Forum Journal & Forum Focus

The Extraordinary Post-War Suburb 

12-09-2015 17:35

Extraordinary is among the least likely adjectives that would come to most people`s minds in describing the vast residential subdivision tracts developed throughout the metropolitan periphery coast to coast between the late 1940s and the mid 1960s.(See Note 1) Virtually from the start, the physical products of this epochal shift in the nation`s settlement patterns were castigated as oppressively ordinary and mundane. Architects, planners, journalists, and the intellectual community in general branded such development as a despoliation of the landscape with cookie-cutter "boxes," the whole exuding a monotony that was dehumanizing and capable of breeding social, even mental, dysfunction. The phenomenon, many observers charged, was a horrendous speculative free-for- all that was destined to become a wasteland in short order.

As with numerous forms of popular culture that emerged after World War II, a conspicuous disparity existed between the viewpoints of critics and consumers. Attacks on the burgeoning subdivisions tended to focus on appearances, expressing points of view that were to no small degree snobbish-revealing a lack of understanding of the forces that shaped these environments as well as of the concerns of the middle-and moderate-income families that flocked to them in droves.

But however off the mark, it is the criticism that nonetheless lingers in the minds of many preservationists who realize they may soon have to survey and evaluate such places. How can things once so vilified now be seriously earmarked for protection? The thought may linger, too, that preservation`s rise as a national movement in the 1960s was in part predicated on the assumption that it was rescuing older residential areas that were far superior in design and character to the ostensibly "tacky" suburbs then blanketing the countryside. How can the two now be considered on a more- or-less equal footing? Indeed, can the housing tracts of the 1950s ever be justifiably equated with the George-towns or Oak Parks of the nation? The newer places possess none of the rich variety of architecture, or so it seems, and the distinctiveness of design present in many forebears.

Compounding the uneasiness many preservationists may feel in addressing the post-war suburb is the fact that the individuality absent at the inception has often been achieved in later years by remodeling. Maintaining this fabric, thus altered, flies in the face of traditional notions of integrity in preservation. Finding a house in Levittown, N.Y., for example, that retains most of its original features from just over 50 years ago is extremely difficult. With many examples, the character has been greatly modified; in numerous cases, too, it has been transformed beyond recognition. With this extent of change, what are the salient historical attributes that remain; just what is it that should be preserved? And if changes to date are pervasive, how does one assess proposed changes in the future?

But perhaps the biggest psychological barrier to the preservationist`s embrace of post-war suburbs is their size. Tracts frequently entail hundreds, sometimes thousands, of houses-an enormous quantity to single out for protection, particularly if that measure leads to ongoing review of pro-posed changes at the local level. When the components of a tract-street layout, yard size, and house models-are standardized, with only minor variation block after block, does all of the development have to be designated? Might not a sampling be sufficient?

The problem with all these reservations about preserving such properties is that they are based on a vague and unsubstantiated outlook rather than on the thorough historical analysis that must be the basis of any successful, long-term preservation effort. Preservationists have readily accepted the historical frame-works of the Civil Rights Movement and even the Cold War as a foundation for documenting, and in many cases preserving, sites. But, perhaps because of all the critical baggage from four-to-five decades ago, they have been much more reluctant to take a careful look at the post-war suburb on its own terms. The omission is the more unfortunate since there is now a respectable corpus of scholarly literature on the subject. (See Note 2)

When examined from a historical perspective, considering not only relationships to previous settlement patterns but also to subsequent ones, the post-war suburb is a far more significant phenomenon than is generally realized. Never before in the history of habitation in the United States or any other country was such a large share of the population able to afford quarters that were as convenient, as private, and as spacious- both indoors and out. The longstanding dream of owning a freestanding, single-family house set in a capacious yard, with ample space for individual pursuits, became reality for millions of Americans who theretofore had known much more limited possibilities. In the process, both living and landscape patterns were modified to a profound degree. The multiplicity of these developments is a major facet of their significance.

