Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
July 17, 2014
Dianne Harris Little White Houses: How the Postwar Home Constructed Race in America Architecture, Landscape, and American Culture.. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013. 392 pp.; 133 b/w ills. Paper $39.95 (9780816654567)

As the Great Recession demonstrated, membership in the U.S. middle class is tenuous and perhaps only temporary. Real wages have been declining for decades, but the deceptive practices of Wall Street mortgage brokers leading to the financial collapse of 2008 proved particularly detrimental by stripping more than a million households of the defining badge of middle-class rank, that is, owning a single-family house on a small plot of land. Twelve times as many owed more on their mortgage than their homes were worth in late 2011. This recent painful history has not only crushed families but has undermined faith in an essential national historical narrative claiming that all U.S. citizens possess the privilege of home ownership provided (according to the common refrain) they work hard and play by the rules. In her groundbreaking book, Little White Houses: How the Postwar Home Constructed Race in America, Dianne Harris reveals how, well before the recent financial debacle, this popular patriotic narrative was a myth extended only to those categorized as white. She argues convincingly that non-whites were excluded from the American Dream in the prosperous mid-twentieth century not only through legal and illegal zoning and segregation practices, but that they were more importantly denied this promise through an iconography, or what she refers to as a code, of architecture and material culture that figured the single family, postwar house as belonging only to white people.

Harris’s book represents an important contribution to U.S. architectural history but equally to the field of inquiry known as critical whiteness studies. Instead of examining postwar housing through the lens of the purported triumph of International Style modernism, the creative genius of its famed architects, or the detrimental sprawl of suburbia, she carefully reveals the ways that the design, contents, promotion, and landscape surroundings of small suburban houses served to define what it meant to be white and middle class in mid-twentieth-century America. Citing the work of Michael Omi and Howard Winant, Harris employs a fundamental premise of critical whiteness studies, namely, that racial classification is based not on biology or skin color but on evolving and mutable cultural criteria used to distinguish the “other” from the “white.” She also admits that her investigation relies on the scholarship of David Roediger, whose work in the early 1990s was foundational for critical whiteness studies (Michael Omi and Howard Winant, Racial Formation in the United States from the 1960s to the 1990s, 2nd ed., New York: Routledge, 1994; David R. Roediger, Working Toward Whiteness: How America’s Immigrants Became White, Cambridge, MA: Basic Books, 2005). Taking her cues from this field of study, Harris shows how groups deemed less than white in postwar America, such as those of the Jewish faith and immigrants of eastern- and southern-European descent, were able to gain entrée into the middle class and achieve white status in postwar America via a potent elixir of particular housing standards and sanctioned decorous possessions. Central to her argument is a concept of whiteness that is defined as the opposite of non-white. So while immigrant, or non-white, housing was urban, crowded, lacking in privacy, and messy, a proper middle-class white house must be set on an individual lot, block the prying eyes of neighbors, and exhibit scrupulous tidiness. Whereas non-white gardens served as productive sources of needed food, white gardens were non-productive, aestheticized, and accomplished with a minimum of physical labor, because physical exertion signals working-class, non-white practice. By using a system of opposed dyads, Harris provides a detailed and nuanced analysis of postwar middle-class housing and what it reveals about race and class in the United States.

In her introduction, she sets out her thesis, methodology, and theoretical influences. Her intended audience includes art and architectural historians, but also scholars in the disciplines of American studies, history, cultural studies, and sociology. Because architectural history has traditionally focused on renowned architects, such as Frank Lloyd Wright, and buildings associated with the wealthy and powerful, those working in other disciplines might be perplexed by the modesty of the homes Harris analyzes and the evidence that she brings to her argument. She justifies the study of vernacular housing and the use of popular culture and ephemera, such as shelter magazines and print advertisements, by pointing to their power to convey important lessons via their mundaneness and ubiquity. For Harris, the material culture associated with small, middle-class homes did not serve as the pernicious, mystifying means of perpetuating a hegemonic ideology onto a hapless, unknowing populace. Rather, adopting Slavoj Žižek’s revisions to Karl Marx and Antonio Gramsci, Harris claims that the inhabitants of postwar housing were thoroughly conscious of the mechanisms and economic power base that informed their decisions.

Over the course of eight chapters, Harris analyzes the architectural features of postwar suburban housing as well as its attendant visual and material culture. In chapter 1, Harris defines the general characteristics of new but ordinary postwar houses. She outlines increases in housing stock, ownership by race, and the federal, business, and private practices that ensured systematic housing discrimination. She also describes the typical size, plans, and amenities of a type of house that David Smiley has termed “modified modern.” Her Jewish grandparents’ 1955 San Fernando Valley, California, house becomes a leitmotif appearing throughout her book.

