House Tour

Why Suburbia Looks So Much the Same

The split level, the picture window, the cul de sac, and the attached garage all seem like interchangeable components in houses across the US. Two new books explain how that happened.

12.26.15 5:01 AM ET

The processes and ingredients that built suburbia—mortgage guarantees, the interstate highway system, the baby boomers, crime, white flight, and so on—are intensely familiar. But the processes that actually built suburban homes are not.

Seventy years after World War II, the suburban transformation of America is a set of statistics and demographic realities. It is a set of road maps and overhead photographs. But It is almost never anything as elementary as a floorplan, or an examination of the concerns that shaped the actual design and construction of 35.5 million homes between 1945 and 1980.

But now, within months of each other, two new books have appeared as rapidly as homes on a freshly paved cul de sac to fill this void: Barbara Miller Lane’s Houses for a New World: Builders and Buyers in America Suburbs 1945-1965 and James A. Jacobs’s Detached America: Building Houses in Postwar Suburbia.

Suburban building has long been reviled by sociologists and ignored by architects. As Lane comments, “scholarship has been delayed and disturbed by decades of neglect and dislike.” Some of that neglect and dislike is warranted: it’s hard to find all that much architectural distinction in the vast majority of suburban homes. Their general interchangeability discourages the kind of design interest that has given us many monographs on vernacular rowhouses and bungalows and only a handful on the ranch home. There are countless books on a dozen homes in New Canaan, Connecticut, but almost no books on the remaining thousands of homes there; that balance is mainly right—and yet.

The ’40s contained many highbrow visions of the future single family residence, and even the corporatist hamlet of demonstration homes that composed the 1939 World’s Fair “Tomorrow Town” (with the National Lumber Manufacturer’s Association, General Electric, and the Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company homes) featured some striking modern design. American homebuilding, surveying such examples, promptly proceeded to take up modern materials and methods while leaving behind most of the Modernism.

Americans didn’t care for a new wave of built colonization by the Bauhaus, looking back instead to two native colonial building traditions that at first glance couldn’t be more different: the Southwestern ranch and the New England Cape Cod cottage. These sprawled out from their respective national corners, mixing and blurring into homes that didn’t closely resemble either antecedent. Instead, the houses of postwar suburbia mostly resembled each other.

Suburban growth patterns are obvious almost anywhere: an early wave of smaller postwar “minimum houses” formed inner suburbs, soon surrounded by a broader profusion of homes that filled out the outskirts of essentially every city and town of any size from the ’50s to the ’70s. Both books emphasize that each generation of suburban homes influenced the next: new suburban homes were a novel experiment in the arrangement of domestic life, and homeowners were quick to test what they liked and didn’t like. As a result, the design modifications for suburban homes weren’t principally aesthetic but spatial—what American homeowners wanted more than anything was more room.

We often forget where Americans lived before the suburbs, when housing stock consisted principally of formal two-story Fourquares, Victorians, and Queen Annes for the affluent and smaller residences for everyone else. Living space for Americans was either determinedly formal in arrangement or necessarily cramped. So, while it’s easy to imagine that suburbs appealed to new homeowners because they offered larger lawns, that was not the whole answer: for many Americans even small homes in the suburbs provided considerable increases in living space.

Suburbia blurred class distinctions by offering a life more capacious to the lower classes and one less stuffy to to the upper crust. This reorganization of domestic life amounted, Jacobs suggests, to the “universal establishment of casual living.” One dramatic example: the rise of the kitchen to social preeminence. Suburban design is the reason why the kitchen, once purposefully cloistered, became the literal center of the new American home.

The kitchen’s good fortune was the dining room’s bad luck, as formal dining chambers were a rarity in much early suburban construction. Instead there occurred a rise in spaces billed for multiple uses, the “living-kitchen” or the “kitchen-family room.” This was of course an expedient of builders seeking to bill limited space as “versatile” and yet even as later homes grew, the logic of typologically-blurred spaces along axes of seamless spaces did genuinely revolutionize once formally segmented American domestic life.

Not that there wasn’t trouble. Many of these homes, as Jacobs points out, “ironically could not adequately support casual living.” The widely-advertised image of a new life in which leisure, hospitality, cookery, homework, and play could be seamlessly integrated proved difficult to sustain in houses where these functions were constantly colliding in limited social spaces (my own childhood in a ranch home is a testament to this!). The easy solution in the building boom ’50s and ’60s was simply to build bigger and bigger homes, with each new generation modified based on the pluses and minuses of the houses that came before them.

