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  • Modernizing Main Street: Architecture and Consumer Culture in the New Deal
  • Jessica Sewell (bio)
Gabrielle Esperdy Modernizing Main Street: Architecture and Consumer Culture in the New Deal Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008. 318 pages, 66 black-and-white illustrations ISBN 978-0-226-21800-7, $35.00 HB

On any American main street, we can see traces of the height of 1930s fashion: streamlined curves, glass brick, chrome accents, and art deco lettering. In Modernizing Main street, published by the University of Chicago Press in association with the Center for American Places, Gabrielle Esperdy weaves two tales about these Depression-era storefronts. She explains how they came to be built and details how the federal government, local boosters, and corporations collaborated to remake the façades of American downtowns in order to create jobs and craft an image of prosperity. She also explores the architecture of the storefronts in the context of the growth of consumer culture, suggesting that shop architecture in this era was rethought as a consumer product that should be understood less in the context of high modernism than of trends in cosmetics and women’s accessories. These two stories overlap in that they both address the relationship between architecture, downtowns, consumption, advertising, and capitalism in 1930s America, but at times they take quite separate paths, both historically and in this book: Esperdy focuses in early chapters primarily on the mechanisms of the FHA program, and in later ones on the meanings of the architecture the program funded.

Between 1934 and 1943, the Modernization Credit Plan (MCP) of the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) guaranteed enough loans to modernize 1.5 million storefronts on main streets throughout the United States. Using records from the FHA and related programs, the papers of architects and companies involved in storefront modernization, articles from architectural journals, advertisements, and photographs of modernized stores, Esperdy provides insight into this largely forgotten program of the New Deal and explains how it transformed the American retail landscape. She not only details the mechanisms through which the federal government reshaped main street, but also explores the meanings, motives, and means of modernization of shops in towns and cities of all sizes. She examines both the designs and the program that funded them in the context of advertising, capitalism, and consumer culture, arguing that not only were the techniques of consumer capitalism used to sell the program to shopkeepers, but also that the architecture of the redesigned shop fronts themselves is best understood in relation to both advertising and the design of consumer products.

While we typically think of the FHA in relation to the residential landscape, Esperdy shows that it had a significant influence on the retail landscape as well, ironically through a program entitled the Better Housing Program (BHP). The BHP was founded in 1934 to promote the recently created modernization Credit Plan, which provided insurance on loans of up to two thousand dollars to shop owners for the Modernization of their businesses. Many of these loans were provided on the basis of reputation, without the need for collateral, allowing independent shopkeepers a means to compete with chain stores. The program covered equipment such as refrigerators and ovens, but most significant for this study, it promoted the renovation of shop façades. As chapter 2, “The New Deal on Main Street,” details, although the BHP was a large federal program, it engaged local boosters to run each local branch, transforming “a state-sponsored effort to prop up large-scale capitalism into what seemed to be a populist movement” (8). Most towns with a population over five thousand and all of America’s biggest cities had a local BHP campaign. To promote the program, volunteers at these local branches circulated publications provided by the national office; encouraged local banks to promote the loans; enrolled women to use their influence as shoppers to push modernization; and sponsored contests, gimmicks, and stunts (e.g., parades) that culminated with the rapid modernization of run-down buildings. They followed up these general promotions with a field campaign in which volunteers, mostly unemployed builders and building material salesmen on loan to the BHP, contacted every qualified building owner and...


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pp. 103-104
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