Although the Great Recession was set off when the United States housing bubble burst in 2007, amnesiac Americans are again speculating in domestic real estate. The steep rise in property values during the final two decades of the twentieth century still lingers in many people’s minds, as does the widespread memory among the baby-boom generation that the family house was the best investment their parents ever made. Perhaps we have not reverted to pre-crash irrational exuberance, but people seemingly cannot resist the temptation to “flip” residential real estate—that is, buying and reselling in the short term to make a quick profit.
Recovery in the national housing market remains spotty—7.4 million home mortgages are seriously “underwater” (i.e., the balance of the loan is more than 25 percent higher than the property’s current assessed value)—but a healthy local economy can support flipping even modest residences. Several cable TV channels broadcast series that follow this process, including Flip This House, Flipping Virgins, Rehab Addict, and my personal favorite, Flip or Flop. This program stars a telegenic young Southern California couple who take down-at-the-heels Orange County tract houses, remodel them to suit contemporary tastes (loftlike “open concept” floor plans, spa-inspired bathrooms, and obligatory granite kitchen countertops), and often make a five-figure return on their investment (although some of their cost estimates can seem low and their completion schedules speedy to anyone who has ever done home improvements).
Flip or Flop and other examples of what has been called real estate porn remind us that there is a huge inventory of postwar suburban housing stock all around the country, much of it in the style we now call midcentury modern, although more exists in hybrid modes that mix traditional and contemporary elements. Millions of detached single-family houses were erected on the outskirts of American cities between the end of wartime building material restrictions in 1947 and the onset of the oil embargo recession in 1973, but two new books differ greatly on the exact number.
Barbara Miller Lane’s Houses for a New World puts the figure for the first two postwar decades at thirteen million, whereas James A. Jacobs’s Detached America states that during the quarter-century after the war “private builders and building companies constructed about 35,500,000 housing units…[of which] the overwhelming majority…were the detached single-family houses that define suburbia.” Even adjusting for a somewhat different time frame, there is no question that the mass migration at midcentury—by 1950 more Americans lived in suburbs than in cities—represented a thoroughgoing reformulation of our domestic landscape and a colossal demographic upheaval.
This immense shift grew out of the pent-up demand created by nearly two decades of severely curtailed construction during the Great Depression and World War II. The acute housing shortage was exacerbated by a sharp increase in postwar birth rates, which resulted in a frenzy of suburban residential development that had been anticipated for some time. For if planners could not have predicted the back-to-back economic and military traumas of the 1930s and 1940s, housing reformers had long foreseen a looming crisis in the uncontrolled increase of urban centers.
The proliferation of automobile ownership during the century’s second and third decades gave new impetus to the Garden Cities movement, founded in 1898 by the British planning theorist Ebenezer Howard, who opposed unlimited urban growth in favor of multiple, moderate-sized “conurbations” with dwellings and workplaces in convenient proximity. Such medium-density centers would ideally be surrounded by undeveloped “greenbelts” for recreation and as barriers against pollution. Yet this congenial middle ground between urban overcrowding and rural isolation made little headway in the US, despite the advocacy of the critic Lewis Mumford and his fellow members of the Regional Planning Association of America, which was organized in 1923 by the architect and planner Clarence Stein.
A rare application of Garden City principles in this country was Radburn, New Jersey, of 1928–1930, Stein and Henry Wright’s only partially realized but nonetheless internationally influential “New Town for the Motor Age.” Yet however intelligently Radburn accommodated the burgeoning car culture, it did not incorporate businesses (beyond a few shops for local residents) and became a commuter suburb, albeit a very fine one, for people with jobs in nearby cities, especially New York. Importantly, Radburn was predicated on the radical belief of the nineteenth-century political economist Henry George that “we must make land common property.” Thus, although Radburn’s homeowners hold title to their dwellings, the ground beneath their houses is retained in trust for all by a cooperative association. This egalitarian principle removed a major financial incentive that typically drives developers and investors who can gain from sale of unbuilt plots (usually at steadily increasing prices) if a community thrives, and the Radburn idea never caught on in the US.
