Architecture is a picture book of economic and social history. The rise of America's middle class during the mid-20th century can be traced in the movement from 1920s-era Bungalows to the practical homes that evolved in rapidly expanding suburbs and exurbs, especially in areas with a high population density. This guide to single-family homes describes an American middle class as it struggled, grew, moved, and built. Many of these dwellings changed the face of the United States of America, becoming the very homes we occupy today.
America's Great Depression brought economic hardships that limited the types of homes families could build. The stark design of the Post-Depression Minimal Traditional house highlights the struggle. The simple architecture is often called "Colonial" by realtors, but the McAlesters' Field Guide best describes the home as minimal in decoration and traditional in style. Other names appropriately include "Minimal Transitional" and "Minimal Modern."
Learn More About Minimal Traditional Houses:
• Minimal Traditional, 1935 - 1950
• Minimal Traditional House Plans for 1940s-1950s America
Source: McAlester, Virginia and Lee. Field Guide to American Houses. New York. Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. 1984.
Minimal Tudor Cottage
As the middle class became wealthier, ornamentation returned in a restrained way. The Minimal Tudor Cottage is more elaborate than the Minimal Traditional house style, but not nearly as elaborate as the "Medieval Revival" Tudor House Style of the late 1800s and early 20th century.
Exposed half-timbers, stone, and brick detailing were expensive, so the Minimal Traditional style turned to wood construction. The mid-century Minimal Tudor Cottage maintains the steep roof pitch of the Tudor Cottage, but often only within the cross gable. The decorative arched entry reminds neighbors that these occupants may be slightly better off financially than their Minimal Traditional neighbors. The practice of "Tudorizing" was also common for Cape Cod style houses.
Learn More About Tudor House Styles:
• Cape Cod House With Cotswold Cottage Details
• Tudor House Style: Medieval Revival Homes
• Tudor Style: Tudor Revival Houses in America from 1890 to the Present by Lee Goff (2002)
Cape Cod and Other Colonial Styles
A small, functional house style suited the British colonists of 1600s New England. As the post-war American middle class grew in the 1950s, regions of the U.S. revisited their colonial roots. Practical Cape Cod houses became a staple in U.S. suburbs. Developers also embraced simplified versions of Georgian Colonials, Spanish Colonial, and other American colonial styles.
Learn More About Cape Cod Houses:
• Cape Cod House Pictures
• Three Centuries of Practical Homes, 1600s - 1950s
• Cape Cod House Plans for 1950s America
• Neocolonial Homes for 1950s-1960s America
• Reader Submissions: Is your house a Cape Cod?
American legend Frank Lloyd Wright was a well-established, elderly architect (in his 60s) when the stock market crashed in 1929. Recovery from the Great Depression inspired Wright to develop the Usonian house. Based on Wright's popular Prairie Style, Usonians had little ornamentation and were intended to control housing costs. But, although more economical than a Prairie house, Usonian homes proved to be more expensive than the average middle class family could afford.
Learn More About Usonian Houses:
• First Herbert Jacobs House, Madison, WI, 1936
• Curtis Meyer House, Galesburn, MI, 1948
• Zimmerman House, Manchester, NH, 1950
• Hagan House (Kentuck Knob), Chalk Hill, PA, 1954
• Toufic L. Kalil House, Manchester, NH, 1955
During the dark of the Depression, architect Cliff May combined Arts & Crafts styling with Frank Lloyd Wright's Prairie architecture to design what later became known as the Ranch style. Early Ranches were quite complex, but by the end of World War II real estate developers seized on the idea to build a flurry of simple, affordable homes that could be quickly constructed in America's rapidly expanding suburbs.
Levittown and the Rise of Suburbs
At the end of World War II, soldiers returned home to start families and new lives. Nearly 2.4 million veterans received government-backed home loans between 1944 and 1952 through the "G.I. Bill." The housing market was flooded with opportunities, and the millions of new Baby Boomers and their families had places to live.
