Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 12, 2017
Barbara Miller Lane Houses for a New World: Builders and Buyers in American Suburbs, 1945–1965 Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015. 320 pp.; 224 b/w ills. Cloth $49.95 (9780691167619)
James A. Jacobs Detached America: Building Houses in Postwar Suburbia Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2015. 272 pp. Cloth $45.00 (9780813937618)
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My dad remembers being lifted up by my grandfather into the bay window of a large, white bi-level ranch house in the suburbs of New Jersey. It was the spring of 1968, and this house was one of three standing in the new development surrounded by farmland, only a twenty-minute drive outside of Newark. His slim, nine-year old body fit through the window, and he walked down into the foyer to unlock the front door from inside. My grandfather entered to inspect the house he had purchased that fall for only $25,000. His father was with him—three generations of urban life in Newark, exploring an entirely new environment. The house was empty, and construction was not yet complete. But the interior was full of dreams and desires for new ways of life. Most of all, my grandfather desired a more spacious home than he had in Newark. He wanted his children to have their own rooms, a large yard where they could play, and a patio where he could entertain friends and family (it is clear from family photos that he really loved the patio). My grandfather passed away before I could meet him, but from what my dad remembers, family was his biggest concern. It is the reason why he and my grandmother chose to move to the suburbs.

Recent scholarship has helped me make sense of my dad’s childhood memories. A large part of my grandfather’s identity was bound up in the home he and my grandmother made in the suburbs. To know why he moved to the suburbs, along with millions of American families during the postwar era (1945–1970), is to know who he was, and in part to know who my dad and I are today. Two recent studies cast new light on American suburbanization. Barbra Miller Lane’s Houses for a New World: Builders and Buyers in American Suburbs, 1945–1965, and James A. Jacobs’s Detached America: Building Houses in Postwar Suburbia examine the development of suburban communities through the lens of architectural history, and yield fresh insight into the origins of ubiquitous suburban housing forms.

Lane’s Houses for a New World focuses on two iconic tract-housing styles. These are the ranch style, a single level dwelling, and the split-level, with two or three levels joined by short stair flights. Postwar housing forms, Lane argues, developed as a “grassroots phenomena.” Rather than stimulated by broad structural forces, they were products of “close almost intimate” interactions between individual builders and buyers, albeit facilitated by market forces (221–22). Such an architectural history of the suburbs might be written as a history of capitalism, but Houses for a New World is not that story. Instead Lane is interested in the individual buyers’ preferences and builder marketing strategies.

The “merchant-builder” was a type of builder/developer industrial occupation self-fashioned after World War II. Large building companies such as Levitt and Sons and Ryan Homes, and eventually smaller companies, to which Lane pays closer attention, including Rossmoor Homes and Kimbal Hill Homes, synthesized historically separate occupations of builders and developers in an effort to increase production and maximize their return on investment. Builders responded directly to the desires of the buyers at the same time that they helped to shape those desires through marketing. Companies employed market research from buyer questionnaires to get a sense of what buyers wanted, and made architectural changes accordingly. Kimbal Hill Homes, for example, went as far as consulting recommendations published by the University of Illinois Small Homes Council, an influential organization devoted to research in building technology for small, single-family dwellings. In 1958 Kimbal established a research division with the explicit job of assessing the precise needs of prospective buyers (162–63).

Lane’s account reveals the degree to which merchant-builders considered buyer preferences. Published interviews and surveys issued in trade periodicals like American Builder shaped popular opinion. Magazines like Better Homes and Gardens, Woman’s Home Companion, and even the Saturday Evening Post, in turn, promoted particular kinds of house design and interior design. In addition, Lane includes an impressive collection of interviews she conducted with original first-time homebuyers and their children (full transcriptions are included in the appendix), sampled from various metropolitan regions across the country. Through these oral histories, Lane reveals the drives and desires of first-time homebuyers. Those who moved to the suburbs were hungry for space, more than anything else.

