Between 1945 and 1946, when the end of World War II spurred the demobilization of 7.6 million Americans who were in military service, Chicago veterans returned to a city short by more than 100,000 homes. Homes affordable to young adults starting anew were especially lacking. The G.I. Bill offered help. The benefits program for returning vets offered them extremely low-cost or free career training or higher ed. That kept many G.I.s out of the housing market for a while, but put pressure on where they chose to study. Northwestern built one-hundred Quonset huts for its rush of students. That lack of student housing foreshadowed a coming surge in demand for non-student housing and other structures that young families would need. The opportunities were apparent to some of the same returnees starved for student housing. The demand for buildings nudged so many Illinois vets into architecture programs that the University of Illinois pushed entering Chicago students into temporary classrooms at Navy Pier where some hopefuls were weeded out and the rest transferred to the big campus in Urbana.
Single-family homes with modern amenities were an obsession of young Americans following the war. Home building had all but stopped during the Great Depression and World War II, and even without the influx of G.I.s ready for independent adult life, the region was destined to be woefully short of housing. Siobhan Moroney, a professor of politics and the chair of the American Studies Program at Lake Forest College describes the shortfall in her engaging new book “Chicagoland Dream Houses: How a Mid-Century Architecture Competition Reimagined the American Home.” Moroney debunks the common wisdom that the postwar housing boom was propelled by the postwar Baby Boom.
It was the long drought in building, more than the fecundity of ex-soldiers’ families, that created the shortage. “While the sudden jump in marriage and procreation get most of the attention as a postwar cultural phenomenon, the housing boom preceded it, not the other way around,” she notes. During the Depression and the war, “builders, sociologists, demographers, and government officials knew of and remarked on the lack of adequate housing” and saw a squeeze coming once the country’s economy was healthier and also freed from a maximal war. Moroney has unburied a 1943 alarm sounded by the Chicago Tribune that the city’s retail stores, builders and suppliers of building materials needed to gear up for a vast “boom” in demand. The paper also anticipated that the boom would be realized with technologies and materials that had evolved since the city’s construction rigor mortis froze the residential building stock in the 1920s.
Housing would be a chief beneficiary of all that was new and booming, and Chicago would see an outsized proportion of new homes. A September 1945 ad in the magazine Progressive Architecture, published one month before VJ day, asked the building professions: “Are YOU ready for the POSTWAR BUILDING BOOM?” The ad hawked a book that instructed architects–and their illustrators–on how to prepare attractive, consumer-friendly color renderings of their designs. This was all well before maternity wards began to overflow.
Moroney makes the point that while the building boom was widely, wildly anticipated, prognosticating social scientists, newspaper pundits and advertisers seemed to miss forecasting the coming Baby Boom entirely.
Newspapers played a big part in the housing market over nearly all of the last century. They were often the first place people looked for available housing. Following the war, young men stationed themselves in front of the Tribune Tower vying for a first crack at the ads for available housing. Between ads and features on home design, domestic real estate filled much of the paper and the paper’s coffers. Seeing itself at the center of the housing boom, on September 30, 1945, the Tribune devoted a full page to announce an open contest, “The Chicago Prize Homes Competition.” Rich with $24,000 (about $300,000 today) in prize money–with $1,000 prizes in several categories–it would pick outstanding original designs for single-family homes with the professed aim “to encourage better home design, to help launch America’s building revival and to create more jobs.” A panel of architects and builders would judge the submissions. It’s this contest that Moroney resurrects, pulling mainly from the Tribune’s own implausibly abundant, prolonged coverage of it, but also highlighting the contest’s impact across the nation.
During the war, one-third of the nation’s architects were in uniform and the country’s stock of building materials was requisitioned for military infrastructure and weaponry. The coming civil boom would unleash it all, and for architects heading to the private sector, the Tribune’s house design contest was a barnburner. The paper set a tight deadline, just ten weeks after the announcement. Even so, the call drew close to 1,000 entrants. Architects could enter in three major categories, divided by house sizes ranging from 1,100 square feet for a family of three to 1,700 square feet for a family of five. There would be a number of prizes in each category with twenty-eight winners altogether. Some of the winners were architects still in the armed forces; their pictures in the paper show them in their starched uniforms. There were a few present and future superstar architects, too. Marcel Breuer and I.M. Pei were among entrants who did not win. Neither did E. Stewart Williams, who in 1945 was one year away from the beginning of his Palm Springs career that produced a classic cluster of signature mid-century-modern commercial and residential projects there.
