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Fifty years after their commercial crash, UFO-like Futuro houses still fly with fans in Philly and beyond

Fifty years after their commercial flop, the retro homes built in New Jersey are flying with a new generation. Interest in new models is soaring.

Dionne Bolden, acting director of Recreation and Parks for Willingboro Township, in front of what may be the only intact Futuro house in New Jersey and in the Philadelphia region. The township has owned the house since the 1970s and hopes to have it restored.
Dionne Bolden, acting director of Recreation and Parks for Willingboro Township, in front of what may be the only intact Futuro house in New Jersey and in the Philadelphia region. The township has owned the house since the 1970s and hopes to have it restored.Read moreMIGUEL MARTINEZ / For the Inquirer

The Futuro of Willingboro arrived in 1973 with a helicopter lowering a modular house that looked like a UFO onto a shopping center site where it would soon open as a bank.

“We used to call it the little spaceship,” said Dionne Bolden, who grew up in Willingboro and is the township’s acting director of recreation and parks.

Designed by Finnish architect Matti Suuronen in the 1960s and built by a Philadelphia company at an Atlantic County factory, Futuro houses were intended for use as ski chalets or second homes. They never really took off for residential or commercial use in the 1970s; about a third of the nearly 100 believed to have been built have been lost or destroyed — among them a beloved Outer Banks, N.C. landmark ruined by fire Oct. 20.

But these fanciful, prefabricated structures of reinforced plastic — featuring built-in furniture and porthole windows — are finding new fans on social media, as well as new life as travel accommodations.

“We get calls from people who want to buy it,” Bolden said. “But it’s part of our history. We don’t want to lose it, and we definitely don’t want to sell it.”

Meanwhile, two Midwestern entrepreneurs are separately preparing to launch new iterations of these midcentury modern artifacts.

In Euclid, Ohio, Futuro Houses LLC is developing a prototype for new models aimed at the market for sustainable, compact living. The firm expects to have basic, “shell kit” models available for purchase within three months, said CEO Anthony Corpora. The price of a shell kit is listed at $179,500 and a “‘full loaded” model for $279,500.

Last year, Kris Swain, owner of Atomic Specialties in Oxford, Ohio, purchased a vintage Futuro that had sat for years in a Cumberland County boatyard and is using it to create molds for a new generation of the houses.

The boatyard Futuro had once been part of an outer space-themed attraction at Morey’s Piers in Wildwood, with which Swain has long done work.

“We’re popping one out for Morey’s Piers next spring,” he said. “We’ve got 100 of them on order for Airbnbs.”

An Airbnb Futuro in Joshua Tree, Calif., already is booked months in advance, said Simon Robson, a self-taught researcher and historian who oversees the website

A galaxy of Futuros online

Robson posts documents, press clippings, and fan photos of glowingly restored Futuros in states such as Texas, as well as in New Zealand, Japan, and other countries across the globe. The site also provides updates on the latest sightings of the long-elusive or endangered Futuros he calls “Lost Souls.”

“I get really happy when I hear that one of them is getting the love and care it deserves,” Robson said from his home in Dallas. “It’s sad that some of the Futuros are allowed to deteriorate. There’s maybe 65 of the nearly 100 that were made still left on the planet. And that’s not very many.”

The original houses were fabricated in Pleasantville, Atlantic County, by the Futuro Corp. of Philadelphia. The firm hoped to sell 10,000 units nationwide and built virtually all of the Futuros that still exist in the United States, said Robson.

According to a copy of the corporation’s 1971 retail price list posted on Robson’s website, the cost of a new Futuro ranged from $12,500 for a shell to $23,400 for a two-bedroom, two-bath, completely furnished model.

Promotional materials and vintage photographs showcased in a story on the Society for Gentlemen Explorers website include shots of models in miniskirts and bikinis posing with Futuros on ski slopes and against other scenic backdrops. And no less an authority than Playboy magazine raved about Futuros in 1970, describing them as perfect “playpens’ for space-age swingers.

