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Architect as Developer and the Postwar U.S. Apartment, 1945–1960
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Architect as Developer and the Postwar U.S. Apartment, 1945–1960

American designers have long had an uneasy relationship with the mass-built environment: trained experts in a democratic sea of stock plans, do-it-yourself, and uncredentialed “lumberyard architects.”1 This article considers an overlooked chapter in this dialogue: architects who worked in mass-market homebuilding in the two decades after World War II. Some conceived of projects and partnered with more experienced agents such as speculative developers and local redevelopment authorities. Others navigated the worlds of finance and land acquisition to serve, at least in part, as their own developers; yet others left design to work permanently in development.

While perhaps a common practice, this blurring of boundaries remains obscure. Scholars have shown little interest in understanding speculative homebuilding both because of the generic quality of the architecture and because of taboos against profit motive, although recent writing on industry leaders like Levitt & Sons has begun to close this gap.2 At the same time, the decentralized and ephemeral nature of real-estate work makes design-develop harder to detect than more overtly authored activities. I came to the topic through research on postwar community planning, where I encountered, rather serendipitously, several architect-developers and architect-developer firms. In this article I discuss three of them: Vernon DeMars in Northern California, Brown & Guenther in New York City, and Erwin Gerber in the suburbs of northern New Jersey. All operated as full-time architects and, intermittently, part-time real-estate developers in the field of multifamily housing in the late 1940s and the 1950s.

My objective is to explore their methods and motivations and to locate their efforts in the larger context of twentieth-century housing production. I also seek to foreground real-estate development as a lens through which to explore the U.S. built environment. The questions we typically ask of housing derive from familiar categories like type (single-family or multifamily; high-rise or low-rise), style (high or vernacular), region (East Coast or West Coast), tenure (rented or owned), class (market-rate or social), and metropolitan geography (urban or suburban). This compartmentalization encourages explanatory frameworks that conform to these classifications and encourages us to overlook items in the landscape (to borrow a concept from geographer Peirce Lewis) that do not readily fit in.3 Paying more attention to processes of production—including financing; the multiple, often conflicting, effects of housing policy; and the role of professional values—affords us new opportunities to recognize diversity in how, and what, we build and to derive new meaning from our buildings and landscapes.

Multiple-family housing seems to have been an especially fertile arena for architects entering larger-scale homebuilding. The kinds of collaborations in which DeMars, Brown & Guenther, and Gerber engaged and the disciplinary digressions that they embraced are evident, to varying degrees, across the mid-twentieth-century American landscape as suggested by recent work [End Page 27] on the shopping center, the office park, and the suburban single-family tract.4 But designers played a particularly prominent part in multi-family housing. One reason was that physical forms like apartments and clusters of row houses were generally more complex than single-family subdivisions (Figure 1). Writing in the 1970s, architect Roger Montgomery characterized this as the “enhanced design employment effect,” noting that “in group housing, powerful economic, constructional planning, and legal forces encouraged integrated design,” making architects “relatively more important in the development process.”5 Of equal importance, perhaps contrary to expectation, the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) and many local and state housing and redevelopment agencies encouraged architects to take a leading role in apartment production.

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Figure 1.

Group of apartments at Elmwood Village, both sides of Boulevard south of Broadway, Elmwood Park, New Jersey, Erwin Gerber (architect and perhaps developer), 1945–46. Photograph by Matthew Gordon Lasner, 2012.

A third reason for the architect-developer’s interest in the apartment, I argue, was politics. Many architects, like planners and urban critics, disapproved of mainstream homebuilding, which they construed, correctly, to be dominated in the postwar period by the construction of single-family houses. Multifamily...