Some losers would eventually end up celebrated, too. The Tribune ran a series of twenty articles on also-rans that writers at the paper deemed worthy of attention. When the Tribune published an illustrated book on the contest, it included some of the designs that didn’t win, including Breuer’s. When the Tribune wrote to tell the worthy also-rans they’d be included in the volume, it noted that while the contest had every right to publish all designs without consideration, the paper had decided to split some of the proceeds of the book—if it sold well enough—among the included losers since they had not received any of the initial prize money. The book appeared in 1948 with a large initial run of 100,000 copies.
The first five winners of the contest were published on the front page of the paper’s colorful Sunday “Graphic Section,” on February 3, 1946. Getting the images into print required quick work from artists the Tribune had employed to convert the entrants’ designs into alluring renderings, all set in verdant backgrounds amid the large, mature, lush trees that could fill a new lot twenty years hence. As depicted, these one- and two-story homes would look familiar to anyone who has traveled through sections of Chicago or the leafier suburbs that were developed in the 1950s and 1960s. The winning homes tended to be both linear and boxy, clean of ornament and sculptural elements. Gone are courtyards and porches, but big windows are a common feature. Most of the houses were what critic David Smiley called, “modified modern,” featuring “blended features, designed to appeal to a broad market rather than a rarified one.”
Other batches of winners were revealed in small doses in the weeks to come. This gave the contest the suspense of other newspaper mainstays meant to hook readers, such as the drip-by-drop scandals that unfolded in gossip columns or the cliffhangers in serial comics. The Tribune designed the coverage for the domestic ritual around the big Sunday papers which were thick with sections that would be doled out among family members. The contest coverage gave adults a color section to covet, full of their own possible adventures in the thrilling near future, a kind of Buck Rogers in the mid-twentieth century. Just imagine, the coverage seemed to imply, rolling out of your own garage in your brightly chromed Pontiac Streamliner coupe. Or, more realistically, in your Woody station wagon filled with your family of five.
Moroney offers the ironic observation that today’s love for mid-century-modern style wasn’t widely shared by home buyers in the middle of the last century. Nevertheless, she makes the essential point that no matter what the outward style of the contest entrants, the designs were up-to-date in their amenities and in the layout of the rooms. The layout of the then-modern house broke with the past in key ways. None of the homes, for instance, had rooms for maids, which had been commonplace in homes, even relatively modest ones, built prior to the Depression. Rooms did not connect, shotgun-style, solely through other rooms. Some of the submissions left no space to dine in kitchens and instead maximized dining rooms. There were no rooms designed with older relatives in mind: the oldest generation at home was presumed to be that of the young-adult buyer. Besides, the parents of the returnees were likely to be middle-aged, vital and still working. (In fact, once the Baby Boom boomed, the children of the G.I.s made up the era’s biggest dependent class of Americans.) Bathrooms and master bedrooms offered more room and privacy than did those in most earlier houses. Postwar houses needed to reimagine space to make room for labor-saving appliances and for newly engineered heating and cooling systems. And, of course, the up-to-date single-family home required room for a car, sometimes two, in a garage or under a carport.
Nearly every contest submission, whether it aped or rejected traditional designs, included a fireplace, a residual element leftover from previous generations of houses, but which had scant practical purpose in a postwar home. Moroney concludes that fireplaces offered the comfort of a hearth as a familiar sentimental center for home and family. In many of the designs, the exterior of the chimneys are signature features where architects played more freely with materials and shape. Only recently has the inclusion of fireplaces in new homes begun to decline. Today, just fifty-five percent of new houses feature them, in part because homebuilding is concentrated in hotter, drier regions where floating embers can spark wildfires. Also because hearths leave less room for large screens. Too great a loss? Google lists 373 million fireplace videos.
An exhibition of the first winners followed. The Art Institute was the inaugural host, and the show traveled from there. When visitors were polled on their favorite houses, they consistently picked those of more traditional designs over, say, those that veered toward the modern International Style. When the Tribune asked professional decorators to suggest furnishings for winning homes, they also chose furniture conservatively, picking room sets in a style that today might be called “Grandma’s Williamsburg.” Overstuffed and rounded buttoned chairs and couches, Colonial-style chests and bed frames and yards of chintz floral upholstery ruled. The public and the chosen designers were at sharp odds with architecture critics who wrote about the contest; the commentariat largely favored the more-forward designs.
The home contest was so successful that one year after the whole house competition premiered, the paper announced the “Annual Better Rooms Competition,” a corollary contest for the architectural design of rooms in single-family houses. That, too, proved popular. It extended the Tribune’s influence and potential to sell advertising, not just to new-home builders and realtors, but to those catering to modernizing decorators and rehabbers and to families building extra rooms or enclosing the screened porches that were a standard feature in homes prior to air conditioning.
