- The Mutual Housing Experiment: New Deal Communities for the Urban Middle Class by Kristin M. Szylvian
The Mutual Housing Experiment: New Deal Communities for the Urban Middle Class
Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2015.
xiv + 276 pages, 14 black-and-white illustrations and 1 map.
ISBN: 978-143-991205-8, $79.50 HB
ISBN: 978-143-991206-5, $29.95 PB
ISBN: 978-143-991207-2, $79.50 EB
Until Kristin M. Szylvian's The Mutual Housing Experiment, histories of pre-1950 American housing policy tended to move quickly from the creation of the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) in 1934 and public housing in 1937 to the spurt of commercial home building in 1939 to the government-built defense and war housing in the early 1940s. According to Szylvian this scenario ignores one of the most architecturally and economically innovative phases in American housing history, the tortuous but momentarily successful effort to interject into the shelter-acquisition equation a third, nonspeculative form of tenure: mutual home ownership. Not only would this wartime experiment with the mutual concept be perceived as radical, but much of this notable segment of the nation's defense and wartime housing stock would be modernist in design.
A volume in Temple University Press's Urban Life, Landscape, and Policy series, Szylvian's book explores the history of mutual housing in American from its New Deal conceptual origins in the early 1930s to the demise of what she regards as a potentially viable housing policy alternative in 1950. She traces the mutual housing movement to the communitarianism evident, for example, in the writings of Catherine Bauer (Wurster); in the development, with government aid by the Philadelphia hosiery worker's union, of the limited-dividend Carl Mackley Homes; and in the New Deal Resettlement Administration's subsistence homestead program. The last inspired the head of Texas's Rehabilitation and Relief Commission, Lawrence Westbrook, who is the protagonist of Szylvian's story. Westbrook in 1934 joined the federal Civil Works Administration of Harry Hopkins, who in 1935 moved Westbrook to the federal Works Progress Administration. In 1940 Westbrook became head of the Federal Works Agency, which was charged with the National Defense Housing Program.
Unlike the public housing movement, which spawned the 1937 Wagner-Steagall legislation aimed at improving the living conditions of the ill-housed poor, Westbrook, supported by labor leaders such as John Green of Camden, New Jersey's shipbuilding workers' union, campaigned to better house the large working-class population whose income made them too affluent for public housing but unable or unwilling to afford FHA-backed homeownership or limited-dividend rental apartments. (In fact, the 1934 National Housing Act under FHA Section 207 did provide reasonably priced rental housing serving that so-called missing middle income group.)
Szylvian's focus is on the eight mutual-ownership pilot projects—among them Pennypack Woods in Philadelphia, Audubon Village in Camden, Avion Village and Dallas Park in Texas, Walnut Grove in Indiana, and [End Page 96] Greenmont Village in Ohio—built by Westbrook's Division of Defense Housing, which was later part of the 1941 Lanham (Defense Housing) Act, and on the mutual ownership idea. She also explores the larger defense and war housing program of 275 communities, explaining how Westbrook, backed by organized labor, strove to make conversion from rental to this noncommercial ownership format an option for the postwar disposition of Lanham Act developments.
Beginning in 1940 with shipbuilding and other defense industries gearing up, Westbrook and union leaders, joined by prominent modernist architects, namely Walter Gropius, Marcel Breuer, Louis I. Kahn, William Wurster, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Richard Neutra, teamed to make noncommercial, federally subsidized, mutually owned housing a serious option, initially for defense workers and later veterans. Indeed, Szylvian views the saga of mutual and defense housing as a chapter in American architectural modernism. The eight pilot projects document how Westbrook, in concert with the Federal Works Administrator, John M. Carmody, made defense housing a laboratory for modernistic, efficiently built (often using prefabrication), affordable mutual housing. Like the limited-equity cooperatives that union and other leftist groups had developed in New York City...