Instant House

A blog tribute to the manufactured, mass-produced, modular and kit homes that grace the American landscape.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

West Coast Instant House - Wright's Textile Block Houses

Wright in Los Angeles
Last week, I was in Los Angeles visiting family.  One of my "bucket list" houses to visit was the Gamble House in Pasadena, and this visit allowed me to cross that one off the list.  If you get a chance to visit it, DO IT.  It's marvelous, and probably one of the top five residential houses in the United States.  But as that house is COMPLETELY custom built (literally everything was fabricated on-site and it's one of a kind), it doesn't qualify for Instant House material.  After our visit and a brief walking tour of the neighborhood, we went to lunch.  Something made me look at a map on my phone and I realized something:

"Holy s***!  We were like a block away from the Millard House!  We have to go back and see it!!"

Millard House, aka La Miniatura
So, we did.  The Millard House is the first of Frank Lloyd Wright's Textile Block Houses, a project he worked on with his son Lloyd Wright.  Lloyd had already worked in the medium, having built the John Sowden House (see below).  He envisioned these houses as owner-built, with the owner/builders fabricating their own patterned concrete blocks on-site.  That never came to fruition, and only four were built.  And they weren't cheap.

The Millard House is currently on the market for just under $4 million.  We were able to peek inside the gate and snap some pictures.  I momentarily considered jumping the fence, as it's clear the place has not been inhabited for awhile.  I did not, but I regret it.  The setting is tremendous, and it looks like a Mayan ruin.  Lloyd Wright added a studio and did the landscaping on the site.  The site is really overgrown at the moment, but the house has been restored lovingly.
Millard House Interior--as advertised

Millard House as Advertised

My shot of the Millard House from through the gate--a bit overgrown, but lots of potential!

Ennis House
Later in the trip, we were driving through Los Feliz up to the Griffifth Observatory.  Since I'm perpetually nosy, I opened Trulia on my phone to see what houses were going for in the area.  The map revealed something

"Holy s***!  We're like 5 minutes from the Ennis House!!  We have to go by it!!!"

Yes, I could have planned the trip better, but whatever.

The Ennis House is the last of the four concrete block houses--it's also the largest, the most famous (Bladerunner, numerous other movies), and it's the most problematic.  The house is perched precariously on a hillside and has a GINORMOUS retaining wall on the south side.  The house suffered major damage in the Northridge Quake.  I remember seeing pictures from years ago and the house was in really bad shape.  But no more!  The house is being WONDERFULLY restored and the south wall looks great!

Ennis House before restoration--rough shape (Wikipedia).

Ennis House during restoration.

Pictures from Our Visit

Much better!

Work on the North side--progressing nicely!

Through the gate...


Missed Opportunities
There are two other FLW textile block houses in LA--the Storer House, and the Freeman House.  Guess what?  The Storer house can be yours for a mere $7 million.  The Freeman House is usually open for tours, but is currently closed for restoration.  Although not a concrete block house, one of Wright's most famous houses is in Los Angeles--the Hollyhock House...also closed for renovations.  Oh well.  You have to save something for another trip, Wright right?

Freeman House

Hollyhock House

Storer House - as advertised

Lloyd Wright For Sale - Sowden House
Turns out, Lloyd Wright was a pretty good architect, and his most famous property is on the market.  The Sowden House is pretty wild, and has a "dubious" past...  Can be yours.  

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Leedom Estates

The Leedom Estates

The original Leedom Estates in 1954.  You can see
the beginnings of Ridley Acres in the upper left.

Today's Instant House post explores a neighborhood that I'm all too familiar with--the Leedom Estates of Ridley Park, PA.  My father grew up there, my grandparents still live there, and I taught in the Ridley School District for a few I know a bit about the history of this neighborhood.

The area commonly referred to as "Leedom" is, in actuality, three separate post-WWII assembly-line-style developments--the Leedom Estates, Ridley Acres, and Nassau Village.

Westinghouse had a huge plant in this area of Delaware County (as did Boeing, Sun Ship, Bell Atlantic, etc.) and they needed housing for their workers.  The general flight of people from Southwest Philadelphia wanting something new also helped fuel the housing boom (Levittown, anyone?).  I've wanted to do a video blog for some time, so I thought focusing on a neighborhood I knew well (...all too well....) would help.  See the short videos below on each of the three neighborhoods!  Forgive my DWN (driving while narrating)...and yes, I should have rotated the iPhone horizontally...but that's for next time.

Leedom Estates

Ridley Acres

Nassau Village

Leedom Estates Brochure and Photos

Brochure for the Nantucket (the standard Leedom house).

I like the "check the extras" section.

An early photograph of a Nantucket.

Nassau Swim Club History

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Civic Park

Civic Park:  Lies I've Been Telling  

If you've spent any amount of time around me (first of all....sorry), you know I originally hail from the town of Reading, Pennsylvania--a mid-sized rust-belt city who's lasting legacies are the 5th Avenue Candy Bar and that square on the Monopoly Board (the one many of you have always called the REED-ing Railroad...nope, sorry).  Reading has suffered immensely from the decline of industry and has been the recipient of many dubious honors including one of the most dangerous cities in America, a leader in gang-related violence, and the most-recent distinction--the poorest city in the United States.  This is all back-story to this point about me:  I read a lot about urban decline.  This led me to a most wonderful book:  Teardown: Memoir of a Vanishing City, by Gordon Young.

Gordon Young has written an excellent book about someone who's sad to see the loss of his beloved hometown--Fint, Michigan.  For those of you unaware, Flint has a distinction similar to Reading.  He also has a related blog--  I encourage you to check out both if you're interested in the decline of American cities.

