Buildings and Blocks

Back to the Rancher

Every child has her/his architecture-related memories. Whether it's moving into a new apartment or house, visiting a local movie palace, walking across a bridge, or spending Saturday night in the mall, the built environment provides stimuli that rival nature's. These experiences shape our relationships with others and affect how we think about the world. In my case, they led me, in a circuitous sort of way, to choose architecture as a profession.

Among my early memories were the excursions from New York City out to Long Island, the site of my cousins' Levitt & Sons home. We called the place Levittown, but the house was technically in Westbury, within a newer 1950s neighborhood that contained a redesigned model called The Ranch.

My aunt and uncle, together with their two boys, had moved from the Bronx to the Levitt suburbs as beneficiaries of a number of government programs created to help veterans of WW II find comfortable, affordable housing in a market with a deficit of some 5 million units. With FHA financing and the GI Bill of 1944 covering the down payment, young families were able to access the so-called American Dream - a privately owned house on a lot - for $7,990 ($73,000 in today's currency) or $90 down and a $58/month mortgage payment.

For me, living in a tight city apartment, the house was an aesthetic wonder. At 800 square feet, it wasn't large or luxurious, but cleverly designed down to the inch and loaded with features unusual for its time. Built in the era before the attached garage, the house had a paved driveway and covered shed known as a carport. Entry was through the kitchen, which shared an open space with the living room, separated only by a real fireplace.

The Ranch acquired its name because the units, all identical but for subtle plan and exterior finish variations, were single-story designs built on poured-in-place concrete slabs. Interior partitions were constructed of gypsum board panels rather than the conventional plaster on lathe. A finished stair was provided to access the unfinished attic, often converted by owners into additional bedroom space. Tucked beneath each stair was a storage unit containing cabinets, bookshelves and a 12" Admiral TV set, a feature that wowed prospective buyers.

The kitchen and bathroom were minimal, but sufficient to serve a small family. Each bedroom had a wall-width, built-in closet with sliding doors, maximizing the usable floor area in each room. Though occupying a small footprint, the house seemed remarkably spacious. The on-grade slab was surfaced with black asphalt tiles that concealed an electric radiant heating system. Along with double-glazed picture windows in the living area that looked out over a rather small back yard, these innovations provided a comfort level unique to this price category. I recall always being comfortable in the Levitt house, even on the coldest winter day, and my aunt would always boast about how "cozy" the place felt. And it was.

Part of the reason was designer Alfred Levitt's admiration for the work of Frank Lloyd Wright. While this Levitt son was not formally trained as an architect, he spent ten months on-site studying the work of the master who was completing a house in Great Neck, Long Island. Wright's open plan concept, use of radiant heating, large expanses of glass, and built-in cabinetry all made their way into the Levitt houses, bringing functional and styling innovations of the architectural avant-garde to what might have been ordinary little boxes.

Together, the Levitt communities built on what was originally Long Island farmland included nearly 17,500 homes - 6,000 of which were rental units - with production reaching a peak of 150 units per week. The social, political and economic implications of the suburban invention became the subject of numerous sociological studies and doctoral theses. William Levitt summed up his company's contribution to the American Dream in an aptly famous line: "No man who owns his house and lot can be a Communist; he has too much to do."

In our own region, government-funded housing preceded even the post-WW II FHA variety with the establishment of workers' villages at every major Tennessee Valley Authority project. These towns, some incorporated into larger metropolitan areas, still exist. The original houses built at Norris, for example, continue to provide shelter to new generations of low- and middle-income families. Following the war, economy housing was constructed in every city in the country in an effort to ameliorate the shortage. In Knoxville, neighborhoods of compact homes - affectionately known as Knox Boxes - were scattered around the city just outside the inner "trolley suburbs".

Sutherland Heights, located on the other side of the tracks from prestigious Sequoia Hills, contains dozens of the 20' x 30' houses built to the FHA and VA standards of the 1940s, having provided starter home opportunities for returning soldiers. Not quite as elegant as their northern cousins, the local box houses provided what you'd expect of a first home: an entry directly into the living room, a tiny but adequate kitchen, a bathroom with tub, toilet and sink, and two bedrooms. A central coal-burning furnace provided heat. The floors were hardwood, the exterior clad in asbestos shingles. Though some of the houses have been expanded, retrofitted with modern conveniences, and reclad with safer materials, many remain in near-original condition. They are testimony to the fact that they were good houses to begin with, and continue to serve their inhabitants with timelessly simple but efficient design. On the real estate market, they're often called "ranchers," a code word for their one-story, no-basement configuration.

Can this formula - small size, economy of means, appropriate use of materials - find its place in the urban landscape of today? It can and does, as builders everywhere are offering neighborhoods of traditional houses ranging from 600 to 1600 square feet and priced between $80,000 and $140,000 - still considered affordable by families (and mortgage banks), and hardly compromised in comfort or convenience. As urban land becomes scarce, materials expensive, and sustainable performance more important, smaller and simpler has become interesting once again.

2008 Michael Kaplan. This article originally appeared in the Knoxville Voice.
Photo: A design from the past, the 600 square foot Knox Box suggests an efficient solution for the future.