Retro Reads: Houses for a New World

Retro Reads: Houses for a New World

Check out those end papers!

Best end papers EVER.

Growing up in Southern California, I was sometimes frustrated by children’s books that only took place in house styles I’d only seen in pictures. Didn’t any fictional kids live in normal houses? (I never related to anything involving basements or snow either, but that’s a different subject.)

I lived in a house built in 1952, in a neighborhood that strongly resembled Kevin Arnold’s from The Wonder Years (which was, incidentally, about 10 miles away in Burbank).

And in those books, Grandma’s house was always a cabin in the woods, a humble farmhouse, or a big Victorian.

Guess what? MY grandmother lived in an Asian-influenced midcentury house, built in 1961, close to the 101 in Los Angeles. She had a few pieces of Danish Modern furniture, too. (I must not be alone in this: in A Charlie Brown Thanksgivingwhich first aired in 1973, good ol’ Charlie Brown states that his grandmother lives in a condominium. NOT “over the river and through the woods” like in the song.)

I was thrilled to discover Barbara Miller Lane’s Houses for a New World: Builders and Buyers in American Suburbs 1945-1961.* 

Earlier this year, I bought KayLynn Deveney‘s All You Can Lose is Your Heart, a matter-of-fact look at aging “Cinderella Ranch” houses in four cities. True Cinderella Ranches were created by Jean Valjean Vandruff and his brother Shannon. The Vandruffs built the earliest houses, but later licensed the designs to other builders. Of course, I fell in love with Cinderella Ranches. Adorable fairytale architecture, combined with livable layouts designed to minimize housework – and with all the modern conveniences of the day? I want one. Badly.

Cinderella Ranch houses - check out that vintage ad!

Cinderella Ranch houses – check out that vintage ad!

Deveney’s book indirectly led me to Lane’s. While searching for more images of Cinderella Ranches, a picture from Houses for a New World appeared.

Barbara Miller Lane, Ph.D, has had a distinguished career at Bryn Mawr and is married to an architect. Early on, Dr. Lane notes that her “Housing and Dwelling” students were assigned a paper about their grandparents’ houses. She goes on to state her surprise at how many of these grandparents lived in suburban tract houses. I have to admit, with my own grandma’s tract house vaguely resembling a Shag painting, that made me laugh. (No offense, Dr. Lane, but it was just too damn funny.)

Be aware that because Dr. Lane is in academia, the book is rather scholarly in nature. This isn’t exactly a beach read (unless you’re nerdy enough to lug a 300-page hardcover to the beach…and I am). But, it’s a fascinating, in-depth look at a nationwide phenomenon. If you love midcentury houses – and I don’t just mean Eichlers and Neutras – do take the time to read this book.

So much cuteness.

So much cuteness.

Dr. Lane focuses on four key metropolitan areas where suburban tract houses were built en masse: Los Angeles/Orange County, Chicago, Boston, and Philadelphia. Most histories of anything in the United States begin on the East Coast, but Lane begins in Southern California.

As I kept reading, I realized why. Several East Coast builders borrowed design cues from California builders. One Philadelphia builder was known for “California Cliff Houses” that would not be out of place in a Los Angeles suburb. I nearly mistook a Campanelli Brothers split-level house, built in Massachusetts, for a Cinderella Ranch due to its oversize, asymmetrical gingerbread gable (true Cinderella Ranches are single-story). Starting in California creates context for the other areas.

This looks like Lakewood, CA. It's really Elk Grove, IL.

This midcentury suburb looks like Lakewood, CA. It’s really Elk Grove, IL.

Houses for a New World offers fascinating insights about how postwar suburbs changed housing and communities. The book does acknowledge that these new suburbs weren’t perfect. My own childhood home was in a formerly restricted tract, as my parents discovered when they bought it. (Restrictions were first struck down in a Los Angeles Superior Court case in 1947. Which doesn’t explain why a house built there in 1952 had restrictions written into the original paperwork…) Builders also encountered problems when they wanted to build affordable housing for working-class people. (These problems can often be summed up by the phrase “not in my backyard.” They still exist today.)

If you want to understand postwar suburbs and the houses you’ll find there, this is the book for you. I couldn’t put it down.

*All Amazon links are affiliate links.

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