For persons of moderate-to- middle income, housing choices during the first half of the 20th century might include a single-family residence, but generally one of modest proportions. In urban areas, many of these dwellings were attached or semi-detached. When it existed, yard space was generally limited to a small area in front and a utilitarian one at the rear, with narrow strips separating the house from its neighbors. For a large contingent of the working population, home-ownership was not an option; renting space in a walk-up flat, an apartment building, or a rooming house was the only feasible means of securing shelter. The post-war tract house was often larger and more convenient than comparable dwellings of previous decades; it was also filled with new amenities and had easy connections to the out-of- doors.

But the most dramatic departure from the norm lay with siting practices. Property size ranged from twice to several times pre-war standards. Now the long side of houses ran parallel to the street. The front yard was expansive in comparison to earlier years; the rear yard seemed even more so and was now primarily reserved for recreational uses. As vegetation matured, the overall effect was more of a garden setting than an urban one, a characteristic previously con-fined to a comparatively small number of enclaves developed for the well-to-do.

The post-war suburb was made possible by a variety of converging factors. The period was one of unusual and sustained prosperity; by 1955 the gross national product was double that of 1929. In contrast to prevailing patterns in earlier years, skilled labor and management reached accords whereby salary and benefit increases were tied to rising productivity and demand, providing a sizable portion of the blue-collar workforce with unprecedented amounts of leisure time and disposable income. Industrial decentralization intensified, placing hundreds of thousands of additional jobs at the urban periphery. White- and blue-collar households alike had accumulated an unusually large amount of capital through saving during the war, giving them funds they could only have dreamed about during the Depression. The population was swelling, with a huge new generation of young, upwardly mobile families seeking housing in places that were conducive to raising a family. This demand confronted an acute shortage of housing due to the paucity of new, permanent construction since 1930.

Orchestrated incentives played a central role in shaping the nature of new residential development. Through the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), Veterans Administration, and other agencies, the United States government took aggressive steps to encourage new house construction and home ownership. As a result, little or no money was required for down payments; mortgages were structured for extended periods at low interest rates.

At the same time, the FHA insured mortgages taken by builders, greatly facilitating the availability of funds from lending institutions. House builders had entered the world of volume production during the war. Bolstered by experience and capital as well as by the economy and government incentives, many of them began to operate on a far larger scale than they had previously. Building in volume reduced unit cost, but also required an abundance of inexpensive land. Ample acreage of this sort existed on the urban fringe since most pre-war development was still predicated on access to public transportation and thus formed relatively compact extensions of the city. More-over, local officials usually encouraged new construction by rezoning tracts and providing schools, roads, and other infrastructure improvements at little or no cost to the builder. Builders capitalized on these circumstances and on the high, fast-growing rate of automobile use, realizing that people would depend entirely on their vehicles for transportation if that reliance enabled them to experience a better domestic environment.

The scale of post-war house construction far exceeded earlier levels. Probably no single builder came close to the extent of construction undertaken by Levitt & Sons, whose developments on Long Island and in Bucks County, Pa., alone totaled more than 33,000 dwellings. Still, a number of their colleagues now commonly produced tracts of hundreds of houses rather than the dozens that would have been considered sizable previously. This scale fundamentally altered the relationship of individual residences to their neighborhood. Whereas pre-war houses were characteristically viewed as part of a larger, evolving district or community that was created by multiple parties over a sustained period of time, the new tracts seemed like communities unto them-selves- close to, perhaps, but still apart from, other developments.

