Instant House

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

Sunday, September 18, 2011

House on Wheels

House trailers have always had something of an image problem.  People like to think of dwellings as permanent--the presence of a chassis and wheels goes against that.  Then there are the types of people that live in transportable housing...transients?  People of lower economic status?  The reality is that mobile homes and semi-permanent modular housing serves a need--affordable, quick, mass-produced housing for people who need it.  Though most people still think of a trailer park as something like this:

Sadly, it doesn't have to be, and it wasn't always this way.

Humble Beginnings
The house trailer started off not as a permanent home, but as a vehicle for having a home away from home that was mobile.  In 1919, Glenn Curtiss (of Curtiss-Wright airplane fame) built a high-end custom trailer he called the "Aerocar".  It was patterned after a yacht.  Inside were four Pullman-style berths, a galley, a glass roof, wardrobes, running water, and a telephone to the car ahead.  This attached to his Model-T Ford.
Glenn Curtiss with his Aerocar, ca. 1922

The average American weekender, however, could not afford such luxurious accomodations.  Nevertheless, Americans have insisted on taking their cars camping.  An entire industry developed around manufacturing folding trailers and autotents.  These devices (often homemade) attached to the car and served as a makeshift dwelling for the family desiring the idyllic pastime offered by camping.  The "Prairie Schooner" was one of the most popular models.
A prairie schooner
These tents soon evolved into "trailer tents" that were towed behind the car but featured tent-like features such as canvas roofs.  Many of these were do-it-yourself affairs.

The House Trailer Takes Shape
In the 1930s, house trailers began to take on the form we now see today, with fixed sides and roofs.  Airstream and Silver Dome were two companies that pioneered this new idea.  This was also the time period when more people began actually LIVING in trailers, due to the relatively low cost and the transient nature of the dwelling, at a time when a large number of the workforce was transient.  Below are some fun examples of the house trailer from the 1930s.

The Patrick Collapsible House - a hybrid tent/trailer

William Stout's Folding House

The Road Chief

Schult Trailer Co.'s 17-foot model, ca. 1940

"Trailer of Tomorrow", by Carl X. Meyer

The "Tourhome".  It telescoped up and out.
But where to put them?
As house trailers got more complex and elaborate, parking them became more complex.  This ushered in the rise of the trailer park.  Initially, municipalities offered free trailer park sites (some with electrical and plumbing hookups), hoping to take advantage of the trailer occupants business in their respective communities.  This, largely, did not work.  Rules had to be made about length of occupancy, and issues of sanitation were often a problem.  Private parks prevailed, including some with sights of national chain-dem, though most were Mom-and-Pop affairs.

A typical 1930s trailer park.
Layout for a trailer park, ca. 1935.  Very idyllic!
A makeshift park in Detroit, mid 1930s.  Parks like these caused numerous public health problems.
An amusing account of trailer park life:

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Prefabs Before Industrialization

Prefabs in Colonial Americas  
According to Charles Peterson in his article "Early American Prefabrication", the first prefab to arrive in America was shipped from England for a gold mining project in "the Baffin Land"--one of the large islands in Northern Canada.  It was not a success--parts were lost, walls didn't show up, and a significant part of the structure was lost fighting ice on the way.  The year was 1578.  Later attempts were more successful, with a large house for Edward Winslow being erected in 1624.  Since America had no shortage of timber, it was soon realized that it would be more cost-effective for houses to be built on American soil with American workmanship and materials for export elsewhere.

One of these things is not like the other!
Prefabs for Export  
People seek comfort in the type of dwelling they live in, which is probably why Christian missionaries from New England brought pre-cut houses with them wherever they went.  A notable example is in Hawaii--there missionaries erected what is now known as "Mission House", a frame structure which looks like it was plucked from a New England coastal town and plopped on the shores of Honolulu--mostly was.  This structure even makes itself known in Sarah Vowell's book about Hawaii, The Wordy Shipmates.  American prefabs were also sent to the Caribbean and other places in the Pacific.  Wherever Americans went, their houses went with them!

The California Gold Rush of 1849  
It seems strange that prefabricated housing was a sought-after commodity during the California Gold Rush, but when you have thousands and thousands of people descending on a section of wilderness, shelter is an absolute necessity.  Ralph Waldo Emerson noted in his diary in January of 1849 that men were heading for California with "framed houses".  American built houses of lumber were being made for export in all the major cities for transport by rail and by boat.  But there were two other major sources for prefabricated dwellings--Great Britain, and...believe it or not...China.