The next two chapters address the means by which print culture and graphic conventions conveyed information about the nature of whiteness, middle-class status, and heterosexuality. Chapter 2 examines postwar popular and shelter magazines and how they served as textbooks educating citizens hoping to achieve upward mobility and presumed whiteness. Circulation figures for such journals, both in terms of initial purchase and private sharing, demonstrate that they held an authoritative voice among Americans, especially women striving to perform respectability. As if substituting for a family bible on the coffee table, the display of certain magazines became a conspicuous sign of white rectitude. In chapter 3, Harris addresses the conventions of architectural drawings of middle-majority housing. Architects manipulated visual messages so that the association between whiteness on the one hand and neatness, cleanliness, and heterosexuality on the other was equated with the normative, natural order. As she claims, these renderings not only made the “house and garden attractive, but they also subtly offered a persuasive visual rhetoric about the purchase of a culturally constructed white identity” (92). Such illustrations stripped away historicizing ornament and clutter in favor of a minimalist approach to furnishing while, as Harris acknowledges, depicting sterile and unrealistic family environments.

In the following chapter Harris investigates the fraught issue of privacy. She shows how middle-class white housing during the Cold War era reflected anxiety about economic private property, individualism, and surveillance, all issues that resonate today. Modernist designs emphasizing generous open plans contradicted white notions that conflated a lack of privacy and the unavoidable mixing of generations and functions with non-white tenement conditions.

Chapters 5 and 6 focus on the acquisition and display of household items and the complex matrix of consumerism as it relates to class and race. Citing Russell Lynes’s amusing chart in a 1949 issue of Life magazine depicting the “Everyday Tastes of High-Brow to Low-Brow” Americans, the scientific experiments of the sociologist James A. Davis, the social criticism of Vance Packard, and Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of habitus, Harris parses the iconography of household objects that represented “a crucial measure of distinction among those who were newly upwardly mobile, newly affluent, perhaps even newly ‘white’” (163). She also provides a look into women’s increased authority over household purchases via the popular S&H Green Stamps program. Storage posed a considerable problem because of the smaller square footage and lack of attics and basements in new postwar housing. Homeowners wanted to display certain high-value objects but mask others, such as televisions or stereos. Kitchen equipment needed to look almost scientific because white wives must be seen as professional homemakers and distanced from the non-white, non-middle-class maids and cooks whom they no longer employed.

In chapter 7, Harris looks at lessons taught by non-theatrical television programs that, as she says, sold a “monolithically constructed image of midcentury life” (232). She pays particular attention to NBC’s Home show, where the immaculately dressed and coiffed Arlene Francis promoted new ideas and products to U.S. housewives. Although it may have made her ambitious project too large, readers would have benefited had Harris brought her keen eye to examining programs such as Father Knows Best, The Goldbergs, and even Amos and Andy not for what they revealed about real housing, but for how they, too, sold a racially constructed vision of housing in postwar America.

Harris’s last chapter is particularly pleasurable to read because of her command of landscape history. She situates the suburban yard not only within questions of race and class but the historical development of private grounds, including eighteenth-century English picturesque landscapes, nineteenth-century American suburban landscapes, and twentieth-century high modernist landscapes like those of Garrett Eckbo. As was the case with the architecture and furnishings, middle-class homeowners rejected more avant-garde forms of modernism in favor of blander, less abstract, and more utilitarian landscape designs. Harris also points to an important contradiction within the code of suburban whiteness, namely, that producers of such code continued to promote a casual “outdoor way of life” because it connoted the white privilege of leisure even after the widespread use of air conditioning allowed homeowners to stay indoors in hot weather.

Harris’s project focuses on a particular segment of postwar housing that employed a moderate form of modernism. And yet, as she acknowledges, equal numbers of modest single-family homes, if not more, featured a more traditional architectural vocabulary, especially in the Midwest, South, and on the East Coast. Small Cape Cod and Dutch Colonial houses continued to proliferate in popular and shelter magazines. Consequently, readers are prompted by Harris’s insightful analysis of the codes of whiteness and class to ask if there might be additional codes of domestic whiteness at work during this period.

Harris has good reason to concentrate on the constructed nature of whiteness on postwar housing in order to undermine and disrupt codes that many white Americans consider to be natural. While scholars such as Sherrow O. Pinder have noted the limitations of critical whiteness studies (Whiteness and Racial Ethnic Groups in the United States: The Politics of Remembering, Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2012), I believe that Harris makes appropriate use of its premises to advance architectural history by unmasking its racial iconography. However, as I have argued elsewhere, black Americans understood this code very well from at least the mid-nineteenth century (Barbara Burlison Mooney, “The Comfortable, Tasty, Framed Cottage: The Emergence of an African-American Architectural Iconography,” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 52, no. 1 [March 2002]: 48–67). Future scholarship might investigate how Harris’s opposed dyads were performed by people whose darker skin, not habitus, marked their status. This should not be construed as a criticism of the book. Rather, to her credit, Harris has opened the door to an even more thorough interrogation of the varied and personal means by which middle-class white status was achieved in postwar America. In the introduction, she defends her approach by saying that “if it seems to some readers that I see race everywhere in this study, perhaps my view can serve as a necessary corrective to the extensive body of architectural histories that have seen race nowhere” (3). Harris’s book marks a significant step toward advancing our understanding of the role of race in the built environment.

Barbara Burlison Mooney
Associate Professor, School of Art and Art History, University of Iowa