Mid-Century Modern Metal Houses
Houses seldom travel beyond the spot upon which they were built. Your home is one of these stick-to-its, I expect. Most houses are, some are not. Among our first moving houses, the Conestoga wagon, descendent of the gypsy wagon, ancestor of the Winnebago, and of my dream home, the Mercedes Air Stream. Yes, some of our first Modern American houses moved, and not only by wheel, but by ship. Hum … probably should rewind a bit, so that we might better understand manufactured, modular houses, those metal houses of the Mid-Century Modern.
When yet we were English, snuggled along the 17th Century Atlantic shore, some few houses came to our New England from London, by boat. These were small houses, suitable to fishermen, not unlike an ice shanty, yet for the family in entire. And, as we were saying, “by ship”, 500 metal homes New York to San Francisco, all the way round Cape Horn to house the fellows who walked from Atlantic to Pacific with blanket and coat, dreaming of gold, wealth, women, all the way. Yes, the Gold Rush migration, circa 1848 – 1859. Almost nothing of those traveling houses survive, yet you can imagine our miners’ manufactured houses from the metal houses that served Australia’s gold rushers (see, below).
We might dilate upon the mobile beach cottages of North Carolina’s Outer Banks, circa 1870, houses built to be moved occasionally, to avoid beach erosion, storms and the rest. A knowledge of this tradition might have saved friends, Duck to Ocracoke, millions. Instead, best to consider Henry Ford, his 1913 invention of the assembly line, the “trailer coaches” of the 1910’s, our first love of living in a machine. Yes, you will notice: our machines for living predate the younger Bauhaus, a German school rather late to design of “machines for living”. From these rolling metal houses, the first pattern of Mid-Century Modern manufactured, metal homes.
There was, of course, another tradition: the pre-cut house kits of Sears, of Roebuck, of Montgomery Ward, of E.F Hodgson, of the Aladdin Company, and others. Being from Michigan, I have known, have found these Aladdin, Michigan manufactured houses, here-and-there, now-and-again, beautiful houses tucked into lawn-pretty neighborhoods. You will know the Sears houses, how not; over 500,000 were built and shipped by rail (1910 – 1940), likely to your neighborhood. If interested, you can find Sears houses by style locators, on-line and in books from stores or libraries. These stick-built, track-moved houses are the second pattern of our manufactured, metal, Mid-Century homes.
The third pattern was developed generation-to-generation from our Westward expansion, cabin to ranch to cottage bungalow, Connecticut to California. You will know the cabin to be a simple log house of one room or two, or slightly more, a most simplified house from the Scandinavian tradition. The ranch was that long, low, efficient house of the prairie that grew room to room as wife, as children were added. The cottage bungalow is that form we inherit from England’s India colony, a form that any man might build on his own, as they, the English, and we, Americans, did in a manner of Art & Craft, that style most common of Sears and other pre-cut, owner-assembled houses.
And then there is this: our common, American experience of the Great Wars, especially of WWII, of our pride, our love of manufacturing, the “Engine of Democracy” that won the War and brought the world to Liberty. Or so we thought … so we hoped. To understand Mid-Century Modern, really must understand that the world was broken … or so we thought … that we might rebuild on the model of the machines that preserved freedom, the tank, for instance. Yes, the tank: those architects of the Mid-Century Modern intended their metal houses to be built strong, to last, to be efficient, nothing wasted, and to be built … fast.
Among the first the Mid-Century Modern manufactured metal houses were the modernized ranches of New Dealers who fled crowded District of Columbia tenements for wooded hills above a cow pasture along the Potomac River, Tauxemont, a Davenport development. There, ten metal houses were manufactured by General House, Inc. in 1945,* before construction was halted by bankruptcy (see, below). In nearby DC neighborhoods, the Lustron, a company funded by the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, a company that manufactured some 2,000 houses before it too went broke. As evidence proves: Government funding is seldom sufficient to long float a commercial concern. Even so, the Lustron house was a fine design, smart, efficient, and long-lived, as the numerous existing examples prove.
