Cast concrete row houses, Polk Street, Gary. (Photo: Eric Allix Rogers via Flickr)
Molds bring to mind spectacular jello salads, but in Gary, Indiana, actual houses sprang from molds. In the early 1900s, thousands moved to Gary to work in the city’s burgeoning steel industry, growing the population so rapidly that that the city didn’t have enough housing. Seeking a way to provide lodging quickly and cheaply, one company found the solution in an idea pioneered by inventor Thomas Edison.
In 1906, Edison developed a way of constructing homes by pouring a concrete mixture into a single mold for the facades, roof, stairs, walls, and other parts of a house. Edison marketed the idea as a low-cost means of building affordable housing for the working class.
Hoping to speed the transfer of management-level workers, the United States Sheet and Tin Plate Company began constructing concrete homes for its employees in 1910. Builders borrowed Edison’s idea, but used separate molds for each floor instead of utilizing a single mold. Most of the homes along Van Buren, Polk, and Jackson streets also included traditional wood framing instead of the all-concrete construction suggested by Edison.
Detached cast concrete houses in Gary. (Photo: Eric Allix Rogers via Flickr)
By 1913, the company had built 86 concrete terrace and detached dwellings. The structures were nicknamed Edison Concept Houses in honor of the inventor’s idea, even though it doesn’t appear Edison was involved. Seventy-four of the structures remain, including several vacant row houses at 336-354 Van Buren Street listed in the National Register as the Van Buren Terrace Historic District.
Cast concrete row houses, Van Buren Street, Gary. (Photo: Eric Allix Rogers via Flickr)
The company rented the Van Buren Terrace homes and other concrete homes to steel workers and their families into the 1970s. Arts and Crafts touches and cast details, including geometric ornaments and molding, added interest to the mass-produced structures. While other Edison Concept Houses in Gary have had interior walls removed, dwellings in the Van Buren Terrace District retain the original layouts.
These cool houses add yet another reason to admire the genius of Thomas Edison. Indiana Landmarks is advocating for the preservation of the endangered Edison houses, including several owned by the city and the privately owned row houses on Van Buren.
About Hidden Gems Indiana
Each week Indiana Landmarks uses insider knowledge to highlight historic places worth a visit, from the quirky to the sublime: small towns, neighborhoods, restaurants, shops, parks, cemeteries, scenic drives, museums -- you get the idea. Learn more about Indiana Landmarks at www.indianalandmarks.org.