The one-story ranch loosened its belt and spread out, and the Split Level, that most American hippogriff of house hybrids, took flight. The origins of the split level are murky: it originally offered a small footprint and a means to make better use of sloped northeastern sites. But it soon spread to locations where neither item was a real concern. It was an easy means to reintroduce functional separations that residents soon realized were valuable: locating bedrooms a stairway away from living rooms wasn’t merely Victorian prudishness—it made good sense. Split levels also fueled the rise of that most suburban setting, the rec room, which was usually located in basements or lower levels and almost invariably a more informal children-oriented social space, frequently enabling the relative re-formalization of the main living room.

That suburban building sited homes on big lots is not news, but what is worth noting, as Lane points out, is how the houses were designed in relation to those lots. The formal and inward-oriented facades of pre-war homes gave way to houses whose facades were dominated by the living room picture window, affording a glimpse not merely of one’s own yard but those of your neighbors. As Lane comments, “The windows looked out on the new landscapes that formed around them and also enhanced the perception of spaciousness so much desired by this generation.” The scenography was often repetitive, but it was open: As John Updike commented in Rabbit Redux, “now the view from any window is as into a fragmented mirror, of houses like this, telephone wires and television aerials showing where the glass cracked.”

Amazon

‘Houses for a New World: Builders and Buyers in American Suburbs, 1945-1965’ by Barbara Miller Lane. 320 p. Princeton University Press. $49.95

For all of the relative similitude of suburban housing stock, one fact that both volumes make very clear is the immense profusion of companies building suburban homes. Levittown was consequential, most suburban projects were smaller, many radically so. Some builders erected thousands of homes, many as few as a dozen or so. Jacobs notes a 1947 survey that suggested that 75,000 builders were embarked upon home building.

The greatest difference between these two new books is the builders on which they focus: Jacobs takes a wider-lens view that encompasses everything from tiny building companies to giants like Ryan Homes. Lane focuses directly on a few developments in an assortment of cities, helmed by a variety of agents, from Henry Kaiser of Kaiser Permanente in Los Angeles to the Campelli Brothers in Boston. Each perspective is illuminating.

Distinctive design was rarest from the larger builders, but similar trends characterized a very wide swath of construction, despite an often complicated level of agency. Jacobs cites a National Association of Home Builders study in 1959 indicating that 38.3 percent of builders designed their own homes, 34 percent used a contract or in-house architect, 12 percent hired a designer of some sort, and 6 percent purchased blueprints through a commercial service. Countless independent and uncoordinated actors who end up producing a similar monotony is unfortunately often the story of America.

The architecturally distinctive developer is rare: Joseph Eichler’s work in California, the Hollin Hills development in Northern Virginia, and a handful of other cases constitute considerable exceptions. And yet there is slightly more variety than usually receives note: one of Lane’s focuses is the slightly Usonian stone homes at Rose Tree Woods near Philadelphia. If it’s fair to lament how tremendously varied suburbia might have been, it is still inaccurate to say it’s all the same.

Amazon

‘Detached America: Building Houses in Postwar Suburbia (MidCentury: Architecture, Landscape, Urbanism, and Design)’ by James A. Jacobs. 272 p. University of Virginia Press. $45

A strength of both books, but Lane’s particularly, is the unprecedented reclassification of homes as a consumer good that one might replace repeatedly over life and the rise of advertising that retailed this new opportunity. The “Real Estate” and “Homes” sections of newspapers date from the suburban boom: even today you’ll need to be in a considerably large city to find a section whose listings aren’t principally postwar and suburban.

Suburbia also inspired unique marketing concepts: the idea of the “model home”—“The San Marino,” “The Catalina,” “The Birchleaf,” and so on. And because American capitalism never lacks for a dose of hucksterism, some model homes did install small furniture to make the rooms look bigger. More common, if less crooked, were the alliances that cropped up between housing developers and local furniture and appliance sellers who also rejoiced in this home purchasing boom.

However, the most radical shift in postwar home design is so ubiquitous that we simply take it for granted: the attached garage. Given the automobile’s essential, formative role in the creation of suburbia, Jacobs writes, “the idea that a house might include a room—and a large one at that—whose primary purpose was to store an automobile” constituted a revolution all its own—one still likely being felt just down your stairway.