The suburbs were a spatial “paradise” for Lane’s interviewees. Their choices of homes were influenced by their childhood experiences, growing up on farms or in crowded urban working-class housing; the interiors of the childhood dwellings that they remembered were very small, even by prewar standards. The suburbs represented an opportunity to give their children a better life. For many this meant owning their own yard for the first time, a place where they could sit, and their children could play, places to grow vegetables and flowers, to hang clothes, and have barbeques. The suburbs, according to Lane, represented a type of freedom via spaciousness: “freedom of movement for themselves and their children, freedom from the proximity of neighbors and extended family, and freedom from the constrictions of landlords and municipal regulations” (198–99). During an era of rising incomes and economic prosperity, and at a time when the Federal Housing Authority (FHA) offered low-interest-rate mortgages, and little or no down payments for some (read: white) veterans, such a spatial paradise was finally attainable.

Lane weaves these evidentiary strands into a strong and engaging argument. She combines architectural and urban history, but asks questions that go beyond those usually proposed within these fields. The interdisciplinary position of her analysis cuts clear interventions into the existing literature on the history of suburbanization. Lane restores agency to suburbanites. Lane suggests that rather than animated by outside forces, like media (particularly 1950/1960s sitcoms), or consumerism broadly in an ascendant postwar economy, people moved to the suburbs on their own accord. She considers the individual lives, motives, and attitudes of the first-time homebuyers who relocated. They did so because they could, because it was what they desired.

Lane’s empathic approach toward her sources makes for a fresh take on a well-worn tale. “History is made of individuals,” she contends, “and so it was the decisions and choices of builders and buyers that so dramatically transformed the character of American houses and streets” (6). She listens closely to individual voices, their dreams and memories, considering their humanity. She includes family photos taken by first-home buyers: toddlers play in a blow-up pool in the backyard of a ranch house; a five-year old boy poses in a front yard dressed for Easter in a striped suit, bow tie, and fedora (13). These are proud portraits of suburban life, with children at the center of attention. The needs of the children, Lane argues, were among the most paramount motivations for moving to the suburbs. The new owners were not simply escaping from crowded urban centers, but were also searching for “house[s] designed in such a way as to give their kids a particular kind of good life” (198–99). Ranch and split-level house varieties satisfied that desire.

Lane is more concerned with the construction of whiteness. Her argument suggests that the development of suburban communities facilitated the racial blending of Jews, Italians, and most Catholics. Somewhat undercutting her argument regarding individual agency, however, is how few nonwhite subjects are featured in her analysis, and in fact every interview she conducted was with a white homebuyer. Lane’s account lacks substantial emphasis on the racial dynamics of suburbanization as it pertained to nonwhite homebuyers. Many suburban developments were divided racially. Builders planned separate communities for whites and African Americans (and nonwhites). Was there an architectural difference between black and white suburban communities? Were the houses priced differently? Was there a difference in housing quality? This is all absent from Lane’s account. Lane reports that “racist motives” in buying new homes were not obvious among her interviewees. Instead, she exposes the multiplicity of forces driving working and middle-class Americans to buy suburban homes, with the predominant one being a desire for space. From this perspective, attitudes of anxiety related to “white flight” from cities become “more intelligible, if still reprehensible” (201).

My grandfather purchased a home in the suburbs in the fall 1967, soon after the Newark riots. He wanted to protect his family from violence, my dad remembers. “We had to get out of there. It was getting too dangerous.” He remembers as an eight-year-old boy seeing television images of tanks driving down Broad Street, and National Guard troops shooting into downtown buildings. Yet from the interviews Lane presents, it seems that the riots were only the final episode in a long line of experiences that shaped my grandfather’s desire to move to the suburbs. Raised in the 1940s, my grandfather felt the financial constraints of the Depression and subsequent material limitations on the home front due to World War II and the Korean War. These experiences, among others, primed his impetus for suburban life. The Newark riots came on top of all of that.

While print media and personal interviews guide the course of Lane’s account, Jacobs’s Detached American takes a different direction. He is more concerned with the “entangled housing interests” of government, business, and consumers that structured the growth of suburbia (210). Jacobs demonstrates how federal policies not only regulated mortgages, as is commonly known today, but had a tremendous influence on housing style. Accordingly, architectural form followed FHA guidelines, which set standards for building specifications to qualify for federal loans. Jacobs makes a strong case for how arcane FHA mandates such as the Technical Bulletin No. 4: Principles of Planning Small Houses, first issued in 1936, produced ubiquitous suburban housing forms from the simplistic Cape Cod to the multi-level ranch.

