A House in the Country

Reviewed by Lloyd Rose
Sunday, May 6, 2007


How a Cornfield Became New Daleville

By Witold Rybczynski

Scribner. 309 pp. $27

In the 1970s, the federal government approached the challenge of mass-produced housing -- a challenge that had defeated entrepreneurs and housing corporations since the beginning of the century -- in a pragmatic spirit of detente. Under Operation Breakthrough, government and business would meet, with the feds using the expertise of such successful companies as GE and DuPont to crack the problem of providing citizens with roofs above their heads. If you can't call to mind the names of any developments this produced, that's because there weren't any. As Witold Rybczynski notes in his new book, Last Harvest, "It turned out that building affordable and attractive houses was a lot more complicated than putting a man on the moon."

Sound a bit extreme? By the time Rybczynski makes this dry observation, some 200 pages in, he's more than made his case.

Development permeates modern life. In recent months, Washington alone has seen played out such dramas as: a house being built, found to have exceeded legal size limits, and then torn down, at great expense, by the government that made the error in granting the permit; historic preservationists preventing a wheelchair-bound man from adding an exterior ramp to his home in a neighborhood of early 20th-century rowhouses; library supporters arguing over whether the Martin Luther King main branch should remain in its leaky Mies van der Rohe-designed modernist shrine or become part of a commercial and residential building complex a few blocks away. And, meanwhile, Tysons Corner swallows all that approaches. If ever a book was about the way we live now, Late Harvest is it.

Rybczynski focuses on New Daleville -- a housing development in the Pennsylvania countryside, near the Brandywine valley -- beginning with the day in 2003 when a developer he regularly asks to speak to his students at the University of Pennsylvania's School of Design mentions another developer's plan for "a small subdivision in southern Chester County. It's nothing special: eighty-six houses on ninety acres of rural land." But it seems that the township doesn't like the plan. "They keep telling him that they want something different, with smaller lots and more open space." A simple enough want, you might think.

But no.

Rybczynski has written several wonderful books exploring the area where the bricks-and-mortar reality of a house merges with the personal, subjective idea of a home. In Home, he investigated the Western meaning and history of that word. The Most Beautiful House in the World told how a simple boat-building shed he was constructing metamorphosed, somewhat to his surprise and a little to his dismay, into a small but full-blown country home. He's a graceful, personable writer, whose considerable erudition is in service to his storyteller's curiosity. How does this begin? What route does it take? And why does it end up where it does rather than where it was headed?

In Late Harvest, Rybczynski takes us on fascinating side trips, including visits to Seaside and Celebration, Fla., two of the pioneering "traditional neighborhood developments" that offered alternatives to conventional suburban planning (big lots, big houses, curvy streets that go nowhere). The idea of the Mythic American Small Town is revisited, and we learn that the United States -- in contrast to Europe, with its attached houses and apartment blocks -- is the home, so to speak, of the single-family house; also that 90 percent of these houses are detached, one of this country's great luxuries that we take as a given. But always he returns to New Daleville, as it slowly rises from a former cornfield.

As the New Daleville development progresses -- often at a stumble -- desire and reality meet, butt heads, try to choke each other, and roll over and over in the mud of compromise. The townspeople would like something with a little character (sidewalks, trees, cul de sacs, non-identical porches), and the developers don't object, but owing to circumstance and expense, they end up using a builder who mass-produces only a certain number of styles for windows, doors, shutters and so on. (As the builder puts it, "Our business is like a hamburger stand. We make hamburgers and cheeseburgers. That's it.")

As a "neo-traditional development," New Daleville gains intimacy and charm from its smaller lots and houses, but it turns out that when people move far away from a city center, theymore space as a trade-off for the longer commute. Picky statutes, miscommunications, personality clashes, occasional incompetence and plain bad luck all make their appearance. Meanwhile, the hot housing market grows cooler and cooler.

And when, after four and a half frustrating years, New Daleville is finally finished, what then? The noisiest critic among the townspeople grumbles, "I know that the houses are not as bad as what is built by most developers around here, but I just wish they were better still." Rybczynski's developer friend philosophically acknowledges, "It's not as good as I hoped it would be, but it's not a tragedy." Rybczynski takes the long view: "Ten years from now, the small lots, the narrow streets, the public park, and the compact cluster of houses on Dr. Wrigley's cornfield will all make sense." Like Rome, the future America won't be built in a day. ยท

Lloyd Rose is a former theater critic at The Washington Post.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company