Why Instant House Material?
Mr. Young writes about a particular neighborhood of Flint that is called Civic Park.  He was kind enough to furnish me with some additional information about the neighborhood.  Civic Park was built virtually overnight to accommodate a huge influx of workers to a proposed Buick plant (Flint is where General Motors first began).  GM's housing subsidiary, "The Modern Housing Corporation", employed 4,600 workers to build 950 homes in 8 months...or roughly 4 homes per day.  Parts of the homes were pre-fabricated at sawmills near the site, while other work crews worked in a modified assembly line to put up the eight different styles of houses (see below).

HEY, this sounds a LOT like LEVITTOWN!!!!

It sure does, with one notable difference--this was in the year 1919.  Remember how me and countless others hailed Bill Levitt as the first successful mass-producer of houses in an assembly line fashion?  Yeah....we're wrong.  GM did it first.

Buying in Civic Park  
A Civic Park Dutch Colonial

Homes were priced from $3500 to $8500 with a down payment of 5%.  GM and MHC held the mortgages.  You got an $800 credit toward the purchase of the home if you had 5 years of service at GM, and a dollar-for-dollar savings account match up to $300.  Not surprisingly, the houses sold quickly.

The End/Today
The housing boom of Civic Park ended as quickly as it began.  The economic slump of 1920 put a stop to wholesale building on speculation, but the neighborhood gradually grew and evolved into the larger scheme of Flint.  Today, Civic Park remains somewhat of a Flint "holdout" neighborhood--though it's former glory has vanished.  The neighborhood is on the National Register of Historic Places, and home-occupancy is higher than in the rest of Flint (where abandoned properties are a HUGE problem).  Hopefully, I'll get a chance to visit the neighborhood someday, and hopefully the neighborhood finds a place in the 21st century.  See below for the house types.

Civic Park House Types

from "Civic Park Home Preservation Manual"--courtesy of Gordon Young.

West Dayton Avenue Today - Courtesy of

The Three-Gable Saltbox

Maybe The Civic Park Saltbox? - Modified

The Civic Park Saltbox - In need of love

Another Three-Gable Saltbox

The Dutch Colonial

Another Dutch Colonial (porch enclosed)

Another Civic Park Saltbox

Yet another Three-Gable Saltbox

For more pictures, please go to Gordon Young's blog:  

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Lustron Brochures

More eBay Finds
A recent eBay acquisition brings us back to the realm of Lustron.  Here we have two brochures that address questions that potential buyers would have about the Lustron home.  I'm not sure about the year, but as they are only touting one model, it would stand to reason this is from the "first run" of the company.

Some highlights:

Lightning - "Imagine a self-contained lightning rod!"  ...They obviously didn't run that phrase by the marketing department.  Who wants to live in a lightning rod?!?

Fireplaces - "Sorry, no fireplace."

Basement - "None needed--ample storage space!"  ...Sure.

Photos for your viewing.  Enjoy.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Venturi Scott Brown

A Brief Departure
Word came to me this week of the retirement of two of Philadelphia's most storied architects:  Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown.  While they are not known for prefabricated housing as such, I would like to devote a post to their work because of one simple fact:  they were the one of the first (if not THE first) to critically examine the state of American vernacular architecture and undertake it as a scholarly pursuit.  Their own architecture has been categorized as "The Ugly and the Ordinary"....a term they themselves invented!

Learning from Las Vegas  
Their most famous publication is entitled Learning from Las Vegas, and examines what can be learned from the commercial success of Las Vegas though spatial relationships, a language or architectural symbols, and two broad categories:  the "Duck" and the "Decorated Shed".  The first section in the book is subtitled "A Significance for A&P Parking Lots" can imagine the kind of response this garnished from the academic architectural community.  My favorite section in the book, however, is entitled "Towards and Old Architecture" (a direct take-off of Le Corbusier's collection of essays entitled Towards a New Architecture...some would say a direct poke in the eye....) and makes connections between the cathedrals of old and the casinos of new.  As a theory, it's easy to embrace or reject, but it raises interesting questions.  I am first and foremost a teacher, so proposing a theory and examining it is important to me.  ....Plus I find the "Duck" kind of funny.

The Duck vs. the Decorated Shed

Learning from Levittown
Less known than Learning from Las Vegas is Venturi and Scott Brown's work on the study of suburbia--specifically (our favorite here at Instant House) Levittown.  In the book Second Suburb, a section is devoted to their work on their critical study of suburbia and Levittown.  Having grown up in a post WWII suburb full of fake columns and neo-colonial coach lights and then rejecting it (I unabashedly live in a Victorian neighborhood in Philadelphia), I often wondered what the appeal is for these types of neighborhoods.  After looking at Venturi and Scott Brown's findings, it all clicked--the SYMBOLS of these things call to mind the IDEALS of other things--see the diagram below.

If you would to read more about this, follow this link to an essay by Denise Scott Brown:  Some paradoxes of colonial cultural landscapes.  It's sensational.  Below are some examples of their famous works.  Thank you, Bob & Denise!


Guild House:  Philadelphia, PA.  One of Robert Venturi's first significant works.

Lieb House:  Long Beach Island, NJ.  Recently moved to Long Island, NY.  One of my favorites--a clearer example of "Decorated Shed" I have not found.

Mother's House:  Chestnut Hill, PA.  Designed for Robert Venturi's mother.  The over-exaggerated symbols and ornaments became a hallmark of their architectural style.

Stony Creek House:  Stony Creek, CT.  Exaggerated columns and symbols, anyone?

Trubek and Wislocki Houses, Nantucket, MA.  At some point the phrase "Ugly and Ordinary" was changed to "Everyday and Ordinary"...and here it is.  There is no ugliness in the beauty of simplicity, in my opinion....and hey, it's my blog!