Britain's Contribution  
Great Britain produced a multitude of prefabricated buildings for the California Gold Rush out of iron--a material the Brits were well versed in.  These structures were advertised as portable, moveable, and fireproof.  A firm in Liverpool was offering a furnished two-room iron cottage for $150.  The iron houses were not very well received in the hot California climate and were found to be not fireproof at all.

China's Contribution
Houses from Hong Kong appeared in San Francisco in 1849.  These were small affairs made of wood, complete with doors and windows.  These could be put up for a total cost of about $1500--that included all materials, labor, and import fees.

Other Thoughts  
It's amazing to think that it was cost-effective to ship houses from the Eastern US around the South American cape to the port of San Francisco, but it was.  It was equally cost-effective to cross the Pacific, with houses coming from China, Australia, and New Zealand.  The housing boom ended very quickly, however, with the market flattening out by the end of 1849.  The unused iron houses were sold off for scrap, and the wooden houses were Frankensteined for other purposes.  It would not be until the early 1900s that another housing shortage would spark the development of the American prefabricated house.

Another California Iron house.

A prefab Chapel!  
Prefab houses in the Caribbean

Monday, September 12, 2011

Wardway Homes

1931 Cover--The Final Wardway Catalog
Montgomery Ward Enters the Business  
The business rivalry between Sears and Montgomery Ward is the stuff that legends are made of. least, interesting reading for business history.  The similarities between the two companies are obvious--mail order companies, selling everything, both based in Chicago, etc.  In 1908, Sears started offering house plans.  Montgomery Ward followed suit in 1909.  In 1917, Montgomery Ward again followed Sears and started to offer designs that could be ordered with pre-cut lumber.  They chose the name "Wardway Homes" as their brand.  Sears already had the jump on them, so Wardway chose to expedite matters by outsourcing their product to another pre-cut housing company--Gordon-VanTine.

Gordon-VanTine started in 1908 offering plans and building materials much in the same way Sears did, although they limited themselves to the building market, as opposed to Sears who sold everything.  As you begin to look at a comparison between the two homes, it's quite clear that the Wardway homes are lifted directly from the pages of the Gordon-VanTine catalogs.  Check out the following examples:

Wardway's "The Clarendon" - from the 1925 catalog.

Gordon-VanTine's No. 548 - from their 1923 catalog.
The two homes are identical.  Even the write-ups are pretty close.  I cannot fathom why Montgomery Ward allowed Gordon-VanTine to continue to sell the same homes from their own company.  This just seems like bad business sense to me.  

The Demise of Wardway
I'll give you three guesses what closed down Wardway homes.  Say it with me folks--The Great Depression.  The final years of the Wardway homes saw very little in the way of new designs, and sales dropped so far in 1931 that the company ceased operations of Wardway, deciding instead to focus on other business prospects.  Below are some interesting plans.

Wardway offered "cottages" as well--lower cost houses without plumbing.  These were usually two to a page to save on space.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Wingfoot Homes

Picture of the Wingfoot Home from Popular Science
Magazine--August, 1946 issue.
When is a trailer not a trailer?
Answer:  when it's a Wingfoot House!  Wingfoot Homes was the brainchild of the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company.  Apparently, selling tires wasn't enough, and the world's best known tire company tried to cash in on the low-cost post WWII housing boom.  The company's intention was to sell a completely outfitted home (including built-in furniture) for less than $2,000.  The idea was that unlike other prefabricated or mass produced housing, the house would be built COMPLETELY in the factory.  Most prefabricators were building components that were then assembled.  Wingfoot shipped their homes COMPLETE--the forerunner of today's mobile homes.

Two Wingfoots in transit
Getting It There  
If you've read my previous posts (because you're either my friend or you take pity on me...or both), then you know that shipping is the biggest problem most housing prefabricators faced.  Shipping a completed house presents a unique problem--it couldn't be more than 8 feet wide!  Today's "Oversize Load" tractor trailers make wider loads possible, but they are quite expensive.  Wingfoot decided to avoid this altogether by engineering their house to be 8 feet wide at the time of shipping.  The bedroom sections of the house pulled out "like drawers" once the house was at the site.  The final house measures 26 feet long and 15 feet wide at its widest point.  See below for plans.

Wingfoots Today
Wingfoot homes were popular out west where it was difficult to get labor and where building codes were less strict--Wingfoot homes are not designed to go over foundations.  I cannot find any record of how many Wingfoots were produced or shipped, though the internet tells me there are enclaves of them in Arizona and southern California.

Picture and floorpan of a Wingfoot Home.  Notice the bedroom "pull-outs"
Assembly of a Wingfoot home. 

Three interior views of the Wingfoot home.  Extremely..."efficient" living required!