My father, S. Guy Fishman, was a preternaturally gifted artist. From a young age, he had a near photographic spatial-visual memory. If he saw a locale or a person once, he could draw it for the rest of his life. And beautifully. He painted, too. It was a family gift. When he left the Navy, he hoped to follow his older brother into the fine arts. He gave little thought to a standard university education. My pragmatic grandfather, a small-time property investor who saw opportunities to come, pushed him into architecture. At the University of Illinois, my father found other gifted artists on the road to architecture, heading to fill the city and the growing suburbs with homes for their generation.
My father entered the “Annual Better Rooms Competition” in 1951 while he was still a student at the University of Illinois. Entrants were anonymous to the judges, who may or may not have seen my father’s distinctive rendering style in his submissions. In any case, he won in four of the contest’s seven categories and, with $3,050 in prize money, became the biggest winner ever in the contest. There’s colorful family lore about the morning the telegram from the Tribune arrived at his Champaign apartment. My dad was astonished; his school friends feted him. The Trib’s judges and writers were surprised, too. The paper’s coverage led with the twenty-three-year old Navy vet and student—my father—who beat the pros and featured a spread of his renderings of his dining room, child’s bedroom and adult bedroom. A photo of my dad, who to his friends had a passing resemblance to a young Frank Sinatra, filled a quarter of one of the big broadsheet pages, dominating other winners who had school-yearbook-sized pics.
Looking at the page recently in the Tribune’s online archive I was surprised to see that one of my father’s future best friends, Robert Diamant, was a co-winner in the kitchen-design category. Soon after, Diamant joined Skidmore Owings & Merrill, where he rose to be a managing partner and was one of the top architects on the teams that created the Sears Tower and the John Hancock Building. Contest wins and losses that gained attention not only propelled many of the winners into prominent firms and careers, they created a corps of evangelists for the new modes of domestic design that matched the changing aspirations of postwar buyers with strong, affordable design.
As I look back on my dad’s designs, they astonish in another way. My father grew up in undistinguished neighborhood apartments in the city. His Navy experience after high school kept him on bases in the United States. He was the youngest of five children in a family filled with musicians and artists who were classically trained. Yet, my father’s submissions to the room contest show a distinctively modern aesthetic, something he picked up at the University of Illinois in an era when the school was a daring design and taste leader.
Mortgage assistance was another feature of the G.I. Bill. In May 1946, Congress approved a national building program aimed at providing housing for 2.7 million vets and their families. With government help, returning veterans could finance new homes with low-interest mortgages and often with no down payments. Banks were bucked up with government loan protection, which allowed them to significantly broaden their lending. Eligible homes had to be 1,500 square feet or less, well within most of the designs in the Tribune competition. Site-built homes, however, might not have been the nation’s new house of choice. President Truman, together with Wilson W. Wyatt, his Housing Expeditor for the Office of War Mobilization (a cabinet position), pushed strongly for a government-business partnership to build prefabricated,“factory-made,” housing. The presumed virtues of prefab were that houses could be built quickly and cheaply. The use of concrete, which had been one of the most vital strategic assets in the war, had been honed on bunkers, roads, airstrips, bases and giant armament factories, and, Truman hoped, could now be deployed to mass produce sturdy housing on a giant scale. Wyatt was persuasive on that count. As the wartime mayor of Louisville, his massive and rapid buildout of civil defenses at a time when materials were scarce made that city a national model. He argued that prefabricated housing could achieve the speed and efficiencies needed to fill the national housing shortage. Wyatt proposed that the government take over the 6.3 million-square-foot Chrysler factory complex in Chicago’s West Lawn neighborhood to make the houses. The thirty-block site was built between 1942 and 1944 to supply aircraft engines to warplanes. During the war it employed 16,000 workers. (Workers who came to the city to serve military suppliers were a factor in the housing shortage and expected boom). Workers at the plant, and demobilized soldiers could make a similarly intense effort to build homes for vets. Had the plan succeeded, the factory would have turned out thousands of standardized homes and perhaps led to other production centers around the country. The plan failed. The government could not wrest the plant from Chrysler, which was already deploying it to make cars. The project’s political opponents labeled the effort as dangerously “socialistic,” which probably put the kibosh on any plans to scope alternate sites for making government-built homes.
The Tribune contest, the related exhibitions, and a book which also collected the winning designs, rolled out into a market just when site-built housing would be the only choice for new buyers. It was a time in Chicago when the promise of nearly irresistibly cheap mortgages made the 100,000 returning vets into potential new homebuyers.