The great unanswered question about the suburbanization of mid-twentieth-century America is this: Could it have been done better? Certainly a better way was shown by the Case Study House group—the loose association of like-minded Modernist architects organized in 1945 by John Entenza, the editor of the California-based Arts & Architecture magazine, who solicited superior prototypes for residential living from some of the period’s most imaginative designers. However, their plans were neither conceived for mass production nor geared to providing the cheapest possible dwelling per square foot. Affordability, not design distinction, was the overriding motivation for the best-known postwar tract house manufacturers, the Levitt brothers—William, who headed the company (established in 1929 by their father, Abraham), and Arthur, its chief architect and planner.
The Levitt firm had built high-end houses on Long Island before World War II, but when the founder’s sons served in the military they observed a number of industrialized engineering and construction techniques that could be profitably applied to the mass production of lower-priced dwellings for returning servicemen, the postwar period’s most obvious growth market. To cut expenses, the Levitts’ no-frills, wood-frame structures did not have an excavated basement, but instead were erected atop a concrete slab poured directly onto the ground and inlaid with radiant heating (a method Frank Lloyd Wright pioneered in his low-cost Usonian houses of the 1930s onward, which featured several concepts that Arthur Levitt proudly admitted he’d swiped from the grand old master).
Although it is often assumed that Levitt houses were prefabricated, they were merely standardized, with interchangeable components and simplified assembly strategies that resulted in considerable economies. Therefore the company could deliver compact, freestanding “minimum houses”—a term that originated in Weimar Germany’s social-housing movement as das Existenzminimum (the minimum required dwelling area)—that war veterans could buy for less per month in total carrying charges than the going rental rates for many city apartments. The Levitt company required no down payment, and the low-interest, thirty-year mortgages provided by the Federal Housing Administration to vets put these houses within easy reach of even those with moderate incomes. Who could resist owning a brand-new homestead in the countryside with the last word in kitchens and bathrooms, instead of leasing an old inner-city flat with a claw-foot tub and no backyard?
The first houses offered by the Levitts in their now-famous development in Hempstead, New York, thirty-seven miles east of Manhattan—initially called Island Trees but renamed Levittown after marketers discovered that the family name signified quality to consumers—were completed in 1947. (They were initially for rent only, with an option to buy after one year, but became available for outright purchase in 1949.) The 750-square-foot floor plan comprised a living room, kitchen, two bedrooms, and one bathroom, with an unfinished partial attic space suitable for future expansion. This tidy Cape Cod cottage sold for $6,990 (more than $77,000 in current value), but the brothers soon found that buyers would willingly pay somewhat more for upgrades, and in 1949 they introduced an equally successful eight-hundred- square-foot ranch-style version for $7,990 (equivalent to nearly $78,000 in 2015). Today the median size of new single-family American houses is 2,521 square feet, more than three times larger than the Levitts’ first offering.
The brothers’ venture into mass production was backed up by the bountiful provision of benefits through the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944. Commonly called the GI Bill, it contrasted dramatically with the disgraceful treatment of World War I veterans at the onset of the Great Depression, when the 1932 Bonus Army March on Washington was violently suppressed. Together with generous tuition subsidies for former servicemen—this country’s most extensive foray into socialized higher education—the 67,000 mortgages guaranteed through the GI Bill made home ownership possible for more citizens than ever before (except nonwhites, who received fewer than one hundred of those loans). To take advantage of this bonanza in government-guaranteed financing, canny entrepreneurs across the country quickly copied the Levitts’ cost-efficient formula.
In Houses for a New World, the Bryn Mawr professor emerita Barbara Miller Lane investigates the output of a dozen lesser-known tract house developers in four diverse regions—New England, the mid-Atlantic, the Midwest, and Southern California—and treats the period’s typical Cape Cods, ranches, and split-levels with the serious formal analysis once reserved for high-style architecture. Her tour de force of research is all the more impressive because she has assembled documentation akin to that previously available on the residential work of important postwar figures such as Richard Neutra, William Wurster, and Marcel Breuer but largely overlooked for builders other than the Levitts.
