Modern for the Masses
How progressive architects and builders brought high-concept houses to the postwar 'burbs
James C. Massey & Shirley Maxwell
Reprinted with permission from the June, 2005 issue of Old House Journal
When the vets came home from World War II in the late 1940s, eager to use their VA loans to put roofs over the heads of their young families, America's new suburbs bloomed with a hundred varieties of updated traditional houses. These were mostly tiny Cape Cods and Colonials that fit the postwar era's small building lots and modest budgets-as well as a long-deferred vision of the all-American dream house.
Yet, while most buyers preferred a vaguely "Early American" look, the prolonged building drought brought on by the Depression and the war years had interrupted another, very different architectural trend that was now poised to make postwar reentry. The Modernist Movement, springing from the celebrated avant-garde German Bauhaus school, had formed tentative roots in 1930s America. Before the war, several leading Bauhaus architects-Walter Gropius, Marcel Breuer, and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe among them-accepted positions on the faculties of some of this country's most prestigious architectural schools. There, they and their followers trained an entire generation of students in the discipline of Modernist design. In the process, they changed for at least half a century the way houses would look and the way Americans would look at their houses. The Modern approach to design was in every sense more than a style-it was a cause.
Over the postwar years, these and other Modern-thinking architects around the nation produced a slew of houses that set high standards for building in the Modern style. The two ultimate examples are Mies' Farnsworth House (1950) and the famous Glass House by Philip Johnson (who was, not so coincidentally, a protégé of Mies and a student of Gropius).
The weekend home that Mies designed for Dr. Edith Farnsworth was a stunning glass-walled beauty located an hour or so from Chicago. It appears to float above its recessed base and, with Johnson's dazzling New Canaan, Connecticut, Glass House of 1949, inspired probably dozens of lesser imitators. However, Mies's genius failed to impress Dr. Farnsworth, who found she couldn't relax in such exposure. In Palm Springs, California, Richard Neutra's 1946 Kaufmann House (for Edgar Kaufmann, owner of the legendary Fallingwater by Frank Lloyd Wright) seems to have produced no such client complaints. Palm Springs went on to become a mecca for Modern houses.
Even in the relatively far-flung southern capital of Raleigh, North Carolina, the movement had a resounding impact. Under the direction of Henry Kamphoefner, the North Carolina School of Design attracted an array of talented faculty and students who filled the Raleigh suburbs with important Modern houses.
Of course, not all modern (with a small "m") houses followed the strict, rectilinear forms favored by the Bauhaus and the International School. Most people preferred to come home to a less rigidly geometric environment. They wanted clean lines, of course, and lots of glass to bring the outdoors in (or to move the indoors out). They wanted rooms with a minimum of walls, so that living areas flowed easily into each other and blended effortlessly with their surroundings, which were preferably a bit woodsy-looking. They wanted flat or low-pitched gable or hip roofs or perhaps even butterfly (or inverted gable) roofs. They wanted their home to be oriented toward the back-not the front-of its building lot, with rear-facing walls of glass borrowing visually from the outer spaces.
Inside, the houses often focused on fireplaces-massive constructions of stone or brick, whose large chimneys were prominent features. Floors were of modern materials, such as cork, asphalt tile, vinyl, linoleum, or terrazzo, while kitchen and bathroom countertops and cabinets were faced with the new seamless, waterproof wonder material, Formica.
In 1945, John Entenza, the editor of the California-based magazine Art + Architecture, began a project he called Case Study Houses, which eventually presented plans for 36 postwar houses by up-and-coming architects. Craig Ellwood, Charles Eames, Eero Saarinen, Pierre Koenig, and Ralph Rapson all contributed designs for these houses. The idea was to demonstrate that small houses could incorporate excellent design at affordable prices by using innovative building materials such as metal and plywood, mass production methods, such as paneled exterior walls, and prefabricated elements, such as those that had been developed for the war effort. Entenza's own house in Pacific Palisades was Case Study House #9, designed by Charles Eames and Eero Saarinen. The houses were sophisticated, livable, and widely admired by designers and architects here and abroad. Unfortunately, they were also expensive, being made of materials that required different skills than most construction workers had to offer. They were also not popular with a buying public that still had its heart set on cozy brick-and-wood cottages rather than coolly elegant steel-and-glass boxes.
A similar fate met a number of building experiments that used unorthodox materials. The porcelain steel prefabricated Lustron house, for example, was sturdy and attractive in its chilly way, but it was not well enough received to make mass production economically feasible over the long haul. U.S. Steel also produced metal houses, and Alcoa erected an experimental house in Virginia that used aluminum in new ways, although it was not constructed entirely of aluminum. For the most part, however, metal was still relegated to windows (where aluminum was broadly used), doors, and hardware.
