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«HISTORICAL BACKGROUND Post-WWII Population Growth and U.S. Housing Shortage: Without a doubt no American industry was harder hit by the Great ...»

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Louisiana Architecture: 1945-1965

Post-War Subdivisions and the Ranch House


Post-WWII Population Growth and U.S. Housing Shortage:

Without a doubt no American industry was harder hit by the Great Depression and the

Second World War than housing. Over this protracted sixteen year period, annual housing starts

fell to less than 10% of what they had been during the boom days of the “Roaring Twenties.” Numerous architectural practices and construction firms simply “went under.” But during this same time span, the American marriage rate actually increased, in fact sharply. And by obvious extension, so did the birth rate. Add to the mix nine million service men returning from the war expecting to marry, settle down and start a family. It comes as no surprise that the marriage rate in 1946 was at an all-time high, followed by an eighteen year baby boom.

As the baby boom generation took off, the U. S. housing market was not merely stretched, it was in full-blown crisis. Literally millions of families were living with relatives and friends. Emergency measures included over 50,000 people making temporary shelter in disused Army Quonset huts, and in Chicago, 250 surplus transit electric trolley cars being sold for makeshift housing. Some newly married couples sub-let from other renters. All of this led to crowded houses and apartments, which, especially in the summer, in the days before air- conditioning, made for something less than domestic bliss. Cooped up with in-laws, in hot urban apartments (with probably a baby on the way), newly married couples wanted freedom and space – their own front door that they could open and close when they wanted to.

Actually, the prospect of a dream home had been dangled before them for a while. As Shreveport, Louisiana columnist Helen Stranahan wrote in 1948: “One of the bright prospects which helped make the war years more endurable was the ‘house of the future.’ As an escape from the grim news shouting from the radio and leaping from the printed page, the entire family, at times, turned to the newspaper stories and magazine articles describing their home of tomorrow – the dwelling place with all the special characteristics and scientific gadgets the designers, engineers and manufacturers had been working on for years.”

The American Response:

How much housing was needed nationwide? Official estimates went as high as five million houses or apartments. And they were needed now, not in a year or two. This huge need, along with the coming together of improved financing and assembly line mass production, created the much noted post-war housing boom in America. The faces of our towns and cities were changed forever as filings were made for subdivision after subdivision, and thousands upon thousands of detached single family houses were built. In the nation as a whole, morethan six 1    million single family houses were built in the 1950s, accounting for 81% of all new residential starts. The vast majority were in a new genre called the ranch house (see below).

The European Response:

The post-WWII housing shortage knew no boundaries. If it was a crisis in the United States, it was infinitely worse in war-devastated Europe. Even nations that had not been conquered, or did not see military action directly on the ground, suffered great damage from dropped incendiary bombs and primitive Nazi ram-jet ballistic missiles. As British architectural historian Lesley Jackson observes: “The massive physical destruction inflicted on so many European cities meant that governments were faced with an acute housing shortage.... In addition, because of the displacement of large populations, the shortage was on an unprecedented scale.” In addressing the housing crisis, all western industrialized countries responded in much the same way – all, that is, except the United States. Indeed, in the light of history, it is instructive to view the overall European approach to housing as a counterpoint, a contrast, to the American approach. Essentially, the European approach focused upon large apartment blocks, in or near cities, built or sponsored by government. The American approach focused on huge numbers of single family free-standing homes, built by private enterprise, on vast tracts of privately owned vacant land (generally farmland), often at some distance from urban cores.

The reasons for the totally different approaches to the post-war housing crisis are rooted in long-standing differences between the nations of Europe and the United States. For one thing, open land in “old” Europe was scarce and precious. This was an ancient continent filled with small countries with huge populations. Consider England. With a land mass about the size of Louisiana and Arkansas combined, it had, in the post-war years, over 50 million people! Then there were ancient titles, active land leases of literally hundreds of years, entailed property and scores of fragmented owners. Putting together an open swath of land big enough to build even a small American style shopping center would have been difficult.

Then there was the issue of transport. Car ownership was not as widespread as in America, and gasoline was horrifically expensive. Europeans were accustomed to a clean and efficient system of public transportation (trains, regular buses). This tended to limit city expansion to contained directions and areas.

So it was that the British government built vast housing estates like Roehamption, near London, and the French government built Le Corbusier’s Unite d’Habitation in Marseilles.

Various communist governments built mile after mile of depressing five story poured concrete apartment blocks across the Soviet Empire. The Soviet architects believed that a five story apartment building was the ideal residential walk-up. After all, six stories might require an elevator. In sum, as American suburbanization historian Kenneth Jackson concludes, “Nowhere in Europe was there the land, the money, or the tradition for single family home construction.”

2  Financing the American Dream:

It was all in the financing. Today’s idealistic new urbanists have been known to lament America’s response to the post-war housing shortage. The whole system created by Congress, they say, had an anti-existing structure, anti-urban bias. The very way the government set up the post-war mortgage financing system drove the market in the direction of new unplanned, single family house-on-lot developments (sprawl), and away from more enlightened planned communities, apartments, terrace homes, neighborhood revitalization, mixed use, and the like.

The reality is a bit more long-term and a bit more nuanced.

The home mortgage was a relatively new instrument. In the nineteenth century, home ownership was the preserve of people fairly high on the social scale. Families of means generally bought their homes, or paid to have them built, outright. By the 1920s the system had broadened to include short-term loans – three to ten years with a large down-payment (30-50%) and the whole principal due at the end. This “balloon payment” feature meant that families without enough capital had to re-finance from time to time. It was this rather loose arrangement that populated the bungalow suburbs of the day. In the prosperous “Roaring Twenties” it worked fine. With the Depression, it collapsed.

