Imagine it’s 1961. You’re thumbing through your latest issue of Life magazine. Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris are on the cover, along with a teaser for the Ann Landers column. Inside, there’s a write-up on a new developer out of Akron, Ohio, that’s shipping prefabricated homes across the country: “In the prepackaged style of powdered eggs and coffee, there will soon be an instant house with an instant kitchen … delivered in two trailer trucks, and in 48 hours … assembled down to the last fixture and appliance.”
What I wouldn’t do to have one of these, you might think to yourself, staring wistfully at your powdered eggs.
Fast forward to 2016. Karen Valentine opens an email from her real estate agent, Rudy Conner of @properties in Michigan City. Her heart starts palpitating as she looks at a photo of a three-bedroom, two-bath prefabricated house, built in 1958 by the now-defunct Alside Homes Corp.—selling for a song. Conner, who lives near the house, where prominent pathologist Robert Frost and his wife, Amelia, had lived for more than 50 years, had discovered the listing before it went up on the MLS. She knew her clients would have to act fast.
“We just saw that one picture of the front of the house, and were like, ‘Oh, my God, we’re buying it,’” Valentine recalls. “We wrote up a contract within two hours. I hadn’t even seen it, and I actually bid against myself three times, because I thought we went too low, and we didn’t want to miss out.”
Valentine, a human resources consultant, and Bob Coscarelli, a commercial photographer, later found out that not long after their contract was locked in, another offer had come in for $75,000 higher than theirs. They also found out, after making their offer, that the house was filled with original Knoll furniture and built-ins designed by the well-known midcentury designer Paul McCobb.
After making an offer, the new owners found out that the house was filled with original knoll furniture and built-ins designed by the noted paul McCobb.
Sometimes it pays to go with your gut.
Less than a month later, the couple were happily ensconced not only as owners of The Frost House, as they christened it, but also as self-appointed stewards of this living example of the International Style of architecture. Valentine started a blog and Instagram feed documenting their preservation efforts and the history of the house. Among her findings: the aforementioned Life magazine article and an Alside Homes brochure featuring The Frost House, which, it turns out, was a sales model (the company had intended to build 200 prefab houses, but never met its goal).
The sprawling, 2,400-square-foot property is situated on three wooded lots in a suburban area, amid mainly ranch houses and a couple other Alside Homes, none as well-preserved as The Frost House. Constructed of a steel frame and aluminum modules in different colors, it winks at drivers-by like a Piet Mondrian painting plopped down in the middle of a forest. The newly built steel-and-polycarbonate fence, modeled after those in Alside renderings and assembled onsite by local welders several months after the couple moved in, lends privacy to the new prefab pool, designed and installed by Fortville’s Thursday Pools. “We wanted to do these additions as respectfully as possible, and the biggest compliment comes from people who see the pool and the fencing and say, ‘What, I thought it was all original!’” says Valentine. “And we’re like, no—it’s only six months old.”
Inside, the house is filled with quintessential elements of Modernist design. Walnut-veneer accent walls “would have been considered an upgrade in the kit,” explains Coscarelli; the other walls are aluminum painted matte white. An airy, open floor plan shows off copious built-ins and shots of bright color on the closet doors. Floor-to-ceiling windows evoke an indoor-outdoor vibe. The views outside the windows include lush hundred-year-old trees on the property and a forest preserve across the street.
“If Dr. Frost kept everything the same for 58 years, then it’s our job to carry it on,” says Bob Coscarelli. “We’re just borrowing the house.”
The couple has done little to change the interior. They only replaced the original carpet—so worn that there were holes under furniture legs—with similar covering in the bedrooms and terrazzo throughout the rest of the house. (The carpet pad was horsehair, which the couple’s carpet installer had heard of but never seen.) Much of the furniture is also original to the fully furnished model house Dr. Frost purchased, filled out perfectly with the couple’s private collection of midcentury-modern furniture and accessories.
As for the practical aspects of living in a home from this period, the couple is embracing everything from the yellow and green toilets to the original GE kitchen appliances. Valentine was gobsmacked by the refrigerator. (“The butter conditioner actually works,” she says. “On ‘soft,’ the butter will almost be melted!”) The couple chuckles at how adept this house is at meeting 21st-century needs. “We had friends here, and the 10 plugs on the island were filled with phone chargers,” Valentine says. The only chink in the armor of this presciently modern home is the electric stove. “They had gas stoves then, but the developer used electric because that was the modern thing to do,” she says. “It works, and it’s charming, but it’s a pain.”
And yet, they plan to preserve the past, electric stove and all.
“If Dr. Frost kept everything the same for 58 years, then it’s our job to carry it on for another 40, or however long we can,” says Coscarelli. “We’re just borrowing the house. Hopefully, someone else will take care of it as well as Dr. Frost did.” And, of course, as well as its current owners do, too.