Both new books remind us of a time when a popular American middle-class weekend pastime was to pile the kids and in-laws into the family car and drive around looking at model houses, whether or not you were actively shopping for a new place. Lane has found newspaper advertisements and promotional materials for subdivisions that were clearly aimed at wives (who wielded huge influence about housing decisions even though their husbands were the breadwinners) and stressed the transformational nature of life in these up-to-the-minute dwellings.
A revealing example of that appeal to women can be found in a 1955–1957 sales brochure for Cinderella Estates, a new Anaheim, California, subdivision not far from the recently completed Disneyland. This booklet depicts a princess-like figure and regal coach next to a rendering of a sprawling ranch-style house and the words “your every wish for a home…come gloriously true.” The Disneyesque iconography chimes perfectly with the opening lines of “Young at Heart,” Johnny Richards and Carolyn Leigh’s 1953 hit song for Frank Sinatra: “Fairy tales can come true/It can happen to you….”
A phenomenon as pervasive as this vast population redistribution could not have gone unnoticed by commentators in various disciplines, and an extensive literature on the new suburbanization quickly developed. Critical responses tended to be negative from the outset, typified by such debunking books as the newspaperman John Keats’s The Crack in the Picture Window (1956) and a dubious pop psychological report by the physician Richard E. Gordon, his wife Katherine K. Gordon, and the journalist Max Gunther titled The Split-Level Trap (1960), which claimed that the new suburbs made people physically and mentally ill.
In due course several methodologically sound (and now classic) studies—led by the sociologist Herbert Gans’s The Levittowners: Ways of Life and Politics in a New Suburban Community (1967) and the urban historian Kenneth Jackson’s Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States (1985)—presented more nuanced interpretations. So did The Suburban Myth (1969) by the historian (and future literary biographer) Scott Donaldson, who argued that mass-produced postwar housing had less to do with the malaise of corporate conformity than the persistence of the Jeffersonian ideal (“the champion American myth of all time”), which a century and a half earlier established patterns of individual exurban living that worked against the development of cohesive communities.
Lane attempts to make a case for the architectural virtues of midcentury tract houses, and traces the origins of their organizational formats to specific parts of the country where they originated before spreading nationwide. Thus we learn that the once-trendy split-level, which typically combined three strata within a two-story shell,
a basement level on a slab, containing the garage, a utility enclosure, and sometimes a small “den”; then, half a level up, the living room and kitchen; then, another half level up, the bedrooms and bath (usually over the garage)
emerged in hilly areas where the semisubmerged garage could be dug into a sloping site, and were particularly suited to the terrain of New Jersey. She also points out that because the interior volumes of the split-level were stacked, the “footprint” could be half as large as that needed for a single-story ranch, which saved on land costs.
Yet for all this diligent research, Lane—whose previous work I greatly admire, especially her pathbreaking Architecture and Politics in Germany, 1918–19451—occasionally makes claims that seem dubious. She writes that tract house “furniture might be in some sort of neocolonial mode, but much more often it was spare and light looking, in a style that came to be known as ‘Danish Modern.’” But sleek Scandinavian-inspired furnishings were an advanced taste throughout the mid-1950s, when most suburban houses were decorated in a middle-of-the-road manner termed “Transitional.”
More baffling is her assertion that the stereotype of stay-at-home wives in suburbia was baseless. “Women were not isolated within them,” she says of the new housing developments,
consigned by lack of transportation and lack of work to being dependent “homemakers”: indeed they usually worked, and, when spouses carpooled or used the train, the wives had the use of the family car.
Yet according to AFL–CIO statistics, as late as 1972 women represented only 38 percent of the American workforce, and there were unquestionably fewer employment opportunities for women in postwar suburbia than in cities, except perhaps as schoolteachers, librarians, or supermarket check-out clerks.