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Bicknell's Victorian Buildings

Not Quite A Kit
In the late 1880s, there was a building boom of Victorian-style homes throughout the United States.  The country was industrializing, railroads were making the country smaller, suburbs were growing, and the "new rich" were building.  The upper-middle class had arrived, and they wanted their McMansions (sound familiar?).  Of course, this newly found wealth could not buy a Newport-esque mansion, but the style could certainly be copied on a smaller scale.  While the idea of your home arriving in pieces ready for assembly had not yet arrived, the idea of picking your home out of a catalogue had.  There were many "plan books" published at this time, usually by carpenters and suppliers of building material, with the ulterior motive being that you then bought their building material.  The examples below are from Bicknell's Village Builder and Supplement, published in 1878.

A Grand Victorian Home

This is, in many ways, a typical Victorian home.  Bay window on the side, large front parlor, servants quarters in the rear and possibly attic.  Check out the double-kitchen--the one in the basement, one on the first floor.  Usually, the cooking was done in the basement, since cooking required fires, and they can be messy.  It was also cooler down there, and perishable foods would keep longer.  Remember, no refrigeration.  There is only one bathroom for the entire house--and strangely, it's near the servant's quarters (above the kitchen).  Why no other toilets?  Think "chamber pot".

A Victorian Farmhouse

This is an interesting house, in that it is designed to house an entire working farm!  Nine bedrooms are on the second floor--four of which are in the "family" section of the house (front).  Some other telltale Victorian features of the home--the "Smoking Room" on the 2nd floor, the "Family Bed Room" (sometimes called a nursery or birthing suite), and the large central stair.  The double parlor on the first floor is another typical Victorian feature--one parlor for men, one for women.  Men and women did not socialize together at this time.  The rear part of the house also has a wash house, storeroom, and a "water closet" only accessible from the outside--think about messy farm shoes, and this actually makes a lot of sense.

A Victorian School

Yes, I know, this isn't a house, but as I am a teacher in my "real" life, I find the design of schools interesting.  This schoolhouse is very indicative of American schoolhouses in the late 1800s/early 1900s. While growing up, I took piano lessons at an Art Institute that was housed in a school like the one above.  The wardrobe or cloak rooms in each classroom, the teacher's "dias", the "Recitation Room", and the "Chapel"--yes, that's right, chapel in a public school--are all typical Victorian school features.  Anyone see what's missing?  Give you a hint....the bad students were usually delegated the responsibility of "tending to them".  

Monday, September 5, 2011

Suntop Homes

Recent view of the Suntop Homes in Ardmore, PA
More Frank Lloyd Wright:  The Quads
Remember how in my last Usonian post I remarked that FLW never quite hit the "below $5,000" cost for a modest home?  No?  Well go there now and read about it.  Anyway, that statement isn't quite accurate.  In 1939, FLW embarked on a project in Ardmore, PA (suburb of Philadelphia) to build a series of "Quadruple Homes".  The idea is similar to a twin or duplex home, except that each home would be turned 90 degrees to its neighbor--thus, one unit faced north, one faced east, one faced south, one faced west.  Otherwise, the units were identical.  By putting four houses together, FLW was able to reduce the external surface area, thus reducing the most expensive part of the house.  The total cost to build one four-unit building was $16,000--$4,000 per unit.  The amazing thing about the Suntop Homes is that the building does not look like a multi-family dwelling--it gives the appearance of being a large, modernist home.

View of the Suntop Homes soon after construction, 1939
The Design--Truly Usonian  
Like the other Usonian homes, the Suntop Quads have many built-in furnishings.  The units have a flat roof, and feature board-and-batten walls.  There are many windows on the exterior walls to draw attention from the fact that each unit has two party-walls.  Each unit contained a carport (for one car) on the ground floor.  Unlike most other Usonians, the Suntop homes each have a partial basement (for utilities) and are three stories tall--see below for floorplans.  Wright managed to squeeze a remarkable amount of space into each of these units--four bedrooms, an eating area, a generous living room, and a nice terrace on the "penthouse" level.

Originally, four structures were planned for a total of sixteen units.  Pressure from the borough of Ardmore to limit the amount of "high density" housing prohibited the project from moving forward.  The one structure that was built remains today, with all four units being used for their original purpose.  There was a fire in one unit, which has since been altered.  Some of the carports have been enclosed to add family rooms.  These units periodically come up for sale--recently, one came up for rent at a cost of $1800 per month--my how the definition of "affordable" has changed!  Wright tried to take this quad home model and use it for a development of government-sponsored housing in Pittsfield, MA, but political pressure from local Massachusetts architects led the project to be awarded to an architect registered in that state.

Floorplan, showing all four levels (including basement)

Under construction

Courtyard view
Plan for the Pittsfield Project--Unrealized