In part because of its size, the post-war suburban tract was frequently the product of comprehensive, or at least detailed, planning to a far greater degree than most earlier counterparts. For inspiration, builders took many cues from the high-end residential developments that proliferated during the 1910s and especially the 1920s. (See Note 3) FHA subdivision guidelines had a direct impact as well. Without the agency`s approval builders could not get their mortgages insured. But had the thrust of these guidelines substantially departed from patterns with which the real estate industry was familiar, it is likely they would have had markedly less influence. As it was, the fact that FHA planning models often correlated with key features of earlier elite enclaves probably did much to enhance their application. The new work that resulted accorded the automobile over-whelming dominance as the mode of transportation, for the tracts were either differentiated from contiguous parts of the metropolitan area or lay some distance removed from any built-up section. Most were given their own names and a layout that was inward-looking. Natural terrain was generally respected; on more than a few occasions, existing trees were selectively saved and open space preserved for recreational uses. Roadways tended to be curvilinear in response to topography, but also to enhance a sense of variety and to remove through traffic. Indeed, streets were generally configured to discourage vehicles that were not destined for a house in the immediate vicinity. The matrix fostered allusions to rural settings, particularly when landscaping grew, while furthering perceptual disassociation with urban precincts.

The most obvious difference between the large tracts of the post-war era and older ones developed for the affluent was the relatively small size and standardization of house design, which was the aspect that gave rise to so much derision among critics. The premise was faulty, how-ever. Comparable shelter designed for persons of moderate- to-middle income in previous eras-the row houses and bungalows of the early 20th century, for example- were no less homogeneous. Yet post-war tracts proved more conducive to individuality in other, unanticipated ways that were not as easy to realize in the limited confines common to earlier middle-market dwellings. Many post-war house plans stressed open-ness and informality, with which came a new sense of flexibility in spatial use. Those attributes extended to the yard as well, where space was equally accommodating to passive and active uses. Enough room existed so that extra vehicles (including boats) could be stored, shop and yard equipment housed, gardens cultivated, play equipment installed, or terraces, decks, and porches extended. The backyard became a private domain to an extent previously known only to a relatively small percentage of the population. Indoors and out, the arrangement was conducive to additions and modifications based on fluctuating family size, personal interests, and increased means, among other factors. Far more than was found in earlier periods of building, the tract house and yard became malleable entities that could express the needs, tastes, and aspirations of its owners. (See Note 4)

The distinguishing features of post-war suburban tracts, of course, establish the basis for priorities in any preservation effort. Since the multiplicity of the pattern, the scale of many of the developments, and an ambience of totality created through planning are foremost characteristics, the notion that saving this kind of resource can be achieved by retaining a token slice of the whole should be dismissed as being a poor solution, just as it is in any other case where a unified entity is parceled into bits. This maxim holds especially true for the properties in question given that the open, verdant, informal setting is so important an attribute. Besides the assemblage of individually owned lots, parcels set aside for supporting uses-educational, religious, recreational, and commercial-are a key part of the equation. As in any historic district, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, but here the whole is a landscape, broadly defined, that includes, but is much more than, a collection of buildings.

As for the individual properties, when customizing has become an important mark of a development, it should continue as an ongoing process, yet within parameters that prevent the results from eroding the sense of the greater whole. Such an approach requires a serious rethinking of conventional notions of physical integrity in preservation, but it is-like more traditional preservation efforts-based on distinguishing characteristics of significance. Those characteristics must be carefully researched and clearly delineated before any guidelines for treatment are developed. This approach should also include raising the awareness of residents about the value of the original qualities of their houses and yards and inform them on how to make changes that are complementary to the original qualities, just as well-developed historic district guidelines do at present. Yet restrictions should not preclude property owners from electing to take another course if they so choose. In this way, a central trait of the post-war suburb would not be eliminated, while the basic features of the ensemble would be preserved. (See Note 5)

Still the question remains, why should preservationists concern themselves with the post-war suburb at all? Why rush the process, particularly when it necessitates some changes in approach and when the extent of properties in question is so vast? The answer is simple. These set-tings demand our attention not just because they represent an extraordinary chapter in the history of the built environment, but also a finite one. By the late 1960s, new approaches were being taken in large-scale residential development, spurred by escalating land values and construction costs among other factors. Except for dwellings targeted at upper-income levels, tracts tended to have higher densities than their immediate precursors. The row house, re-christened the town house, was reintroduced, not so much as a dwelling of preference as one of economic necessity. The proliferation of interstate highways tended to induce a greater hierarchy of property values and also to bring greater levels of commercial development, some of which emerged as large business centers. The idea that the "average" American family could afford to live in sylvan repose was still perpetrated in real estate advertisements, but became increasingly less realistic. These trends have intensified during the 30 years that have elapsed since then. We cannot entertain the thought of building a post-war suburb today; it would be too expensive, especially for the middle market that made up the original clientele. What has long been taken for granted is now a non-renewable resource.