Futuros flopped in Philly

America got its first look at a Futuro when a Finnish-made house was put on exhibit at Philadelphia International Airport in 1969.

But an American model displayed on Philadelphia’s Benjamin Franklin Parkway to raise money for a children’s charity became an object of derision in 1970. One Inquirer story referred to “that egg-shaped thing with the portholes” ruining the landscape near the Franklin Institute.

“Philly reacted to them with sheer hatred,” said Michael Bixler, managing editor of the Hidden City Philadelphia website. “People didn’t take the Futuro seriously. They thought of it as foreign, or a gimmick ― not a house to live in.”

What might have been the Parkway Futuro later racked up $750 in overdue fees while being stored at a Center City parking lot. And one of the two Futuros known to have existed in Philly was set on fire, said Bixler.

He and his wife, Kate, stumbled upon the Willingboro Futuro in 2018 and ever since have been seeking out and documenting the houses, including those in the Philadelphia region.

The couple have visited two intact Futuros in southern Delaware, including one that has been used as a residence for 50 years. They’ve also chronicled a since-demolished Futuro in Delaware County, and the one Swain purchased and moved to Ohio from Cumberland County last year.

Futuros “remind me of the futuristic concept designs of the ‘Atomic Age,’ like the buildings and exhibits at the 1964-1965 New York World’s Fair,” Kate Bixler, who works in publishing, said in an email.

The homes “are actually very spacious (no pun intended),” she said. “They feel like a place where one could feel free to absorb themselves in their thoughts and dreams.”

Competing visions of a new Futuro

Corpora, whose company plans to produce an updated variation on the Futuro, said the original houses “were a big success that fell short,” in part due to limitations in the design and the materials used to make them.

The major flaw: The porthole-like windows of the original Futuros did not open; the new ones will. The supporting structure of original Futuros also contained wood, which the new ones won’t.

“Futuros have a huge following, and they are iconic across the world,” said Corpora, whose primary business is designing, building, and fitting out campers. The same composite materials that go into the camper bodies will produce the new Futuros, he said.

The latest iteration also will be divided into sections that can easily be shipped to a buyer’s home or chosen construction site, much like the Sears “kit” houses of the 20th century.

“It will be a complete plug-and-play assembly,” Corpora said. “A couple of people with a basic set of tools and a few helpers can do it in a weekend.”

Atomic Specialties has long been in the business of “creating custom sculptures and fiberglass parts for theme park rides,” said Swain, whose company is producing the new Futuros — a basic model is expected to retail for $80,000 — in partnership with Brainchild Creative, in Sevierville, Tenn.

“I’m a fan of Futuros, and I wanted one,” Brainchild owner Steve Brauch said. “They have a retro vibe to them [about] the future 50 years ago.”

Both men said the interest in tiny homes is creating a market. And the association with an earlier era is part of the appeal.

The design of the Futuro “is like a pinnacle of the midcentury modern era,” Swain said. “There were other shapes. But there’s something about this one.”

The future of the Willingboro Futuro

Itself a space-age suburb ― Willingboro was built by William Levitt, of Levittown fame ― the township hopes to see its Futuro restored. After serving as a branch of a New Jersey-based savings bank and as an office for Willingboro’s Police Athletic League, the structure has in recent decades been used only for storage.

“We have to figure out what we should do with the building in order to preserve and reuse it,” Bolden said. “There are people in the community who want to be a part of that process.”

In 2020, the advocacy group Preservation New Jersey named the Willingboro and Greenwich Futuros to its list of the most endangered places in the state.

“We would like to see [the Futuro] rehabilitated for public use, and for benefit of the community,” said Rikki Massand, a member of the organization’s board.

“The structure is representative of an era, It was designed by a master architect,” he said. “There’s a lot of nostalgia for the idea of space exploration. And there’s a special feeling when you see the Futuro.”