Furthermore, Lane minimizes the damage caused by racial segregation, which systematically banned blacks from buying into new suburban developments for two decades. She writes:
There was a very significant melting-pot experience in the new postwar communities. Italians, Jews, Catholics, Irish, Polish, and others who had been segregated in American cities and excluded from earlier American suburbs now mingled freely, forming new kinds of communities that they valued intensely. I think that this experience may have helped Americans to become more accepting of diversity, even where color lines were initially maintained. In fact, suburbs became integrated more quickly than cities: by the 1970s, barriers were broken down nearly everywhere.
However Lane chooses to define segregation, there can be no question that an entire generation of African-Americans was unable to participate in what she sees as a grand social experiment, whereas white immigrants of many ethnicities had been mingling freely in cities for the better part of a century. As James A. Jacobs writes in his far more balanced, probing, and insightful history, Detached America, this gross injustice was committed by the federal government:
The FHA did not, as is commonly held, develop racially neutral policies that were then applied in a racist manner. Rather, FHA policy itself was purposefully written in a way to exclude nonwhite Americans, using the abstract notion of “market demands” as blanket justification for discrimination in sales. A prejudiced appraisal system for mortgages passed over existing houses that were believed by officials to pose a risk for devaluation—those in mixed-race subdivisions, for example, or properties in older urban neighborhoods—which further reduced access to the financial windfall that became available to white veterans and their families.
To be sure, many blacks did make it to suburbia, though not easily. By 1960 there were an estimated 2.5 million African-Americans living in suburbs; a decade later, after passage of the Fair Housing Act of 1968, that number almost doubled, to 4.6 million. But Jacobs observes that blacks moved into older inner-ring suburbs vacated by cynically manipulated “white flight”:
Such neighborhoods frequently became available for black ownership through blockbusting, a process structured by the purposeful use of racial anxiety and panic to undermine the residential housing market, ultimately for the profit of real estate brokers. These agents convinced white residents that they should sell their properties at below-market values because blacks were beginning to buy in the neighborhood, and their property values were bound to fall even more. Agents then turned around and sold the properties to black buyers at inflated prices…[and] departing white families often ended up in a new house on the suburban periphery.
I witnessed white flight in Camden, New Jersey, which was a thriving blue-collar community when I lived there from age six to eighteen. By the mid-1960s, the city’s industrial base began to erode and there was a rapid exodus of whites from the once-prestigious Parkside neighborhood—its tree-shaded streets were lined with large, handsome Victorian and Edwardian houses—which bigots dubbed “Darkside” when striving blacks moved in. By the time I brought my new wife to revisit the scenes of my youth in 1978, my parents and all their friends had long since escaped to the suburbs, and Camden was well on its way to becoming “the most dangerous city in America,” as one website named it last year.
There were hardly any mid-twentieth-century equivalents of the exemplary Greek Revival house plans that were widely disseminated through carpenters’ pattern books for many decades after the American Revolution—the main reason vernacular construction in this country maintained such a high general standard, even in rural regions, until the Civil War. Instead semimodern forms devised by most 1950s and 1960s American developers were fundamentally derivative and debased, no matter how evocative they may now seem of their period. None of the houses documented in the new publications displays the nearly faultless proportional logic—especially the pleasing relation of the part to the whole—that distinguished even run-of-the-mill construction by itinerant early-nineteenth-century craftsmen in this country.
Thus the New Urbanists—revisionist planners who since the 1980s have promoted American housing developments with a stronger sense of community values, which they feel can be fostered by traditional elements including front porches and sidewalks—have looked not to postwar suburbia but to premodern prototypes, including pattern book designs. Yet the higher density of dwellings espoused by the New Urbanists is not in itself a solution, especially since few such enclaves have effectively addressed the continually vexing place of the automobile in a society slow to pursue more ecologically responsible transportation options.
