The Big Picture

Looking Backward for the Next American Dream House

Architectural historians suggest the small, plain, boxy-looking ranchers that blanketed suburbs from 1948 to 1970 as a source of inspiration in this post-McMansion era.

Photo Credit: Katherine Salant

Architectural historians suggest the small, plain, boxy-looking ranchers that blanketed suburbs from 1948 to 1970 as a source of inspiration in this post-McMansion era.

In this post-McMansion era, what will be the next version of the American Dream? Given our penchant for houses that evoke previous eras, I looked to our past for inspiration.

I started with everyman's retailer, then known as Sears & Roebuck, and one of its kit-house catalogues from the 1930s. From 1910 to 1940, Sears sold these houses, which included all the necessary materials down to the screws and nails. The owner or a local builder assembled it at a building site.

This proved to be a non-starter. These traditionally styled houses had small, efficient floor plans and charming, highly evocative facades, but their living spaces were surprisingly formal, with separate living and dining rooms and kitchens that were hidden away in the back of the house. One reason for this detail, according to Barbara Miller Lane, an emeritus history professor at Bryn Mawr College, was its implication of financial well-being. At that time, a family of means would have had household help. A hidden kitchen created the impression that you might have a cook behind those closed doors.

I then studied much larger houses of the same period at the other end of the design spectrum — the spare, modernist houses designed by some of the most famous American architects of the last century.

Unlike the Sears houses — which were intended for small, urban lots — these sprawled across suburban acreage. Their living areas were wide open, with functions defined by artful placement of a wall here and there. They celebrated nature with floor-to-ceiling glass doors and windows that made the outdoor areas appear to be part of the indoor spaces. But the kitchens were still closed off to one side, manned by servants who lived on the premises.

I also checked out Frank Lloyd Wright's Usonian houses, a series that he designed from the 1930s through the mid-1950s for middle-class families of modest means, who did not employ servants. The small houses had open living areas with great views of the outdoors, but the kitchen was still tucked away in an alcove.

The more I looked, the more I realized that all these houses lacked an important essential for any new house today — a kitchen that is fully integrated into other living areas. I never considered a "liberated kitchen" to be such a defining feature, but the difference between the houses of the past and those of today in this regard is striking. The kitchen has become the heart of our houses, with counters configured so that a person preparing a meal has a view of the adjoining areas and can easily talk with family and guests.

When did this become the norm?

Barry Berkus, a Santa Barbara, Calif., architect who has designed houses for home builders for more than 50 years, said the social integration of the kitchen into adjacent living areas began in the mid-1970s, when women began to work outside the house in large numbers. When they came home, they wanted to spend time with their families as they cooked, and husbands and wives often prepared meals together.

McLean, Va., architect Bill Devereaux, who started designing houses for builders in the early 1970s, said that as the kitchen opened up, the location of the sink began to move, finally settling on an island that faces into the family room, a spot that greatly facilitates conversation between the cook and the rest of the household.

Bill Sutton, a Vienna, Va., architect, began designing houses for builders in the early 1980s. He said that when he started, most kitchens had a galley or a U-shaped counter, but now every homeowner wants an island with seating, even when this entails sacrificing critical cabinet storage.

Taking this all into account, I understood why Lane suggested that architects study the humble American farmhouse with its country kitchen, a much more widespread tradition that is closet to our collective past than we think.

In 1900, more than half of the U.S. population lived in rural areas. Three decades later, in 1930, more than a quarter of the population was still rurally based.

The no-frills working kitchen of a typical farmhouse usually had one counter along a wall and a large dining table that was used as a workspace. The houses often had a small front parlor, but the large kitchen was the center of household activities.

Lane offered another source of inspiration for today's builders and designers, which could be suggested only by a non-architect — the tract-built houses of the early post-World War II years, roughly the late 1940s to the end of the 1960s, which she has studied in the suburbs of Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia and Los Angeles.

While architects and social critics have complained for decades about the relentless repetition of the small, plain-looking, boxy-shaped houses close together on small lots, Lane found that these unpretentious, mostly one-story ranchers did more than suit their owners very well. They also embodied many features that have become central to the suburban lifestyle — an informal ambience, walls of glass windows or sliding glass doors that blurred the distinction between indoor and outdoor spaces, a combined living-dining area, and a separate eat-in kitchen that eventually acquired its own adjacent living area, a space we now call the family room. Lane also noted that the houses had a feature that was innovative for all houses at that time — plenty of closets!

The most important thing about these communities, however, has been almost completely overlooked by the design professionals and social critics, Lane said. The people who bought the houses were very happy living in them. In interviews with the original owners who are still alive and their children who stayed on to raise their own families, Lane found a vibrant social network among homeowners and a partiality to features that others mocked. For example, the residents loved the big picture windows on the front, which allowed owners to see out and passersby to see in.

Sandy Isenstadt, a professor of architectural history at Yale and a former practicing architect who grew up in Levittown, N.Y., also vouched for these postwar communities.

When his architect colleagues have suggested that Levittown must have been "monotonous" and in some way lacking, Isenstadt said that he has been quick to correct them, pointing out that he had "a wonderful childhood." The land-use plan may look uninspiring from a helicopter overhead, but for a 10-year-old it was a rich and varied environment with lots of playmates and freedom to roam the entire development of 17,000 houses. Revisiting 25 years after his family had left, Isenstadt said he noticed for the first time that the houses were close together, but the dense canopy of the now-mature trees has created plenty of privacy.

Because accepted academic wisdom has characterized these postwar suburbs as "little boxes made of ticky-tacky," Isenstadt said, historians have missed an important part of America's story.