House of Steel
This pre-fab house was built in 1937 but recently was renovated by Jeff Rawlins of Architectural Artisans. The Belmar home is part of the upcoming AIA CKC Annual Home Tour. | Photo courtesy of Architectural Artisans.

When the “House of Steel” was first constructed in the new Belmar subdivision near Audubon Park in 1937, The Courier-Journal touted it as “lighting-proof, termite-proof and nearly flood-proof.” (Flooding was on everyone’s mind in Louisville in 1937.)

A prototype of the all-steel frame house had been shown at the Century of Progress, the 1933 World’s Fair in Chicago. It was hailed as the house of the future because it came shipped in a pre-fab kit, easy and quick to assemble, and was so affordable. (This was the Depression, remember.) It cost less than $8,000.

The trend never exactly caught on. But the Belmar house, one of the first of its kind in Louisville, still exists to this day. And, in fact, it will be one of the featured properties in the 19th annual Home Tour next month, presented by the American Institute of Architects, Central Kentucky Chapter (AIA/CKC).

Architect Jeff Rawlins (of Architectural Artisans) was called in three years ago by the homeowner, who felt the small two-bedroom house was confining.

“He wanted to open up the living space a little bit and connect more to the back yard,” says Rawlins.

The architectural challenge was to preserve the spirit and style of the existing building, which was pretty specific.

One challenge was matching the house’s metal frame and walls.

“The original plan was to make the porch out of steel, but that turned out to be more money than what the client wanted to spend,” Rawlins says. “So we did a wood version that had the look and feel of the steel house.”

A photo of the "House of Steel" in The Courier-Journal on June 20, 1937.
A photo of the “House of Steel” in The Courier-Journal on June 20, 1937.

The wood was painted what Rawlins calls a “tealy black” so it matched the colors of the rest of the house’s interior and also hid the nature of the wood.

“When you want something to disappear, paint it the darkest color and the eye tends to see past it,” says the architect, revealing one of the building trade’s inside tricks.

Another challenge was the asbestos siding that someone had added to the house along the way.

“We had to be very careful to build around that – not damage any of it or break it off – because, apart from the health risk, you can no longer buy asbestos siding off the shelf,” Rawlins says.

And a third challenge was to maintain the smallish scale of the original house. “People these days tend to put oversized additions onto their homes,” says the architect. “We didn’t want to do that. We wanted to keep it in proper scale.”

The new porch is all of 155 square feet, but the architect says it about doubles what he calls “the livability of the house.”

Once the addition was complete and the homeowner was able to sit and enjoy the outdoors, he decided he wanted a swimming pool and fire pit in the back.

“We installed a small, fiberglass drop-in-the-ground pool,” says Rawlins. “Small enough that it can be heated overnight, so it’s warm for an early morning swim, and is easily cleaned and maintained.”

The pool outside the
Small in-ground pool outside the House of Steel | Photo courtesy of Architectural Artisans

The entire project – porch, pool and fire pit – came in at around $70,000.

But then the owner said, “Everything looks amazing, but now I have this crappy garage.” So Rawlins put a new façade on the existing concrete block garage for another $5,000-$6,000.

You can see the vintage one-of-a-kind house and the architect’s work as part of the AIA/CKC tour, to be held on Saturday, June 11, from noon to 6 p.m. Tickets are $15 if you purchase online, $20 cash on-site for the Gilbert house and seven other local architectural projects:

  • The Hendon House, 201 Crescent Court (Crescent Hill) — architect/designers are Charles Cash, Urban 1 and Mary Herd Jackson;
  • The Fritschner residence, 1932 Lowell Ave. (Strathmoor Manor) — architect/designer is Mary Herd Jackson;
  • The Abeln residence, 729 Middle Way (Cherokee Gardens) — architect/designer is Emily Fisher, Rock Paper Hammer;
  • The Gruenig residence, 216 Pleasantview Ave. (Crescent Hill) — architect/designer is Anne Del Prince;
  • The Adams residence, 1211 S. Sixth St. (Old Louisville) — architect/designer is the home’s owner, Bethany Adams; and
  • The Hacet and Yarmuth residences, both in Norton Commons — architect/designer for both is Greg Burrus.

The architects and designers will be on hand to discuss their projects and answer questions.

Also included in this year’s tour for the first time will be an after-party at the Marketplace Restaurant at Theater Square, 651 S. Fourth St., from 6-10 p.m. Light hors d’oeuvres will be served along with a cash bar. The restaurant has set aside its patio area, and attendees can order off the restaurant’s menu (at their own expense).

Another feature of the after-party will be a first-time-ever panel discussion and question-and-answer session involving the tour’s participating architects.

“This is a very important innovation to me,” says Louisville architect Eric Whitmore, this year’s event chairman. “The theme is breaking down the barrier between consumers and professionals, introducing the organization as friendly and approachable.”

Whitmore decries the cultural inundation, spurred by TV programming like the HDTV channel, that makes every home-improvement project seem simple and quick. It omits all the things architects can add to the process.

“The general public needs to view the architect not only as a necessary resource, but also as a problem-solver and consultant who can help lead to a result the client might never have thought possible.”

Whitmore feels that tours of historic homes show the public much more than what’s simply beautiful. They show how architects overcome the challenges of timelines and construction budgets.

“A lot of the architect’s job is educating the client as to what’s possible and what’s available, even if their neighbors don’t have it or they haven’t seen it in a magazine or on TV.

“Too often,” he says, “people today feel they can just go to the home-improvement store, pick up a catalog and call a contractor. And that often results in spending a lot of money on something that doesn’t turn out successfully.”

Those interested in ordering tickets online should go to the Facebook site, or to the Eventbrite ticket site.

Whitmore also is interested in finding volunteers to assist during the tour. He can be reached at [email protected] or at 312-282-6049.

Steve Kaufman
Steve Kaufman has been writing professionally since the Johnson administration (Lyndon, not Andrew) on all manner of subjects, from sports to city hall to sales and marketing to running a medical practice to designing stores. His journey has taken him from Chicago to Buffalo to New York to Atlanta to Cincinnati, before landing, finally, in Louisville.