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  • How the Working-Class Home Became Modern, 1900–1940 by Thomas C. Hubka
  • Paula Lupkin (bio)
Thomas C. Hubka How the Working-Class Home Became Modern, 1900–1940 Minneapolis University of Minnesota Press, 2020 320 pages, 148 black-and-white photographs ISBN 9780816693009, $120 HB ISBN 9780816693016, $40 PB

Winner of the VAF 2021 Cummings Award, Thomas Hubka's How the Working-Class Home Became Modern, 1900–1940 is, first and foremost, a methodological manifesto that cuts across the boundaries of vernacular architecture studies, architectural history, and historic preservation.1 Challenging the style-centered analysis of American domestic architecture established by the criteria of the National Register of Historic Places and advanced by scholars like Gwendolyn Wright, this fieldwork-based study focuses on advances in housing for the middle 60 percent of U.S. residents: the so-called middle-majority. Long before Levittown, he explains, the lives of working people, whether homeowners or renters, were modernized through the acquisition of three-fixture bathrooms, modern kitchens, and private bedrooms. Hukba creatively works to theorize and analyze the ways that plumbing, electricity, and changes in floor plans altered more than eighty million households nationwide during the first forty years of the twentieth century. These industrially produced amenities were, through new construction or renovations, responsible for catapulting (mostly White) working people from primitive conditions to a standard of living previously enjoyed only by the upper middle class and the rich.2

Across an introduction, five chapters, and an epilogue, Hubka pieces together the collective work of the "unheralded progressives" of the rising middle class, primarily owners and builders. The introduction defines terms such as "middle-majority" and "modern," and discusses the difficulties of developing a unified, national framework for such a large, overarching dataset without quantitative, consistent sources on size, type, usage, or technology, such as the census or government reports. The ambitious and universalizing scale of his project dwarfs the more localized or regional studies of preindustrial vernacular architecture studies, requiring an approach that accommodates mass production and serial construction while still recognizing individual agency, regional variation, and the processes of renovating and retrofitting existing dwellings.

In the face of that challenge, Hubka offers an inductive "national sampling survey" methodology based upon the fieldwork conducted by Vernacular Architecture Forum colleagues including Paul Groth, Elizabeth Cromley, and Marta Gutman, as well as his own extensive surveys in twenty cities and towns, primarily in the Upper Midwest, Northwest, New England, and the Mid-Atlantic. From these surveys, he has identified common, unifying "house plan types" that occurred in every location, such as the bungalow and the duplex. The form, nomenclature, and furnishing of these types demonstrate changing standards of living for everyday Americans.

Focusing on plan types as well as interiors and their furnishings, rather than style, he argues, allows for broader unified analysis of modernization and its impact on living standards. This concept is illustrated with a comparative diagram of Le Corbusier's Villa Savoye and a common bungalow (see Hubka Figure I.6). Here the author makes an important distinction between their divergent outside forms and their common technological infrastructure, arguing against long-standing veneration of technological expression by architectural historians and for greater attention to the common features that make both houses "modern."3

As Hubka himself points out, his plantype method can be easily critiqued, and in part invites critique due to the brief and relatively superficial explanation provided. Discussion of the specifics of the fieldwork and locations and the means by which this information may be accessed is very limited and relegated to a long footnote. An appendix with details of the dataset and a bibliography that includes references to the material presented at conferences over the past fifteen years would strengthen the book, especially for many of the readers in the fields of architectural history and historic preservation that Hubka seeks to reach. The text assumes quite a bit of knowledge of previous vernacular architecture scholarship and methods, limiting the reach of his fine contribution.

Future work will need to tease out threads in the chronology of this period, issues of regional variation and race, and, most importantly, oral history and family trajectories, such as the...


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