A Rare Midcentury Prefab Looks Just Like it Did in 1958—Down to the Knoll and Paul McCobb Interiors

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By Jenny Xie
The new homeowners of the Frost House investigate the history of their modular home and its contributions to the prefab movement.

Although anyone who visits Karen Valentine and Bob Coscarelli at their impeccably preserved 1958 prefab in Michigan City, Indiana, would call them lucky to be stewards of such a rare gem, they didn’t always feel that way during the quest for new housing. 

Having sold their home in Chicago and ready for a lifestyle change, Valentine, a technology and service development director, and Coscarelli, a commercial photographer, first hired an architect to build on a countryside lot. When that project crumbled, they enlisted another architect, but this time a lack of skilled craftspeople and a ballooning budget forced them to scrap the new design and sell the property. "It was a hugely time-consuming nightmare," remembers Valentine.

A Rare Midcentury Prefab Looks Just Like it Did in 1958—Down to the Knoll and Paul McCobb Interiors - Photo 1 of 13 - Built with a steel frame, the Frost House features panels of styrofoam between aluminum sheets for the exterior walls and styrofoam between plywood for the roof and floors. Bold, primary colors accentuate its geometric form.

Built with a steel frame, the Frost House features panels of styrofoam between aluminum sheets for the exterior walls and styrofoam between plywood for the roof and floors. Bold, primary colors accentuate its geometric form.

A Rare Midcentury Prefab Looks Just Like it Did in 1958—Down to the Knoll and Paul McCobb Interiors - Photo 2 of 13 - A Paul McCobb reeded glass panel provides a contemplative backdrop for a walnut Knoll writing desk and Bertoia Side Chair. "They feel like the soul of the house," says Coscarelli of the partitions. "They change constantly with the light." A Noguchi Number 9 Lamp is one of several original to the house.

A Paul McCobb reeded glass panel provides a contemplative backdrop for a walnut Knoll writing desk and Bertoia Side Chair. "They feel like the soul of the house," says Coscarelli of the partitions. "They change constantly with the light." A Noguchi Number 9 Lamp is one of several original to the house.

Switching tactics, the couple began to search for a modest midcentury dwelling. This wasn’t proving fruitful, either—until their realtor sent them a listing for a three-bedroom, two-bath prefabricated home about three miles from Lake Michigan, boasting interiors by master furniture designer Paul McCobb. The Frost House, named after forensic pathologist Dr. Robert Frost and Amelia Frost, who had lived there for over 50 years, would also carry the first-edition Knoll furniture that had originally come with the property. "It was essentially the house that we were trying to build," says Valentine. "We put an offer in without even seeing it." So anxious was she to own the residence, in fact, that she outbid herself three times.

A Rare Midcentury Prefab Looks Just Like it Did in 1958—Down to the Knoll and Paul McCobb Interiors - Photo 3 of 13 - A Knoll Womb Chair is the perfect place to lounge off the living room. The homeowners replaced nine types of flooring—including linoleum and green shag carpeting—with terrazzo tiles and carpet in the bedrooms. 

A Knoll Womb Chair is the perfect place to lounge off the living room. The homeowners replaced nine types of flooring—including linoleum and green shag carpeting—with terrazzo tiles and carpet in the bedrooms. 

A Rare Midcentury Prefab Looks Just Like it Did in 1958—Down to the Knoll and Paul McCobb Interiors - Photo 4 of 13 - A Knoll Parallel Bar Sofa, Lounge Chairs, and Coffee Table outfit the living room along with a Nessen Studios Torchiere Floor Lamp.  

A Knoll Parallel Bar Sofa, Lounge Chairs, and Coffee Table outfit the living room along with a Nessen Studios Torchiere Floor Lamp.  

Shortly after Valentine and Coscarelli purchased the home in 2016, they began to unearth nuggets of information about its pedigree. Their realtor had provided a brochure that identified the prefab as designed by architect Emil Tessin for the now-defunct Alside Homes Corporation based out of Akron, Ohio, which had held a patent for the structure’s aluminum paneling. Their new neighbors provided a stack of Alside Homes sales materials, floor plans of various models, and even a script that had been written for salespeople during home tours. They determined that the Frost House had been a sales model for the company, and that Tessin had been the son of Emil Albert Tessin, the legal guardian of Florence Knoll.

A Rare Midcentury Prefab Looks Just Like it Did in 1958—Down to the Knoll and Paul McCobb Interiors - Photo 5 of 13 - Paul McCobb designed the kitchen, built-in shelving units, and vanities throughout the abode. All the original General Electric appliances are in working order.

Paul McCobb designed the kitchen, built-in shelving units, and vanities throughout the abode. All the original General Electric appliances are in working order.

A Rare Midcentury Prefab Looks Just Like it Did in 1958—Down to the Knoll and Paul McCobb Interiors - Photo 6 of 13 - Bright closet doors provide storage space and a healthy dose of color from various vantage points.

Bright closet doors provide storage space and a healthy dose of color from various vantage points.

The first time that Coscarelli visited the home, he was on a photography assignment in the area. "Before I was looking in rooms, I was turning furniture upside down and looking at the Knoll stickers," he recalls. "It was a profound discovery to find a unique house with a stunning, [Piet] Mondrian look with all this furniture that had literally never moved. It had been staged there by Knoll. It was like walking into a museum or time capsule."

