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Wednesday, Nov. 23, 2011 06:28 am

A house in a day

Will the future of affordable new family housing be the 1950s?

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The construction of new housing had virtually halted in Springfield after the 1920s. The demand for decent housing by returning GIs and their families led local developers to build hundreds of houses like this one on the east side. The future author stand

“Go east young man,” a neighbor advised my father, and in 1949 he and the rest of us did just that. For a veteran, it was cheaper in those days to buy than to rent, so we said goodbye to our apartment next to the Sangamo Dairy and headed to a GI Bill subdivision on the far east side, just off 25th and Cook streets.

Our street was situated on the very easternmost edge of the city, on land developed by the Barker-Goldman-Lubin Co. (as it was then). The houses were appropriate for a frontier, being little bigger than cabins, which is why Barker-Goldman-Lubin had to strain every marketing muscle to call it Manor Avenue.

The pretension of the street name was laughable, but they were manor houses to many of the people who bought them. My mother, for one, had grown up in the Depression in a converted railroad box car lighted with kerosene that had no indoor toilet. Her new house had proper oak floors, asbestos shingling that is still serviceable after 60 years and solid wood doors on the inside with proper glass knobs.

In the 1950s, developers aiming at the post-Depression generation cheated on space to cover costs of what were then posh amenities like central heating and built-in cabinets and bathroom fixtures. There are master suites in houses being built in New Springfield that are larger than our whole house. We had no basement, no garage, an attic only big enough to stow the Christmas stuff and closets so small you couldn’t hide a family skeleton if you had one. In all, ours might have enclosed 700 square feet. That was small even in 1950, when the average 3.5-person home enclosed fewer than 1,000 square feet.

Such a house might have been only a free-standing apartment in terms of space, but space mattered less than having privacy, a spacious yard for the kids and the freedom to adapt one’s living space to living needs. Such houses were popular enough that dozens of Manor Avenues popped up after the war in Springfield in mini-Levittowns like Laketown.  

Barker-Goldman-Lubin alone built hundreds of them. The company boasted of being able to build “a house in a day.” House-building was an extension of their lumber business, and the firm exploited new materials like plywood to speed assembly. They also achieved economies of scale by cutting lumber for dozens of houses at once, the houses being identical except for trim. As a result, the new house on Manor cost one wage-earner a week’s take-home pay each month.

Today, of course, the payment on a new house today consumes two weeks’ pay of two wage-earners, mainly because it is bigger. The average new house in the U.S. measures more than 2,000 square feet in area, the result of a steady march toward ever-bigger houses that has been interrupted over the past century only by depression and war. The dream to own a house you could afford has been replaced by the dream to own a house you can sell to someone who can afford more.

There has arisen a small house movement in reaction to sprawl, McMansions, energy wastage and financing costs. The people who wish to thus make the world better are far outnumbered by people who want simply to make their own lives better. Real incomes among the middle class have barely risen in a generation. More and more households consist of one person. Keeping a large house and yard decreasingly expresses our way of life, indeed it interferes with it. The result, some analysts insist, is pent-up demand for new, smallish houses of moderate price such as existed after World War II.

 Will the future Barker-Lubins respond as alertly to this need as they did in the 1950s? They will if they not only learn how to make houses in new ways, but to make new kinds of houses. Quite a few promising experiments have been made in post-Katrina New Orleans, where the group, Make It Right, has solicited new designs for houses built on narrow lots with reusable materials that squeeze three bedrooms and two baths into 1,200 square feet and cost no more than $150,000.

One solution would be to build well-designed townhouse-style developments in abandoned city neighborhoods that offer privacy, low operating costs and convenient access to jobs. Another would be to convert some of those redundant yards in our sprawlier  subdivisions into useable real estate by augmenting existing houses by small accessory dwellings in the form of garage apartments, basement suites or even backyard studios.

We shall see. As long as Americans buy houses to invest in rather than to live in, the allure of the large houses and grounds will endure. Sixty years on, Manor Avenue still looks like a new idea.

Contact James Krohe Jr. at KroJnr@gmail.com.

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