The Twentieth-Century House

Drawing from the past and looking to the future.

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Frank Lloyd Wright

Looking back a hundred years, we can see the magnitude of the changes that occurred in the opening decades of the twentieth century. In 1900, few houses had electricity; twenty-five years later, nearly two-thirds of all homes were illuminated by electric light. The horseless carriage was merely a rumor to most people in 1900; by the mid-1920s, Henry Ford had sold fifteen million Model Ts. With the growth of the industrial economy, Americans had more money and became increasingly concentrated in urban centers—by the 1920s, the majority of Americans lived in cities for the first time.

Given the rate of change, it’s hardly surprising that so many Americans embraced an eclectic variety of homes that shared a common theme: They indulged in a bit of nostalgia, looking backward to the pre-machine age.

The Arts and Crafts movement actually began in England, initiated by the likes of John Ruskin and William Morris as a reaction to an increasingly mechanized world. In the building arts, the traditional joiner-builder no longer had to shape or make anything on site—he assembled parts that had come off the end of a production line. And much of that was surface ornament, such as gingerbread, brackets, and other decorations that had no structural purpose. They were, in a favored term of the day, “dishonest.”

In contrast, the Arts and Crafts movement put the emphasis on goods that were simple, inexpensive, comfortable, and produced by hand. Two gifted California builders, the brothers Charles Sumner Greene and Henry Mather Greene, were present at the creation of the Craftsman-style house, building beautifully detailed bungalows of large scale in and around Pasadena. The movement in America was also led by Gustav Stickley, a furniture maker who published an influential magazine called The Craftsman. In its pages, he promoted his philosophy of using natural materials, like unpainted wood, ceramic tile, and wrought iron. He himself made furniture, much of it oak, that today is highly prized. But The Craftsman also featured simple houses like the Bungalow that reflected his philosophy.

Stanford White also helped initiate another historicist movement that has ever since played an important role in American house design. White and some of his colleagues examined a number of important early American houses along the New England coast. Some of the flavor of those dwellings informed the Shingle Style, but there was a larger cultural phenomenon that resulted from the work at McKim, Mead, and White and a confluence of other events. Called the Colonial Revival, this movement reinvigorated the taste for things colonial. The Centennial celebration in Philadelphia helped build interest; the growing economic health and power of the country gave Americans the luxury to look back into the country’s past. Furniture, household goods, clothing, and houses in early American styles became broadly popular in the early decades of the twentieth century.

Consider the Cape Cod house—it’s a Basic House of the sort we talked about earlier but during the Colonial Revival it was reborn. The same is true with the Classic Colonial: In its original guise it was Georgian, later Federal, and still later was decorated with a range of Victorian details, but it, too, had a new incarnation during the Colonial Revival. While the Cape and the Classic Colonial have remained popular ever since, two other revivals, the Spanish Colonial and the Dutch Revival Styles, found a briefer popularity at the turn of the twentieth century and after; all are manifestations of the Colonial Revival. Still more revival styles, like the Tudor Revival of the twenties with its English precedents and half-timbered exterior, had important periods of popularity, too.

Not all new houses in our century looked backward. Thanks in part to Frank Lloyd Wright, a style evolved in the Midwest called the Prairie School. The lines of these houses paralleled the prairie itself, sitting long and low with broad roof overhangs and horizontal bands of windows. Wright, like Stickley, decried the de-humanizing effects of the machine age, but he recognized its inevitable importance.

The Prairie Style house is truly American and truly original. Yet perhaps the most popular house design to emerge from drafting boards of the Prairie Style designers was the Foursquare. Unlike many of Wright’s inimitable Prairie School houses, this was hardly a revolutionary house. It’s a cube with wide eaves and dormers that peer out of a pyramidal roof. But it’s a very efficient design whose simplicity, honesty, and practicality helped it make its way into the pages of Stickley’s magazine, The Craftsman.