A Rare Midcentury Prefab Looks Just Like it Did in 1958—Down to the Knoll and Paul McCobb Interiors - Photo 7 of 13 - The homeowners love to host guests in the dining room, which features another set of Saarinen furniture. Banksy, a rescue lab and setter mix, takes a break from chasing toys up and down the hallways.

The homeowners love to host guests in the dining room, which features another set of Saarinen furniture. Banksy, a rescue lab and setter mix, takes a break from chasing toys up and down the hallways.

A Rare Midcentury Prefab Looks Just Like it Did in 1958—Down to the Knoll and Paul McCobb Interiors - Photo 8 of 13 - The aviary is Valentine's favorite room in the house. Located off the dining room, it has floor-to-ceiling Plexiglass panels that can be interchanged with screens in the fall. (Dr. Frost had fastidiously labeled every movable element in the residence to ensure that everything would be returned to the exact same place.) West Elm Iris Planters add extra greenery beside Russell Woodard Sculptura patio furniture, topped with Restoration Hardware pillows.

The aviary is Valentine's favorite room in the house. Located off the dining room, it has floor-to-ceiling Plexiglass panels that can be interchanged with screens in the fall. (Dr. Frost had fastidiously labeled every movable element in the residence to ensure that everything would be returned to the exact same place.) West Elm Iris Planters add extra greenery beside Russell Woodard Sculptura patio furniture, topped with Restoration Hardware pillows.

To document their research into the history of the Frost House, Valentine and Coscarelli launched a website and Instagram profile, both of which have prompted people the world over to share their stories and knowledge. "The online community has been amazing in helping us piece [information] together," says Valentine. An Instagram commenter identified the glass partitions in the residence as Paul McCobb-designed, and sent magazine advertisements from the 1950s. Another visitor told them that his father, Philip Harrington, had photographed the modular home for a 1962 issue of Look Magazine. The article names the Alside construction as a house of the future and reveals that at the time, the company aimed to build 200 homes a day by the end of the year.

A Rare Midcentury Prefab Looks Just Like it Did in 1958—Down to the Knoll and Paul McCobb Interiors - Photo 9 of 13 - A Bertoia Bench in white oak supports the TV in the family room, while a 50th anniversary-edition Saarinen Tulip Table and Chairs provide a dark contrast to the cheery interiors. The vintage spun aluminum light fixture is also original to the house. Notice how the Knoll curtain, when open, can be neatly tucked into a nook beside the blue closets.

A Bertoia Bench in white oak supports the TV in the family room, while a 50th anniversary-edition Saarinen Tulip Table and Chairs provide a dark contrast to the cheery interiors. The vintage spun aluminum light fixture is also original to the house. Notice how the Knoll curtain, when open, can be neatly tucked into a nook beside the blue closets.

A Rare Midcentury Prefab Looks Just Like it Did in 1958—Down to the Knoll and Paul McCobb Interiors - Photo 10 of 13 - Thanks to acoustic panels in the ceiling, the 2,600-square-foot home is quiet and serene. Another glass partition divides the master bedroom, which includes a small sitting area, built-in vanities, and spacious wardrobes.

Thanks to acoustic panels in the ceiling, the 2,600-square-foot home is quiet and serene. Another glass partition divides the master bedroom, which includes a small sitting area, built-in vanities, and spacious wardrobes.

To find more Alside homes, Valentine scours old newspapers for advertisements run by authorized builders, and uses Google Maps to locate models in the area. "You can fairly quickly identify the roofline from the satellite view," she shares. Out of the 12 Alside prefabs still remaining, most have pitched roofs, and none are as perfectly preserved as the Frost House, making it a rare treasure. The original kitchen appliances and bathroom fittings and fixtures are all intact, and aside from some necessary repairs, Valentine and Coscarelli have left everything as it was in 1958. 

Stewards of the past, the couple also look to the home’s future: they are currently adding a pool to the 0.75-acre lot, have plans to convert the basement into a rumpus room, and are working to earn a designation as a National Historic Landmark.

A Rare Midcentury Prefab Looks Just Like it Did in 1958—Down to the Knoll and Paul McCobb Interiors - Photo 11 of 13 - A pair of Saarinen Tulip Armchairs offers front-row seats to an ever-changing view from the bedroom, which benefits from floor-to-ceiling windows.

A pair of Saarinen Tulip Armchairs offers front-row seats to an ever-changing view from the bedroom, which benefits from floor-to-ceiling windows.

A Rare Midcentury Prefab Looks Just Like it Did in 1958—Down to the Knoll and Paul McCobb Interiors - Photo 12 of 13 - Because Alside Homes were so long, they required two lots to build on. Dr. Frost purchased a third lot to ensure privacy, providing the current homeowners plenty of room to add a pool. "That's an endeavor to be respectiful," says Valentine. "We're trying to make it look like it's always been there."

Because Alside Homes were so long, they required two lots to build on. Dr. Frost purchased a third lot to ensure privacy, providing the current homeowners plenty of room to add a pool. "That's an endeavor to be respectiful," says Valentine. "We're trying to make it look like it's always been there."

A Rare Midcentury Prefab Looks Just Like it Did in 1958—Down to the Knoll and Paul McCobb Interiors - Photo 13 of 13 - Generous stretches of glass allow the house to glow at night.

Generous stretches of glass allow the house to glow at night.

To learn more about the Frost House and keep up with the continuing life of the property, visit the website.                                       

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