The post-war suburb is also a threatened resource, although it may not seem that way upon casual observation. Like earlier residential developments, these places tend to face a pivotal point in their lives after the generation that initially occupied them leaves. Assuming no circumstances exist to stimulate premature dispersal, that time span can run between 30 to 50 years. (See Note 6) If a new generation of occupants buys into the community with the aim of long-term investment in their houses, then a new, constructive cycle is begun. If, however, perceptions of the community turn negative-a condition real estate appraisers refer to as "stigma,"-if newcomers see their purchases simply as hand-me-downs, the area can decline. This phenomenon has little to do with the caliber of the physical fabric. Hundreds of thousands of early 20th-century dwellings in cities today are decaying, sometime to an advanced degree, even though they are solidly built, have elegant details, commodious accommodations, and easy access to a variety of business and recreational locations.

The downward cycle will continue to occur unless there is intervention. Preservation has proven itself for decades to be among the most effective long-term methods of breaking the pattern of decline and giving new life to valuable assets. But in recent years preservation has failed to expand and encompass the extent of places it should address. For every new historic district, many times the number of blocks continue to suffer neglect. This failure stems in part from the public stereotype that preservation is an elite pursuit, concerned with esthetic niceties, not social necessities. To rectify both situations, preservation needs to assume the mode of conserving non-renewable resources. The incalculable cost of losing great quantities of our urban fabric, as we do today, needs to be emphasized in economic and social terms, not just in the somewhat arcane ones that so often hold forth when it is proclaimed, for example, that one of a community`s best examples of some so-called "style" is threatened.

The post-war suburb is an ideal staging ground for new initiatives that can broaden preservation`s agenda, because so many of these places are still well maintained and appreciated by their residents. The time is at hand to capitalize on this sentiment and take active steps with communities to ensure that the next wave of residents will understand the value of their acquisitions and invest fully in their future. The challenges are significant because now, like many times and places in the past, the next generation represents a demographic shift and may be led to believe they are only getting second or third best, that theirs is a "used" house whose economic life has become quite limited.

Substantial pressure also may soon exist for more intense development. The post-war suburb long ago ceased being on the urban periphery. Most remain intact, but the time may come when all that space consumed by yards could be seen as wasteful and pressures mount to put it to higher and purportedly better uses.

The post-war suburb is a resource that we cannot afford to squander. If we fail to address the issue, it will be tantamount to admitting that much of our residential fabric, no matter how historically significant and no matter how well built, is essentially disposable matter. The comparatively small oases that are historic districts and others, predominantly occupied by the affluent, will last for generations, renewed by reinvestment at regular intervals, but the great majority of places are destined for shorter, less productive lives. What does this perpetual state of impermanence say about our cities and about us as a society? Are we capable of doing better? Can we conserve what our parents, grandparents, and even great-grandparents labored to create? Preservation has shown that we can, at a modest scale. Just like the house builders after World War II, we need to broaden our horizons and expand the scope of operation to have a really decisive impact on the way people live.


1. Throughout this article, "post-war suburb" is loosely defined to encompass a variety of particular forms. I use it to include large areas of new development in a metropolitan area to which a number of builders contributed-such as Wheaton in Montgomery County, Md., north of Washington, D.C., or Southfield, in Oakland County, Mich., north of Detroit-and also individual developments, ranging from around one hundred to several thousand houses-erected during the two decades after the end of World War II.