Another Davenport development, Hollin Hills, includes in its 450-plus houses a shining example of the Mid-Century Modern Metal House, the Alcoa House, 1957, designed by George Goodman, featured in The Beautiful Home’s “Mid-Century Modern” pilot television episode, and in the program’s sizzle reel which can be seen, here. This house, efficient, vintage Modern, is beautiful, lovingly restored to its original glory, improved for contemporary living. Soon, perhaps in these pages, we shall distinguish the Capital Modern of the woods from the Palm Springs Modern of the desert. The styles are distinct, yet each respond in a similar way to different environments, materials, clientele, and each appeals to the differing desires of East and West coast families. No need to dilate, the similarities and the differences are obvious.
Hum … should mention: Edmund Lindop’s “General House, Incorporated” was among the model metal houses of “The Century of Progress” World’s Fair in Chicago, 1933, the “Homes of Tomorrow” exhibition. Yes … should retrace a bit farther: Albert Frey, with Lawrence Kocher, in 1931 constructed the first “steel frame” metal sheathed house in America for the “Allied Arts and Building Products Exhibition”, New York.** Albert Frey, you might remember, is among the iconic architects of Pam Springs’ Mid-Century Modern.*** Few remember Lindop, though it was he who built the first steel house in Palm Springs.***
Now, the first Mid-Century Modern metal house in Palm Springs was built by Alexander Construction, designed by Donald Wexler, 1962. Wexler learned by the experience of his home, built in Palm Springs, 1955, that wood is an inappropriate material for the desert. Well, yes, look around. No trees. Wood and desert tend to incompatibility. There was that, and there was this: the assembly line, and WWII. Wexler intended that his house would be built alike a tank, strong and fast, and it was … within 30 days (plumbing and concrete pad, on site; the house walls and ceiling, in factory) … and Wexler hoped that his metal houses would be the first “Fords”, which they might have been if not for the death of George Alexander, by plane crash, 1965. Only seven steel houses were built. All yet survive in Coachella’s harsh, desert climate.
There were of course other Mid-Century Modern metal houses, the Frost House, of the Alside Homes Corporation, Ohio, a beautiful house and lovely home that you might rent for events, et cetera. Life Magazine in 1961 hailed that manufactured wonder as an “instant house” that will “come delivered in two trailer trucks and within 48 hours will be completely assembled down to the last fixture and appliance.” Well, how about that for modern American know-how. An efficient American ingenuity that might manage the world.
Now, architects of other countries participated in the Modern, manufactured house movement, Finland’s Matti Suuronen’s “Futuro” comes first to mind. Yet, you will notice something less than sincere in the Futuro, something alike a Jetson dream bubble, a fantastic future, a thing different than the serious work of American architects who intended to build a better world upon the ashes of the world past. Yes, utopias come and go and fade away, only the Good, the True, the Beautiful remains. There is much Beautiful and Good in the Mid-Century Modern metal home, and this is why they are loved by a modern America that has, for the most part, survived the Modern.
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* Tauxemont house, illustration above right.
** Now the New York Institute of Technology’s campus.
*** Frey House II, 1963, concrete block, stone, steel and glass.
**** From The Desert Sun, 20 November 1936, “Steel House Now Being Erected”:
“The first of the steel houses manufactured by General House, Inc. to come to California is now being erected in the Desert Sands tract by Edmund F. Lindop, owner of the tract and California distributor for the manufacturers. The new steel house will be completed in three weeks and will then be open for public inspection. It is a large house, having three bedrooms and two baths; of the new modernistic type of architecture which originated in Europe …. General Steel Houses are being erected by the hundreds in the fashionable areas of Eastern cities, Chicago, Cleveland, St. Louis, New York and other places. Mr. Lindop has 50 dealers under him in various parts of the state and all are looking forward to the first house of the company to be erected in California, now being assembled in Palm Springs. Every part of the house is made by mass production in the factory. The steel frame bolted together and compressed asbestos panels on the outside as well as heat and cold resisting fireproof materials for the roof, form a building that is both earthquake proof and fireproof. Inside walls are of plyboard and both inside and outside walls are finished in any color desired.”
If interested in a metal house, Mid-Century Modern, International, Colonial, or even the “tiny house” corrugated, repurposed container, you might contact, Metal Building Homes.
Featured image: cover of the “Alcoa Care-Free Home” brochure.