From the beginning of the contest, the Tribune always aimed to see some of the winning entrants get built. Registrants were told that designs would be used to erect 144 houses in and around the city. It was a small leap in 1946 for the Tribune to get builders in the Chicago area to finance and ultimately sell homes from the contest to veterans. Groundbreaking began that year on a few houses, but not anything close to the number the Tribune had aimed for. The trail of the built designs isn’t easy to follow. To date, nineteen have been identified, but there could be more. West Rogers Park was the site of ten homes built around the same time and opened for tours. Department stores that advertised in the paper furnished them. Others were built in Highland Park, Wheaton, Lombard, Elmhurst and Palatine. Most still stand; the majority have been enlarged. Moroney offers detailed comment on the built houses. She includes testimony, much of it touching, from the residents who reside in them today. Not all of the current homeowners knew of their houses’ origins or who the architects were, a reminder of the anonymous pasts of so many of the places where we live. Even the histories of once widely publicized and celebrated homes can be obliterated in less than a lifetime.
I doubt that many, if any, of the residents of Meadowbrook, the Wheeling, Illinois housing development with hundreds of houses that my father somehow bootstrapped together when he was just twenty-five, have any idea who designed their homes. Following his graduation from the University, he worked briefly in a Chicago architecture firm. His license required it. But he moved to start his own firm as soon as he could. He was a quiet man who I cannot remember ever boasting about himself. What my siblings and I learned about the Tribune Contest came from my mother and his admiring friends. My father was, however, confident of his talent, and of the qualities that came through when he showed his work. The Tribune contest likely bolstered that confidence and gave him seed money to strike out on his own. The buyers of the Wheeling homes were mostly families of vets who used the G.I. Bill mortgage benefits, and he built the homes to standards that made them qualify. Nearly all of those houses still stand today. Their designs look like many of the more modern homes in the contests. Simple and modern, they didn’t push too hard against conventional architectural tastes. Though small and single-story, they have high ceilings and let in lots of light, strategically shaded to help keep the homes cool. All of them could have fit comfortably into the Tribune’s Chicagoland Prize Homes Competition, though he never entered the contest for whole-home design.
The Meadowbrook houses were starter homes then. They probably still are. The demographic snapshot of Meadowbrook on the web-based real estate data site neighborhoodscout.com reports that English is not the primary language in at least half of the development’s households. By the 1960s, my dad largely abandoned home design, but for projects for a few friends. He went bigger, designing scores of schools, municipal and private office buildings and houses of worship.
Moroney’s book digs deep into the mid-century housing market and the mindset that produced so many homes after the Second World War and through to the present. She shows how the contest ignited the aesthetic and commercial imaginations of architects—and aspiring architects—reentering what was in essence a brand-new market following a drought in homebuilding that lasted for nearly a generation. Readers may never see the vast stock of postwar homes the same way again. Not only did their designs refashion the family home, they created an ideal made possible by a combination of media attention, marketing and government intervention.
Americans largely misunderstand what drove the postwar building boom because we forget the deprivations that came before it. The proliferation of affordable, often marginally distinguished homes, has long been mocked. While working on this piece, three friends sang to me bits of the song “Little Boxes,” a hit for folk singer Pete Seeger in the early 1960s. The song skewers homes in big developments as “ticky-tacky and they all look just the same.” The era often plays back to us draped in the shadows of film noir, the novels of disillusionment or the era of vast social and economic inequality and perverted justice. Those realities were certainly present, but so was the expansive optimism of a big population unleashed from the Depression and war, newly welcomed at universities and able to buy new homes in places where trees might eventually match the aspirational renderings. A boom was predicted and it came, with transformative design and technology promising a better tomorrow. Moroney acknowledges the postwar era’s failings, but she also guides readers through an era when hope worked both to drive millions of Americans forward and to drive a big sector of the economy that literally gave hope a home.
As for my father, he died on his eightieth birthday in 2007. My family sometimes drives through the Wheeling development where my parents also had their first house. My mom, now in her mid-nineties, drove by recently. She recalled the community as one where neighbors picnicked and had parties often. Friendships were close and lasting. That first generation of buyers, the one’s my parents befriended, all moved to tonier suburban spots, but they socialized together for decades. Privately, my father always painted and sketched and joined art classes, sometimes with artist friends he met in Champaign. The few homes my father built for family and friends, as well as his larger projects, were in a style of his own, but he remained inspired by Modernists. They are often beautiful expressions of materials and minimalist design. Many were both elegantly designed and built for economy, too. The judges of the Tribune Chicago Prize Homes Competition would have approved.
“Chicagoland Dream Houses: How a Mid-Century Architecture Competition Reimagined the American Home”
By Siobhan Moroney
University of Illinois Press, 312 pages
Ted C. Fishman is a Chicago-based writer and the international best-selling author of “China, Inc.” and “Shock of Gray.” His books appear in twenty-seven languages. In addition to Newcity, the many publications he’s written for include The Atlantic, The New York Times Magazine, Esquire, GQ, National Geographic, Harper’s, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Chicago Magazine and Chicago Reader.