- Detached America: Building Houses in Postwar Suburbia by James A. Jacobs
Detached America: Building Houses in Postwar Suburbia
Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2015.
viii + 261 pages, 61 black-and-white illustrations. ISBN: 978-081-393761-8, $45.00 HB
ISBN: 978-081-393762-5, $45.00 EB
Between 1945 and 1970, new housing types transformed the American city and suburbs. Millions and millions of “tract houses” constructed and designed by builders ringed the older urban cores. Nearly all were ranches, split-levels, or other new forms of two-story houses. Each was different from previous American houses in design and spatial arrangement. But because the new types have been thoroughly disliked for most of their history by cultural critics—and by architectural historians—we know astonishingly little about them. Only in the past few years have scholars turned sustained attention to the new houses and the neighborhoods of which they were a part.1 James A. Jacobs is one of the first to focus specifically on the design of these houses and, so far, the only one to emphasize the plans of the houses almost exclusively.
How does one select what to study, given the gigantic number of houses? Architectural history, at least, has never confronted this problem. The social sciences, more accustomed to dealing with modern mass phenomena, suggest several methods. Sociology relies on random samples, surveys, and interviews, while history and anthropology favor the case study as a microcosm from which generalizations can be extrapolated. Jacobs has employed all of these approaches, and his results are compelling.
The “case study” at the core of this study is a builder, Ryan Homes. Ryan Homes started out as a small Pittsburgh firm right after World War II and was hugely successful, growing into one of the largest homebuilders in the country by the 1960s. Jacobs unearthed a sizable collection of Ryan Homes records at Carnegie Mellon University: a rare gold mine because neither builders nor local offices have kept records in most cases. Jacobs also surveyed and interviewed original owners in several of Ryan and other Pittsburgh-area subdivisions, despite the difficulty of discovering these now very elderly people. In addition, he visited some Ryan subdivisions constructed in the 1960s—and, more briefly, a Levitt and Sons’ development from this era in Bowie, Maryland—in order to view the houses, to understand the plans, and to talk with their current owners.
In order to put these examples into perspective and to attempt some generalizations that are valid for the national scene, Jacobs also studied the plans of houses as presented in magazines aimed at builders: the National Association of Home Builders’ (NAHB’s) Correlator, American Builder, and Practical Builder. Further, he worked through many issues of popular women’s magazines and what he calls the “shelter press”: House and Home, Better Homes & Gardens, House Beautiful, House and Garden, and American Home. Additionally, he sampled the real estate advertisements of four major newspapers: the Pittsburgh Press, the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, and the Los Angeles Times. He also gained access to the archives of the NAHB, which most researchers have found hard to do.
This is an impressive and well-conceived research program. Jacobs has extracted from these sources a great many house plans, which he has hired a draftsman to reproduce. The result is a handsome book that is far more informative than most publications about suburban houses after World War II.
From these plans he develops a hypothesis about the evolution of tract house plans, which he sees as falling into three periods that roughly correspond to the decades of construction (1940s, 1950s, and 1960s and after). The 1940s, he writes, were the decade of the “minimum house” (the label derived from the Federal Housing Administration’s 1946 Principles of Planning Small Houses), a house of about nine hundred to one thousand square feet, with an “all purpose living room,” a kitchen, one bath, and two or three bedrooms. In the 1950s, he says, buyers sought more living space, especially in the kitchen, so this was the decade of the “living-kitchen.” Both decades, according to Jacobs, were...