In America, houses are the stuff of which dreams are made. Houses that will draw us nearer to God. Houses that will save our children from the ways of wickedness. Houses whose technological delights will free us from dreariness and drudgery. Houses that will rescue us and return us all, as a nation, to the ideal of Jeffersonian democracy.
In "Building the Dream," Gwendolyn Wright recounts the saga of the American quest for the ideal "model home." Wright is among that relatively new group of historians whose object is the reconstruction of everyday life, the mundane and intimate affairs that give us vivid pictures of how it was to live at various moments in the past. An architect as well, she has set herself the dual task of examining the high-toned intentions of the nation's most powerful builders and planners and at the same time exploring how people organized their lives around the houses, apartments and tenements where they ended up.
She has identified 13 types of dwellings -- from the Puritan "plain style" cabins that were to be "a microcosm of God's exacting structure for the universe" to the modern double-wide mobile home. Of each one she asks profound questions: not merely whether it met the minimal needs of shelter for its inhabitants, but what it could tell us about the dreams, the turmoil and the capacities of American culture at the time it was built.
For example: The lack of large windows in early colonial houses was due to more than a shortage of glass in the New World; it reflected the Puritan view of nature as fundamentally evil, wild and corrupt, something which was to be shut out of the well-ordered home. Yet within that home there was an expectation of total openness in which the family gathered communally about the hearth. The Puritan household abhorred privacy. Even sleeping quarters lacked walls and doors so that all would be open to God or at least to the surveillance of God's household agent, the patriarchal father.
Once the Revolution had been won, however, all that changed. The idea of Puritan communality was long dead. The fragility of the white man's civilization had been replaced by a robust sense of natural and national conquest. It was a time of great idealism and optimism. Nature, no longer representing the dark tangle of savagery, became the idyllic setting where Jefferson's farmer-citizens could erect the ideal Republic, as Wright says:
"For Jefferson, and for many other civic leaders, there was a problem of guiding, but not regulating, domestic settings. How could Americans create an environment that protected the respect for order, self-sufficiency, and spirituality they held in common, without imposing on the freedom of each individual and each family to live as they pleased? The answer was the concept of the model home."
Even more, as the country embarked on its great industrial adventure, and as the working man was drawn out of the family and into the factory, contemporary writers came to see the home as "the locus of a sentimental search for meaning and security." Not incidentally, it also became the official "woman's place." For the first time a special "work room" was set aside in the rear of the house where a mother and her daughters undertook "household production" -- cooking, washing and making everything from brooms and soap to small butter churns.
With the church thoroughly displaced by the idea of secular authority, leading American thinkers turned to the well-designed and well-crafted home as the bedrock of democracy. Andrew Jackson Downing, one of the era's leading writers and thinkers, called for "republican homes," attractive yet modest homes that would provide their inhabitants with a sense of proportion and would act as a counterforce to the rising "spirit of unrest." It was the social environment, not nature or original sin, these early social engineers argued, which would shape man's and the nation's destiny.
Order, freedom and progress -- the self-conscious preoccupations of 19th-century America -- time and again became the focal concerns of how Americans were to be housed. Would long rows of uniform, company-built boarding houses contribute best to the moral uplift of factory workers, or would tiny worker's cottages provide them a more stable family life? Did the arrival of apartment buildings bring modern conveniences to city dwellers, or did the fact of many families sharing a single roof contribute to wanton, "European" immorality and "communistic" tenencies? Did the elegant moldings and cornices of Victorian houses and furnishings elevate ordinary people by giving them a touch of elegance, or did they encourage clutter, decadence and disease?
Through all these architectural debates Wright traces one fine thread. From the hordes of Chinese immigrants stacked 10 to a room in San Francisco to the genteel apartment dwellers of upper Park Avenue, there has been but one route to full citizenship in America: the ownership of a single-family house. As the U.S. Commissioner of Labor explained in 1905, Wright says, the home "above all things, means privacy. It means the possibility of keeping your family off from other families. There must be a separate house, and as far as possible, separate rooms, so that at an early period of life the idea of rights to property, the right to things, to privacy, may be instilled."
There is in all this the danger of circular reasoning. Just because homebuilders and highway contractors have laid out cities with endless acres of suburban sprawl, it does not mean that other residential models might not have won out had the accidents of history fallen along other lines. It is, after all, the architectural winners who were most often provided the opportunity to justify their works in the popular magazines that Wright most frequently cites.
Had the Building Trades Unions evolved in another political direction, had co-op builder Alfred E. Smith beaten homebuilder Herbert Hoover in the '28 election, had banking and tax laws favored lending to apartment owners over homeowners, had railroads and mass transit lobbyists defeated the highway lobbyists, then we might have a very different record of morals and models linking our houses to our dreams. Aside from the frequently tedious, academic style of her text, this is Wright's greatest liability. While she provides an intriguing history of how our houses reflect the dominant outlines of American culture, her account carries the quality of inevitability.
We learn interesting details of how technological inventions like the elevator and the electric light bulb brought about a boom in apartment construction. But we learn little of the political fights in Chicago's and New York's city councils, of the techniques Boss Tweed and Samuel Insull used to wire and pave their cities, of who won the franchises for streetcar lines, of which sorts of builders made the kind of payoffs necessary for their own success -- in short, of the grubbier details by which some "model homes" became winners and others losers. What Wright has given us is a first-rate history of our dreams and our ideals -- the work of an architect. What we are still missing is the work of a careful political historian to tell us how those dreams and ideals have been hammered into the living rooms of our memories.