FHA’s interest in design was a financial one. Policies regulated the production of wholly modern and appealing homes that would retain their value over time. The so-called “minimum house,” for example, constructed in most suburban development during the 1940s and 1950s, was an outcome of the minimum standards for design required by the FHA in order to receive subsidized mortgages. This style incorporated reduced dimensions and simplified plans, and was built for ease of construction and cost-effectiveness. In addition to the FHA, the Veterans Administration (VA) and the American Public Health Administration (APHA) were vital top-down components of suburban growth and architectural form. While VA policies helped white veterans secure home loans (and notoriously barred nonwhites from this benefit), the APHA set standards for calculating details from bedroom sizes and kitchen utilities. They advocated no more than two people per bedroom, for example, and boys and girls in separate rooms unless very young. In this way, federal policies were a deeply ingrained and conscious force in housing construction during the postwar era, influencing even domestic spatial practices and living arrangements.

New Deal policies concerning suburban housing established a template for architectural changes through the 1950s and 1960s. The ranch-style house, popular during the late 1950s, for example, adhered to prewar FHA guidelines, with their uncomplicated layouts, but were an improvement on the “minimum house” in responding to the request from builders and buyers for a living-kitchen and attached garage (124, 127). Similarly, the multi-level house (i.e., split-level, bi-level, split-foyer), popular during the late 1950s and 1960s (the type of house my grandfather bought in 1967), was a modification that addressed criticisms for more space (134). Architectural change, from this perspective, was dictated by federal policy.

There is very little individual human agency in this story. The development of suburban architecture according to Jacobs is more of a top-down process, whereas Lane sees change occurring in the “grassroots.” Jacobs reframes well-covered ground within the context of architectural history. The building industry calculated and conformed to the FHA’s housing standards and a prejudiced system for mortgages. Race in part shaped the spaces of postwar suburbia, but Jacobs concedes that it was not the primary engine of change; neither is it the central theme of his analysis. The evolution of suburban design, he argues, is instead best approached as a direct product of government policy and as “material remnants of class aspirations and patterns of family life” (2–3). This is where Lane and Jacobs overlap to an extent.

Lane and Jacobs leave readers with similar questions. What was suburban life like for nonwhite residents? Were these houses and communities architecturally distinct? It is nonetheless clear from these accounts that suburban architecture, perhaps more than any other architectural form in American history, was highly politicized along multiple vectors (not only racial, but in terms of gender, class, and sexual orientation). Both Lane and Jacobs, in this regard, read social and urban history through the lens of architectural change. In doing so, they open new avenues of inquiry and highlight uncovered spaces in the history of suburbanization.

My dad spent most of his childhood in the suburban house my grandfather bought in 1967. “It was a great childhood,” he remembers, “I was happy. There were plenty of neighborhood kids. Lots of space.” And this was what my grandfather desired—what any parent might desire—a good life for his children. I grew up in the suburbs too, not far from where my dad lived. But since high school I have been drawn to cities, New York City in particular (perhaps not unlike how my grandfather gravitated to the suburbs), and moved there as soon as it was financially feasible. I live in Ithaca now for grad school, and my parents still live in the suburbs. I visit them on occasion.

In all, both Lane and Jacobs have helped me make sense of my dad’s childhood memories of moving to the suburbs. I suspect this will be the case for others as well. Lane and Jacobs show how the history of suburbanization remains a history of the present. Considering that by 1980 more than sixty percent of the U.S. population lived in suburban communities, the history of suburban architecture is particularly relevant. Detached single-family houses developed during the postwar era, from the ranch style to the split-level, persist in the collective memory as spaces in which many grew up. They are the starting points for nearly every standard room and amenity in new houses being constructed today. In 1961, Lewis Mumford (in The City in History: Its Origins, Its Transformations, and Its Prospects, New York: Harcourt) reviled the suburb as “an asylum for the preservation of illusion,” a dreamland devoid of social consciousness. And it might remain an illusion of grandiosity when we think of the perversity of today’s much-maligned McMansion. Yet, Lane and Jacobs demonstrate that the postwar American suburb was a product of concrete realities, whether in terms of the experiences that shaped the desires of homebuyers or the government policies that influenced builders’ plans. These two studies revive a conversation about the suburbs that will continue to be relevant for years to come.

Ryan Donovan Purcell
PhD candidate, Department of History, Cornell University

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.