For people who love old homes, a time capsule—a house that remains mostly unaltered since construction—is the ultimate find. After all, as years go by, remodeling and trends have a way of erasing original details.
But the definition of an architectural time capsule may need to be rewritten in the case of Bob Coscarelli and Karen Valentine. The couple’s midcentury Michigan City, Indiana, home not only came to them with all of the architectural features intact, it was also fully furnished with period Knoll furniture and a Paul McCobb kitchen and built-ins.
In short, if anything could be considered a midcentury modern miracle, this is it.
The couple’s quest for a home fell far short of miraculous. The die-hard modernists had purchased land in Michigan and planned to build a house on it. The design process was rocky, with a false start and ballooning costs. “About two weeks before we were to break ground, I got cold feet,” says Coscarelli. “We decided to call it off.”
Coscarelli describes the time after the decision as one of “shock and disappointment.” They started looking for another home, one that was already built. Another false start led them in a different direction (literally). They started looking south, along the shores of Lake Michigan in Indiana.
“The town of Michigan City is in the Industrial Belt, and it’s about an hour and 10 minute drive from Chicago,” says Coscarelli. “Most people looking for a lake home outside of Chicago tend to go to places in Michigan like Union Pier and Three Oaks, but in Michigan City you are closer to the city and homes are a fraction of the price.”
But it really wasn’t the town that drew them south, it was a spectacular find: The home they call The Frost House. Built as a model home sometime between 1958 and 1962, it’s notable because it was a prefab home designed by Emil Tessin for a company called Alside Homes.
The house is a feat of engineering, constructed with steel framing that holds 12- by 14-square-foot panels of styrofoam sandwiched between two pieces of aluminum—some of them powder coated with bright colors, some of them painted white. The result is a bit like Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House crossed with a Piet Mondrian painting. Or as Valentine puts it: “It reminds us of an Ikea version of the Farnsworth House.”
Note: Reading the paragraph above, you likely have many questions. Let us clarify a few for you: Yes, the walls are colored aluminum sheets inside and out. Yes, it’s insulated by styrofoam and no, it doesn’t get cold (“It’s like we are living in a giant picnic cooler,” says Coscarelli). Yes, there were prefabricated homes in 1958—this brand was billed in a 1961 issue of LIFE magazine as an “instant house” that would “come delivered in two trailer trucks and within 48 hours be completely assembled down to the last fixture and appliance.” And no, we don’t know how some buyers get so lucky.
Back in the day, a lot of real estate development happened this way: A builder would buy land, erect a spec home to show buyers what to expect (and that’s what The Frost House was originally), and then proceed to sell lots and build more houses. In this case, the development didn’t get very far, as Alside Homes went out of business almost as soon as it began.
But not before Dr. Robert Frost (a noted pathologist) toured the model home in Michigan City and fell in love. He wanted to not only buy the home, but every last piece of Knoll furniture in it. He moved in with his wife, Amelia, and his two children and lived there for the next 58 years, until he died in the house at age 96. (Amelia passed 17 months later, in a healthcare facility near their daughter’s home in Virginia.)
Here’s where things go from an interesting find to miracle territory. During all those years, the Frosts not only refrained from remodeling and updating the house, they didn’t buy anything new—outside of replacing the aluminum doors with more efficient, double-paned models. What’s more, they never moved the furniture from its original placement. “Over time, the legs of the furniture wore holes in the carpet because they were never moved,” Coscarelli notes.
When the couple bought the home from the family, it came with the Frosts’ furniture, artwork, and tchotchkes. If you think that items used by a family for five decades would be worn, you don’t know the Frosts. Dr. Frost was, apparently, meticulous when it came to home maintenance, going so far as to engrave removable screens so they would be put back in precisely the same position when the weather warmed up.
Valentine describes Amelia Frost as a housewife who took the job seriously. “Mrs. Frost was at home, and she took great care of her house,” she says. “They used the same cleaner from the time they bought the house until the day that woman retired and gave the job to her niece. They also used the same family to take care of the garden during their time here.”
Valentine notes that when your house has aluminum walls, you chose where you hang a piece of art very, very carefully. You could extrapolate that feeling to the way they treat the house.
“We went into the house knowing we wanted to preserve it and keep it intact,” says Valentine. “To be honest, where the furniture was originally placed is where it seems to naturally fit.” Bob adds: “I think the house is as fresh, clean, and modern as the day it was built. It’s a testament to the timelessness of modernism and the International Style, and it’s beautiful.”
It’s also a testament to the Frosts. To this day, a portrait of Dr. Frost hangs in the living room and their name remains on the mailbox.
Coscarelli and Valentine have used the existing elements as a “style guide” for the small updates they’ve made. Due to the aforementioned holes and Valentine’s asthma, they replaced some of the carpet with terrazzo tiles, a flooring type that already existed in the entry and sunporch. They found a box of the material from the Fritz Tile Company in the basement. The Texas company is still in business, and was able to provide a good match. When they put in a swimming pool, they took cues from the existing landscaping.
And when they’ve come up against some of the home’s more dated elements, they’ve resisted remodeling. For Valentine, stepping into a tub to take a shower is not her favorite moment of the day, and she wishes there were windows in the bathrooms. Coscarelli thinks the electric cooktop is less than ideal.
“However, we don’t plan to change a thing,” Coscarelli says. “We think it’s more important to preserve the house and put up with its little quirks than to alter it.” Valentine adds: “We believe the home feels exactly as it should, and we want to take care of it until it’s time to pass it on to someone who will do the same. It’s a very special place.”