William J. Levitt was also a returning veteran, but, being the son of real estate investor Abraham Levitt, he took advantage of the GI Bill in a different way. In 1947, William J. Levitt joined forces with his brother to build simple homes on a large tract of land on Long Island, New York. In 1952 the brothers repeated their feat outside of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Mass-produced tract housing developments called Levitttown welcomed the middle class with open arms.
The house shown here is one of six models built in the Pennsylvania Levittown. All models freely adapted ideas from Frank Lloyd Wright's Usonian vision—natural lighting, open and expandable floor plans, and the merging of exterior and interior spaces.
Other developers adopted the idea of tract housing, and suburbia was born. Suburban growth contributed not only to the rise of middle class American consumerism, but also the rise of sprawl. Many people also suggest that the Civil Rights Movement was advanced by the struggle to integrate the all-white neighborhoods built by Levitt & Sons.
Learn More About Levittown:
• The First Stone: A Memoir of the Racial Integration of Levittown, Pennsylvania by Lewis Wechsler, 2004
• Levittown: Two Families, One Tycoon, and the Fight for Civil Rights in America's Legendary Suburb by David Kushner, 2009
Ohio-made Lustron prefab homes resemble one-story Ranch style houses. Visually and structurally, however, Lustrons are distinct. Lustron houses have steel roofs and two-foot-square panels of porcelain-enameled steel siding colored one of four pastel shades: Maize Yellow, Dove grey, Surf Blue, or Desert Tan.
The idea of prefabricated housing—factory-made mass-produced parts shipped like self-contained Erector Sets to a construction site—was not a new idea in the 1940s or 1950s. In fact, many cast-iron buildings were produced this way in the late 1800s and shipped all over the world. Later, in the mid-twentieth century, factory-built mobile homes gave rise to entire communities of steel housing. But the Lustron Company put a new spin on the idea of prefab metal homes, and orders for these affordable houses poured in.
For a variety of reasons, the company could not keep pace with the demand. Only 2,680 Lustron houses were manufactured. About 2,000 still stand, marking a unique time in the history of American residential architecture.
Learn More About Lustron Prefab Houses:
• Lustron Homes, 1948 - 1950
• Lustron Preservation, ©2006 National Trust for Historic Preservation in the United States
• Lustron: The House America's Been Waiting For (2002 documentary)
Like the Lustron home, the Quonset hut is a prefabricated, steel structure of distinctive style. Based on a WWI British design called a Nissen hut, the U.S. military used Quonset huts for quick and easy storage and shelters during WWII. Because these structures were already familiar to returning WWII veterans, Quonset huts like the one shown here were converted into homes during a post-war housing crisis. Some may argue that the Quonset hut is not a style but an anomaly. Still, these oddly shaped but practical dwellings represent an interesting solution to the high demand for housing during the 1950s.
Source: McAlester, Virginia and Lee. Field Guide to American Houses. New York. Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. 1984, p. 497.
Learn More About Dome Homes:
• Spaceship Earth: Buckminster Fuller's Geodesic Domes
• Geodesic Domes
• Monolithic Domes
The post-war ranch house was freely adapted and modified in the 1950s and early 1960s. Developers, building suppliers, and architects published pattern books with plans for one-story homes. Frank Lloyd Wright's Prairie Style design quickly became a prototype for mid-century modernism, as seen in this Modified Ranch. International Styles found in commercial buildings were incorporated into residential construction. On the U.S. West Coast, Mid-Century Modernism is often referred to as Desert Modernism, and two developers dominated.
Joseph Eichler was a real estate developer born to European Jewish parents in New York—like William J. Levitt. Unlike the Levitts, however, Eichler stood for racial equality in home-buying—a belief that some say affected his business success in 1950s America. Eichler designs were copied and freely adapted throughout the California housing boom.
In Southern California, George and Robert Alexander's construction company helped define the modern style, especially in Palm Springs. Alexander Construction worked with several architects, including Donald Wexler, to develop prefabricated, modern home styles constructed with steel.