The Dreams That Drive Us

By Gwendolyn Wright
Sunday, August 10, 2008

The perfect home for an American family, as imagined by "National Builder" magazine in 1886, would look familiar in any photo spread of dream homes on newsstands today. Set on a lush, well-manicured lawn, it's a house of a distinctive yet stylish design, with a wide, welcoming porch and bay windows. We're certain that a loving family thrives here, safe and happy in the home it owns.

There is no archetypal "American House," except in our imaginations. Yet this graceful manor -- now generically known as a Victorian -- does capture the idea. It's large, for one thing, and the dream home has always boasted a feeling of spaciousness. Nature is in the picture, too, in the form of a large yard, a patio garden or even just a potted plant. And indoors, surely, is the latest technology. Real estate ads from the 1880s already touted an acronym, AMI -- All Modern Improvements. At the time, this meant a good furnace and indoor plumbing, rare amenities in most buildings.

But American homes aren't just laboratories or greenhouses equipped with the latest gadgets. They reveal a desire for personal expression. Within the confines of what's broadly acceptable, every homeowner wants to assert a unique individuality, "who we really are" -- or want to be.

For three decades, I've tried to understand domestic architecture in terms of culture and the emotions it evokes. Never has it been so challenging as it is today, when that perfect home may be festooned with a foreclosure sign. The mortgage crisis and its aftermath may destroy the possibility of attaining the American dream house. But what does this elusive phrase really mean? Is it a tangible building or a fantasy? A collective aspiration, or one that varies among individuals and groups, from one decade to the next?

Your house as an expression of who you really are: It seems to be a quintessential American ideal. But in fact, it only emerged after the Civil War, propelled by two major socio-economic shifts. The new designation "middle class" became defined as much by one's abode as by one's job and income. And as the number of factories tripled during the 1870s and '80s, so did the mass-production of domestic fixtures and ornamentation. Catalogues offered fish-scale shingles, moldings with geometric or floral motifs, a hundred different patterns for stairway balustrades and wooden latticework.

A national mass media helped celebrate this profuse embellishment. Turrets and bay windows on the "face" of the house supposedly revealed the social status and unique personality of the family inside. The size of the house trumpeted the husband's wealth; the ornamentation expressed the wife's good taste. One writer explained how a bay window could advertise the musical talent or studiousness of marriageable children.

The style of new houses kept changing, usually for novelty's sake or in response to aesthetic tastes, but sometimes in constructive ways. The Progressive Era at the turn of the 20th century reacted against Victorian excess, demanding simplicity, efficiency and good sense. The irascible economist Thorstein Veblen derided "conspicuous consumption," a term and a tendency that's still relevant. Shelter magazines condemned moldings and bric-a-brac as "immoral" and unhealthy "abiding-places for germs," in the ominous words of one home economist. Middle-class women often worked outside the home, so they wanted easy housekeeping. Writing in "House and Home," a well-known female author of the day described the ideal home as one that could be cleaned with a hose.

The popular bungalow, small but charming and filled with built-in furniture, represented one side of this aesthetic reform. Frank Lloyd Wright stood at the other. His "prairie houses" began with a 1901 design for "Ladies' Home Journal." The massive hearth at the center provided a sanctuary for family life, he explained, and a core for the animated open spaces that seemed to explode outward. Less could be more -- spatially exhilarating and morally uplifting.

New trends could also be superficial -- and occasionally insidious. Period-style facades in the 1920s drew from Spanish haciendas, Indian pueblos, Japanese tea-houses, Mediterranean villas and the like -- a cultural diversity that belied the surge of nativist prejudice that was taking place at the same time. Electricity and garages became instant necessities. Popular psychologists contended that children needed separate bedrooms to foster identity, and that visible gender references -- a sleek boudoir-bathroom, a manly den -- would assure vitality in a marriage. Advertising played to fears of inadequacy. What will your neighbors think? Can an attractive home protect your children from the allure of bars and nightclubs?

A generation later, domestic architecture of the 1950s sought to humanize modern housing with comfort and informality. Americans enjoyed The Good Life, as they put it, a phrase that resonated around the world. Even the French spoke of "la Good Life" with an ambivalent mix of disdain and desire.

Two brand-new rooms suddenly appeared. The master bedroom provided discreet intimacy for adults, while the family room emphasized wholesome togetherness. In the suburbs, sliding glass doors opened onto patios and well-kept lawns. Floor plans became more open, with ample built-in storage for the dramatic increase in the average household's consumer goods. Possessions were put on display: television in the living room, modern appliances in the housewife's kitchen, golf clubs and hand-tools in the husband's workshop-garage.

The terrain of The Good Life continued to change, of course. Multifamily units accounted for more than half the total housing built in the decade after 1965. Condominium ownership, made more accessible in 1968, spurred a condomania that also depleted the supply of inexpensive rental units in large cities. Postmodernism brought historical references back into fashion. Houses and apartment buildings featured cartoon-like detailing, especially Roman columns, stately pediments and flashy imitations of Renaissance geometrics.

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