Because midcentury tract houses tended to be built very close together (units were usually no more than twenty-five feet apart), their side elevations were often left as windowless blanks. Another accommodation to privacy was the strip window, inserted high on bedroom walls to admit light but prevent neighbors from looking in. This lack of direct visual connection with the outdoors could recall a jail cell, and although tract houses were physically proximate, they often felt emotionally isolated.
Another problem with postwar suburban developments was their dull uniformity, determined by lot lines more than any other factor. Though some builders tried to vary streetscapes by shifting and flipping similar layouts this way and that, there were limits to what could be achieved in such tightly packed settings. The major problem was that these designs were insufficiently conceived in all three dimensions. The backs of even architect-designed houses can sometimes seem like afterthoughts, but the minimally detailed rear elevations of typical 1950s and 1960s American subdivision schemes were perfunctory in the extreme, and presented a bleak aspect until landscaping could soften their stark appearance.
Developers focused almost solely on the street façade to make an arresting first impression on prospective buyers, a quality known in the real estate trade as “curb appeal.” Thus onto the front of these generic boxes they added an array of more-or-less traditional appliqués—touches of brick or fieldstone to give greater heft to the predominant asbestos shingles or wood (and occasionally aluminum) siding; nonfunctioning window shutters; wrought iron railings and Colonial-inspired lighting fixtures; and that ubiquitous symbol of the postwar suburban home, the picture window. But because such flourishes were typically treated as marketing devices rather than emanations of an integrated design, detailing tended to have a tacked-on quality that inadvertently underscored the thin character of mass-produced construction.
There were some notable exceptions to this lack of architectural distinction, particularly on the West Coast, where the public was more receptive to popularized forms of modern architecture and eagerly embraced the prevailing new style—updated reinterpretations of the traditional California ranch house. One of its most vigorous champions was the architect/builder Cliff May (1909–1989), whose flair for self-promotion—evident in such best-selling books as his Western Ranch Houses2—was equaled by strong design skills that have made his sprawling, light-filled, well-crafted structures a byword for pleasurable, informal indoor-outdoor living and desirable properties on the resale market to this day. The same is true of the developer Joseph Eichler (1900–1974), whose houses (mostly in the San Francisco Bay Area) were more fully informed by High Modernism than May’s but now are similarly prized as among the best of their kind.
Interesting though it is to see midcentury tract houses treated with scholarly gravitas, for the most part these are not designs particularly worthy of preservation or emulation. They paid little attention to sustainability or energy conservation, were predicated on a highly conventional model of family life that seems outdated if not oppressive to many Americans today, and few of these structures were so solidly built that they can do without substantial retrofitting as they enter their sixth or seventh decades. They now seem more important in sociological rather than architectural terms.
In 1940, only about 40 percent of Americans were homeowners; by 1965 that figure had soared to almost 63 percent. The extraordinary social mobility indicated by these numbers seems all the more poignant when one considers a reverse development in the United States recently. In 2007–2009, before the full impact of the Great Recession was felt, 66.4 percent of housing units were owned by their occupants. By 2014 that figure had dropped to 64.7 percent, the lowest since 1995.
Rather than glamorizing the white-bread world of Eisenhower-era suburbia, I prefer to think of more socially admirable efforts such as Reston, Virginia, twenty miles west of Washington, D.C., which was founded in 1964 by the developer Robert E. Simon, who died in September at the age of 101. (His initials formed the first three letters of this start-from-scratch community’s name.) With its sensible and salable mix of housing formats, including clustered townhouses and high-rise condominiums, and encouragement of businesses that provided jobs for its residents, Reston more closely resembled European new towns than postwar American suburbs.
As Simon’s New York Times obituary noted:
He laid out a town of open spaces, homes and apartments that would be affordable to almost anyone, racially integrated, economically self-sustaining, pollution-free and rich in cultural and educational opportunities.
That is something to be nostalgic about. You’d have to look very hard in the suburbs today to find a single builder following his example.