That's not to say that mass production didn't make any headway in the homebuilding industry. William and Al Levitt's various Levittowns, the enormous planned suburban communities that blanketed parts of Long Island, New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey after the war, depended heavily on assembly line processes. Only in this case, the workers, not the product, were moving from place to place-a method the Levitts learned building defense housing during the war. They found, however, that their "Modern" model couldn't hold a candle to their popular "Cape Cod."
Other mass builders and developers found willing buyers for Modern houses, albeit in smaller numbers and at somewhat higher prices than the Levitts. These developers offered models that have been called "Soft Modern," which eased the lines of the box and may owe more to Frank Lloyd Wright's "organic" approach than to the rigid Bauhaus. One of the best known of the Soft Modern developers was Joseph Eichler, who erected more than 11,000 houses in California during the 1950s and 1960s. Today, the Eichler House, with its sheltering carports and atrium entrance, has become an icon of 1950s culture.
Edward Hawkins, the developer of Arapahoe Acres near Denver, was another successful mass builder. His architect was a Czechoslovakian immigrant, Eugene Sternberg. Beginning in 1949, Hawkins built 124 houses with mountain views. Having reached the historical designation age of 50 years, Arapahoe Acres is now a National Register of Historic Places District. Techbuilt Houses, partly prefabricated, were not-too-modern houses designed by architect Carl Koch and built with considerable success in the 1960s. They demonstrated once again that mass-produced, standardized building parts could be put together in highly individual ways.
Near Alexandria, Virginia, just south of Washington, D.C., is another successful Soft Modern development, the woody suburb of Hollin Hills. Built by developer Robert Davenport, with houses designed by architect Charles Goodman, Hollin Hills grew to include 450 houses spread over 225 acres. The project benefited enormously from the landscaping advice supplied to early owners by landscape architect Lou Bernard Voight. After Voight's death, another noted landscape architect, Dan Kiley, took over the landscape planning for Hollin Hills. Similar developments can be found all around Washington. One of the best, Holmes Run Acres in Fairfax County, was designed by the Washington architectural firm of Nicholas Satterlee and Donald Lethbridge.
The straight lines of the Modern house were enhanced by mass-produced furniture by top designers such as Eero Saarinen, Florence Knoll, or the husband-and-wife team of Charles and Ray Eames. The Eames' 1950 fiberglass chair and their laminated wood chair are Modern classics, but they were only two among many examples of architect-designed furnishings. Danish Modern furniture, a staple of home decorating during the 1950s and 1960s, was an apt example of the international flavor of the Modern style.
Although the Modern house never became the typical American house, many of its features made their way into the building vocabulary of the time. "Contemporary" houses-a 1960s term that reflects the fact that no real estate agent or developer with a lick of sense would think of calling them "Modern"-were blander, less intimidating buildings, but still equipped with up-to-the-minute conveniences and materials, as well as open plans and plenty of big windows. The paneled walls that typified Modern houses might not have made the cut with the Contemporary crowd, but horizontal windows and glass sliding doors with aluminum frames were readily accepted.
The concept of separate rooms as spaces reserved for specialized activities became increasingly blurred. Except for truly private places like sleeping and bathing quarters, the traditional rooms in the modern house were largely replaced by multifunctional areas. The dining area, for instance, was usually an integral part of the living room on one side while also being open to the kitchen on another side and to the family room or Florida room, if either of these existed, on yet another. Such spatial multitasking could be legitimately explained on practical grounds. It was obviously convenient (easier to keep an eye on the kids, Mom was less isolated in the kitchen) and economical. There was also a genuine design aesthetic at work here. Architects may have led the way in seeing space in terms of volume rather than enclosures, but developers, builders, and buyers quickly caught the spirit of volumetric thinking. The open-floor plan actually did give a feeling of spaciousness to little houses, made it easier to link to outdoor living spaces, such as patios and backyards, and brought families into more intimate contact with each other.
The open plan also had the faults of its virtues: greater openness meant less privacy, and less space under-roof meant-well, less space. Less room, that is, for people and for the messy, often noisy things that people do, collect, and use-furniture, for instance, not to mention pots, pans, and clothing, television sets, radios, and record players.
To the American eye, the Modern style's no-nonsense lines and hard surfaces seemed fine for business purposes, a good match for skyscrapers, industrial parks, and warehouses, but they were always a bit too extreme for the average American home buyer. Ironically, the Modern house may be about as popular today as it was in the 1950s. In fact, now that 1950s suburbs are finding their way onto local, state, and national lists of historic landmarks, they have a trendy cachet that just may be even brighter than it was half a century ago.
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