It was President Franklin D. Roosevelt who said, “A nation of homeowners, of people who own a real share in their land, is unconquerable.” So it was that he pushed the National Housing Act of 1934 through Congress. Its ostensible purpose was to stimulate construction without direct government spending. It established the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), which, importantly, neither built homes nor lent money. Rather, it induced lenders to make loans to homebuyers by insuring them against any financial loss from, say, a long gone “sour,” a bad loan or a foreclosure. And this was backed by the full weight of the United States Treasury.

In 1938, Roosevelt’s New Deal went further when it established the Federal National Mortgage Association, a quasi-public financial entity popularly known by its nickname, Fannie Mae. Fannie Mae provided government money to local banks to give them further inducement and wherewithal to make more loans and thus raise the national level of homeownership.

There were a host of subsequent federal housing acts through the 1940s and beyond, all generally liberalizing mortgage terms for buyers (mortgage terms of 25 to 30 years, lower downpayments, etc.). The G I Bill boosted home purchases by: (1) authorizing the Veteran’s Administration to guarantee mortgages for returning WWII veterans, and (2) allowing veterans to buy a home with no down-payment.

By the 1950s individual homeownership had become something of a right. With an acute post-war housing shortage (millions of units needed), overcrowded neighborhoods and existing houses at a premium, huge numbers of detached individual homes on tracts of previous vacant land appeared everywhere. This was the only direction such a mammoth housing effort could reasonably have gone. And the numbers worked. As one transplant from New York City to suburban New Jersey remarked at the time, “We had been paying $50 per month rent, and here we come up and live for $29 a month. That paid everything – taxes, principal, insurance on your mortgage, and interest.” No doubt, the FHA insured fixed-rate mortgage, along with a good 3    paying union job, was a ticket to middle class standing for many a blue collar family. And with good roads, and land cheap and plentiful, there was no financial reason for builders to create high-density housing developments. Neither would the customer have desired them.

Rapid, Assembly Line Construction:

In the years after WWII, the United States housing industry underwent nothing less than a revolution in size, power and capacity. Before the war it had been the most neglected of industries. Afterwards it emerged as a titan, transforming the American townscape as nothing had before.

Credit for the revolution is generally accorded to New York developer William J. Levitt, of Levittown fame. Levitt has been called “the Henry Ford of housing” because he brought Ford’s pioneering techniques in mass producing the inexpensive Model T to mass producing low-price suburban homes. The analogy is fair and apt. But it can be argued that Levitt went beyond Ford by embracing a business model, pioneered in the nineteenth century by Andrew Carnegie and Henry Clay Frick for the production of steel, known as vertical consolidation.

Under this model, the industrialist keeps costs down and production up (and reliable) by controlling every step in the production of a particular commodity for market. Vertical consolidation well and truly eliminates the middle man and his added costs.

Before the war, the U. S. housing industry was a patchwork of small-time businessmen – independent contractors who employed subcontractors and purchased materials very much on a “by-the-job” basis. Each produced three to five houses per year. Many were designed and built at the behest of individual property owners and were, at least somewhat, customized. The owner chose the style as well as numerous individual features – screened porch, slate roof, Gothic casement windows, etc. Sometimes the owner purchased two lots and built a larger home.

Single-lot jobs (with smaller houses) filled in around it. Sometimes owners did not build for years; thus, when they did build, it was a house of a later style or genre. All of this produced the older suburbs that today’s preservationists prize – neighborhoods that show depth of time, variety and richness.

Levitt thought the whole system, if you could call it that, absurdly inefficient. Levitt’s first major opportunity to change the construction system came in 1941 when he and his brother Alfred (an architect) won a Navy contract to develop a war worker’s community in Norfolk, Virginia. At first the job went badly, due as Levitt saw it, to: 1) the antiquated system of construction oversight and, 2) unionized laborers whose wage demands, he felt, far outstripped their productivity. To meet the Navy’s tight deadlines while making a reasonable profit, Levitt completely reorganized the job. In the process he began developing a business model that would serve him well in the post-war years.

Levitt broke the construction process down to its essentials and identified 27 individual jobs, or steps, needed to construct a building from beginning to end. He then trained 27 teams of men, each to perform just one step. Instead of Ford’s assembly line, in which car bodies moved along by conveyor with each worker installing one part, Levitt’s specialized construction teams 4    moved from site to site, each performing just one job – pouring concrete, framing up wall studs, installing windows, installing doors, etc Levitt’s wartime experience enabled him to refine and expand his techniques in rapid automated construction. He emerged after the war as perhaps the nation’s leading expert on mass housing. He formed a new company and commenced construction of Levittown housing developments beginning in New York State. (He also did developments in Pennsylvania.) And the company flourished, quickly supplying thousands of low-cost homes to returning war veterans and their families. In those days an average working man’s wage was about $3,000 a year. A basic Levitt Cape Cod model sold for $7,990. And they were sold on favorable terms, nothing down. The Levitt organization even threw in a free television and a Bendix clothes washer.

Importantly, Levitt controlled every step in the process – from buying land, to laying out streets, to building the homes, to providing for neighborhood amenities such as churches, schools and swimming pools, to marketing and selling the homes, to providing mortgage financing for buyers. The Levitt organization also provided for all the needed building materials – right down to manufacturing its own construction nails, lest a dilatory nail supplier disrupt the Swiss watch efficiency of the construction operation. Levitt even provided for all of the lumber by acquiring thousands of acres of timberland in Oregon to supply its New York State housing developments.

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