The Dreams That Drive Us
Our Houses, Ourselves: From Victorian to McMansion, the Pursuit of the Ideal Home

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.

Demographic and cultural shifts -- soon one in four American households consisted of a single person -- paralleled the rise of planned communities, clusters of attached townhouses planned around leisure activities and natural amenities (often an artificial lake). The 1973 recession encouraged restrained designs, with smooth wood or stucco siding and bold angles for shed roofs. Cultural ideals were equally important. Uniformity would tame competition. Why try to keep up with the Joneses if your units looked just the same? All too soon, the historical evocations devolved into trite, hyper-controlled Disneyland settings -- pueblos in Nebraska and Italian hill-towns in New Hampshire.

Through it all, single-family houses remained the American ideal. Suburbanites organized to protect this privileged realm from intruders. Some zoning regulations banned apartment buildings, prefabricated homes and townhouses, which the "Me Decade" considered signs of failure for people who couldn't afford "real homes" and wouldn't respect the American way of life.

The New Economy of the 1990s fostered delirious spending with easy credit. Americans were encouraged to borrow far beyond their means. A pervasive taste for extravagance equated size and opulence with luxury. The McMansion, gargantuan in size, appeared, often entailing the demolition of several historical houses. The facades of these homes are adorned with a showy pastiche of super-size motifs. How about some classical columns, two stories high, to stir memories of Southern plantations, alongside huge displays of half-timbering to evoke a Tudor castle? Interiors focus on a majestic stairway and a portentous spectacle called the "Great Room."

A McMansion is rife with contradictions. It's an exhibitionistic house, yet it's set far back from the street, with tall gates and security systems. These Hummer houses appeal to people who want a truly conspicuous display of wealth. They've given freedom of expression a new and rather disturbing meaning: the right to do whatever you want, to be totally self-absorbed. Which is where we are, for the most part, today.

Americans have a preternatural fascination with their homes. Yet the underlying emotions don't always make sense. No one is above it all, unaffected by desires and phobias we didn't expect to feel. As a historian who specializes in domestic architecture, especially American housing, I'm not immune. My husband and I are renters, like most New Yorkers. A decade ago we decided to buy a weekend house in a beautiful woodland setting. The real estate agent laughed at our questions about future value and possible problems with leasing the place; the mortgage broker insisted that we were foolish not to grab the variable rate he offered us. Maybe they were right, I worried, which only strengthened my determination to sign the contract.

Over time we've changed our plans for the future, and last January, we put the house up for sale. Bad timing. The bubble had burst. The quixotic American Dream had turned into a nightmare. Okay, I admit that's an overly emotional response. Nonetheless, like millions of other Americans, I know that it's hard to buy anything right now, and equally difficult to sell without losing money. But let's not lose perspective. Finding an affordable place to rent is the biggest challenge of all.

Gwendolyn Wright is a professor of architecture at Columbia University and the author, most recently, of "USA: Modern Architectures in History."

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