2. General surveys include: Gwendolyn Wright, Building the Dream: A Social History of Housing in America (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1981); Joseph B. Mason, History of Housing in the United States, 1930-1980 (Houston: Gulf Publishing, 1982); Kenneth Jackson, Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985); Clifford Edward Clark, Jr., The American Family Home, 1800-1960 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1986); and Robert Fishman, Bourgeois Utopias: The Rise and Fall of Suburbia (New York, Basic Books, 1987).

More specialized writings include: Barry Checkoway, "Large builders, federal housing programmes, and postwar sub-urbanization," International Journal of Urban Regional Research 4 (March 1980), 21-45; Ned Eichler, The Merchant Builders (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1982); Marc Weiss, The Rise of the Community Builders (New York: Columbia University Press, 1987); Richard L. Florida and Marshall M. A. Feldman, "Housing in US Fordism," International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 12 (June 1988), 186- 210; Peter G. Rowe, Making a Middle Landscape (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1991); and Cynthia L. Girling and Kenneth I. Helphand, Yard, Street, Park: The Design of Suburban Open Space (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1994).

In recent years, several detailed case studies have been published: Barbara M. Kelly, Expanding the American Dream: Building and Rebuilding Levittown (Albany: State University of NewYork, 1993); Greg Hise, Magnetic Los Angeles: Planning the Twentieth-Century Metropolis (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997); and Gregory C. Randall, America`s Original GI Town: Park Forest, Illinois (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999). One of the most valuable period studies, which began to challenge conventional perspectives on the post-war suburb, is Herbert Gans, The Levittowners: Ways of Life and Politics in a New Suburban Community (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1967).

3. This genre of residential development has yet to receive the scholarly attention it deserves, particularly from a national perspective that address both immediate impact and long-term influence. Valuable case studies exist for the enterprise that provided a major precedent in the field - Roberta M. Moudry, "Gardens, Houses, and People: The Planning of Roland Park, Baltimore," M.A. thesis, Cornell University, 1990 - and for the largest, most highly regarded example - William S. Worley, J. C. Nichols and the Shaping of Kansas City (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1990). See also Robert M. Behar and Maurice G. Culot, Coral Gables: An American Garden City (Paris: Editions Norma, 1997).

4. Little in depth examination of this subject has been published. For exceptions, see Kelly, Expanding the American Dream, esp. chaps. 5 and 6; and, for earlier dwellings, Alice Gray Read, "Making a House a Home in a Philadelphia Neighborhood," in Camille Wells, ed. Perspectives in Vernacular Architecture, II (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1986), 192-199; Chris Wilson, "Spatial Mestizaje on the Pueblo-Hispanic- Anglo Frontier," Mass, Journal of the School of Architecture, University of New Mexico, 10 (Fall 1994), 40-49; and Paul Groth and Marta Gutman, "Workers Houses in West Oakland," and Marta Gutman, "Five Buildings on One Corner and Their Change Over Time" in Suzanne Stewart and Mary Praetzellis, eds., "Sights and Sounds: Essays in Celebration of West Oak-land," Anthropological Studies Center, Sonoma State University, Rohert Park, Cal., 1997, 31-84, 113-132, resp.

5. The subject is discussed in relation to substantially different forms of housing stock in Deborah Marquis Kelly and Jennifer Goodman, "Conservation Districts as Alternatives to Historic Districts," Historic Preservation Forum 7 (September-October 1993), 6-14. A premise for the authors` argument, however, is that the fabric in question lacks sufficient historical significance for district designation, a point with which a number of historians of vernacular architecture and urbanism would disagree.

6. What real estate appraisers refer to as the "physical life" of a house-the period for which it will remain standing without significant repairs or improvements is around 50 years. A house`s "economic life"-the period for which it can remain useful-can be extended over many times that period with proper maintenance and improvements, a process to which preservation has contributed in a very substantial way. I am grateful to Eugene Pasymowski, M.A.I., for his insights on the appraisal process.

Publication Date: Fall 2000



Author(s):Richard Longstreth