Connecticut College Magazine · Summer 2007

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The Little House That Could

The Little House That Could

The year was 1933. Millions were unemployed, undernourished, poorly housed. Yet in Chicago that summer, optimism reigned. There, people flocked to the “Century of Progress” World´s Fair to behold the latest marvels of American industry. Inside the fair´s gates, they dodged Wonder Bread delivery boys on bikes; gazed at refrigerators humming in the General Electric pavilion; and inspected the dozen “houses of tomorrow” that promised to revolutionize the American dream.

by Doug Royalty


Winslow Ames, the young founding director of New London´s Lyman Allyn Art Museum, wasn´t about to miss that. Ames and his wife, Anna, were “somewhat in sympathy with the modernistic trend,” as The Day of New London had put it, and they were intrigued by the idea of prefabricated housing. So Ames and a friend journeyed west and headed for the fair´s Home and Industrial Arts section.

Among the most promising of the homes on display was a shiny two-bedroom cottage built of pressed-steel panels. It was the brainchild of a young Chicago architect, Howard Fisher, who in 1932 had founded a company called General Houses, Inc. (GH), to mass-produce houses “like Fords.” The World´s Fair house was his Model T.

It was only the company´s third commission, but GH appeared to be off and running. Fisher had devised an ingenious system of modular construction and lined up an impressive list of supplier-partners such as GE, Pullman, and Pittsburgh Paint & Glass. He had funding from a syndicate of private investors. And the press was in his corner: Fortune and Time, among others, had all but deemed GH the answer to America´s housing crisis. In Chicago, so many visitors lined up to see the House of Steel that Fisher begged the fair´s managers to let him charge for admission. (No dice.)

Still, this was the Depression. Who had money for a house? And then there was that flat roof, and those steel walls, and the new, untried construction methods. Thousands entered the House of Steel and exited with sales brochures, but GH made few deals. It was as if all the lookers were saying to one another, “You first.”

At the fair, Ames chatted with Fisher. (They were Harvard men.) He also met with another architect, Robert McLaughlin, whose American Houses, Inc., was doing work much like Fisher´s on the East Coast. At some point, Ames said, essentially, “I´ll go first.”

Some 50 years later, Ames wrote about the experience in his unpublished autobiography. “We read Fortune in those days as well as Time,” he penned, “and [Fortune] was full of prefabricated housing. We got rather excited ...” Though the couple did not need another house, using part of Anna´s inheritance, they built one house from American Houses and one from General Homes on two small lots on Mohegan Avenue. The Ames never lived in the homes, using them, instead, as rental properties.

The GH building went up first, in the fall of 1933. Once the parts arrived in New London, a small crew put the place together in a couple of weeks on a plot near the Lyman Allyn. Assembled on its site like an automobile in a Detroit factory, it was a true machine for living.

It was strikingly modern, too, even if it was a simple workingman´s cottage: a 21-by-37-foot box atop a concrete slab. Smooth surfaces of painted steel. An attached garage with rooftop terrace. An open living/dining/kitchen area with windows arranged to catch the southwest light. Central heat, plus a fireplace. Two bedrooms, a bath, and lots of built-ins. Cost: about $4,500.

Meanwhile, prefab No. 2 ($7,500), by American Houses, was rising quickly next door. It, too, was an International Style box, but built from panels of specially formulated asbestos cement. The two-story, two-bedroom unit was ready for occupancy in early 1934. The Day reported that Winslow Ames wanted to paint its doors blue and window frames yellow, in contrast to the steel house´s blue window frames and yellow doors.

New Londoners hadn´t seen anything like this before — few had anywhere — and there were gawkers. On Dec. 2, The Day reported, “The unique steel fabricated house being built for Mr. and Mrs. Winslow Ames on Mohegan Avenue has been enclosed and is attracting considerable attention here.” Another daily newspaper put it this way: “Most of the neighbors lift their eyebrows and question his sanity, but Winslow Ames ... believes implicitly in an impending revolution in the home building industry.”

The revolution never arrived. GH and AH struggled mightily in the ´30s to sell their brand of modernism, but there were few takers. No mass production, and no economies of scale. Eventually, the companies´ founders headed off to academia — Fisher to Harvard, McLaughlin to Princeton — and their bold Depression-era experiments were largely forgotten.

After World War II, Winslow Ames signed on to direct a museum in Springfield, Mo., and in 1949 he and Anna parted with their prefabs. “In the end, after having had tenants for many years,” Ames wrote, “we sold both homes to Connecticut College. No significant profit. We concluded that prefabrication of one house at a time was no great economy.”

In New London, the little houses remained unchanged for decades, and tenants came and went. But when the asbestos house began to show its age in the 1980s, the College considered demolition. Happily, that didn´t occur. The house was rehabilitated, and the asbestos sealed, in 1994. Today it is an office building for the College and a treasured landmark known as the Winslow Ames House.

The steel house is faring less well. Vacant since 2004, it´s a vision of peeling paint and rust on the exterior. Inside, some ceiling panels are corroded, and the mechanical systems are gone. Beyond that, the pitched roof, a 1980s addition, makes it hard to see the innovative modern structure General Houses put up.

Recently, though, Physical Plant staff has worked to stabilize the building, and the College is exploring preservation options. With care, the steel house could shine again to mark a time when it seemed that new architecture, new materials, new ideas — and hope — would save the day. We just might want to remember how that goes.


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