occupant, the new sublessee cannot rent out the property on either a short- or long-term basis. So don't expect to see the House of Tomorrow pop up on Airbnb in the future.

As Zeiger tells the Tribune, the task at hand is "different than just fixing up your bedroom" and shouldn't be the "first rodeo" for any potential applicants looking to fix up — and then move into — the historic 12-sided structure.

House of Tomorrow, Indiana Dunes National Park, Indiana
Steel-framed and draped in glass, one of the House of Tomorrow's most mind-blowing features when it debuted was an attached garage. (Photo: IndianaDunesNPS/Flickr)

As mentioned, the House of Tomorrow is particularly significant in that it was one of the first modern American homes to employ passive solar design strategies and feature floor-to-ceiling glass curtain walls, making it the first true glass house, a credit often bestowed to Mies van der Rohe's Farnsworth House (1951) or Phillip Johnson's famously transparent dwelling — the Glass House— in New Canaan, Connecticut, which was completed in 1949.

"The House of Tomorrow is a shining example of the Century of Progress, an innovative and influential house in modern architectural design," says Jennifer Sandy, associate field director at the National Trust. "The home illustrates how science and technology can advance society and improve people's day-to-day lives."

While the Century of Progress Architectural District has long been a popular — and somewhat unlikely — feature at Indiana Dunes, the park's recent (and not entirely non-controversial) re-designation as a full-fledged national park is sure to bring the homes even more widespread exposure. This is especially true of the the House of Tomorrow, a structure that park superintendent Paul Labowitz calls the "architectural crown jewel" of the district.

"They (the homes) still draw attention all these years later," Zeiger tells WSBT. "People come across them. Just like at the fair. Millions came through these houses because people were so fascinated by them. It continues today."