House and Home

Posted: Oct 04, 2014 12:01 AM
It's an old saying: First we shape our buildings, then they shape us. But like many old sayings, it may be more pat than true. It may sound like a great tribute to the power and influence of architecture in our lives, but it's too neat. It sounds too much like an insight to be one. Which explains why it's become more a cliche than an observation. Because the power of architecture surely depends on the power of the architect -- and our own power to accept or reject it, or adapt it to our own idea of what constitutes use and beauty.

Has anyone ever moved into a house, or any kid into a dorm room, without trying to make it distinctively his own from the first day? Even if it's only by putting up a poster or displaying some photographs. "Decorate your home," Charles Schulz of Peanuts fame once advised. "It gives the illusion that your life is more interesting than it really is."

Besides, not all architecture is created equal. At the risk of sounding undemocratic, some architecture is better than others. Compare the classical to the contemporary, whatever the contemporary is at any given moment. It changes; the Parthenon doesn't, any more than the cathedral at Chartres does -- or Mr. Jefferson's house at Monticello. It lasts in our minds, not just on a Virginia hillside or on the reverse side of that nickel in your pocket or purse. Such is the enduring power of good architecture and American inventiveness.

It takes only a glance back at the history of American houses in all their variety -- from log cabins and teepees to the Craftsman cottages of the 1920s and today's gosh-awful McMansions -- aka tear-downs -- to expose Le Corbusier's dictum that a house should be "a machine for living," which was hollow nonsense from the first Modernist moment it was uttered. Maybe a machine could live, or rather exist, in such a blank space, but a real, live human being? Not very likely.

An ill-assorted miscellany of such thoughts come tumbling through the mind on the way to an exhibit styled "House and Home." How resist such a title. But instead of an overview of American residential architecture -- which would be impossible anyway -- this modest little exhibit at a public library in North Little Rock, Ark., concentrates on how we've financed our houses over the past century, from boom to bust and back again.

The most fascinating item on display isn't the studs and plywood and the various -- and now antiquated -- appliances that were once the latest thing. (Hey, I remember those telephones and milk bottles!) No, the most striking of the exhibits is the single, one-page income tax form of 1913. It had only six income brackets -- from $20,000-plus to more than $500,000 a year. Schumacher was right: Small is beautiful. And so was whoever first said simpler is better.

But simplicity has grown as rare as it is beautiful in today's star-studded architecture that has given us abominations like Frank Gehry's design for a memorial to Dwight Eisenhower as gaudy as Ike wasn't. Ours is an age in which starchitects have replaced architects, and the American house-and-home seems to have lost its erstwhile significance, along with its charm and utility.

An historic figure like Frank Lloyd Wright, that egocentric but profound genius, from his sweeping vision to his eye for fine detail, would put most of today's architectural stars to shame. And they need to be.

But it isn't just the great architects of the American past whose gift seems lost to us now but the utilitarian genius of untold American craftsmen like the Shakers of the 19th century and the silversmiths of colonial Boston.

These days it's hard to conjure up that now distant time when home ownership was the goal and seal of American identity. I can remember the excitement when my sister and her new husband found a place of their own in housing-scarce New York back in the post-war 1940s, and finally got to move into ... a Quonset hut in the Bronx. At last, their own four walls -- even if they were just one wall that curved over itself.

My sister Lillian was now a baal-aboos (mistress of her household) and her husband was now out of the service and free to start his accounting practice. She'd met George in Shreveport when Barksdale Air Force Base was still part of the Army Air Corps -- a separate Air Force wouldn't come into existence till a couple of years later. Now he wouldn't be sent to the Pacific theater because Truman had dropped the Bomb.

PEACE! proclaimed the headline in the Shreveport Times that long ago day in 1945 -- a headline I still remember all these years later. The way you would any happy, historic day.

Tell me again what a fiend Harry Truman was. And how evil those mad scientists were who had worked on the Manhattan Project -- and succeeded in proving that our German physicists were better than Hitler's in the race to develop the A-bomb, bless them all.

So that Lillian and George could now look over their 20-by-48-foot castle and begin life on their own. No more little brother and in-laws hanging around. Alone at last! And their neighbors, also ex-GIs and their new brides, would share the same happy circumstances -- and some would become life-long friends.

Everybody used to feel that way about their own house-and-home, and let's hope many of us still do. Home ownership was recognized as a passport to respectability, even self-respect. Renting or owning isn't just a purely economic decision, but one freighted with emotional weight -- and political significance in a middle-class society, or one that aspires to be or remain one.

"Owning your own home," the insightful and acerbic Florence King once observed, "is America's unique recipe for avoiding revolution and promoting pseudo-equality at the same time. To keep citizens puttering in their yards instead of sputtering on the barricades, the government has gladly deprived itself of billions in tax revenues by letting home owners deduct mortgage interest payments." Think of it as an investment in social stability.

Let us now praise William Levitt, he of Levittown and those tracts of look-alike suburban houses that our sophisticated critics deplored, but that post-war Americans, hungry for a little house-and-garden of their own, ate up. It was Mr. Levitt who said it: "No man who owns his own house and lot can be a communist. He has too much to do."

The same holds true for the modest structures we now call starter houses, which soon enough give way to grander ones in ever upwardly mobile America. Esthetically, it may not be a step up. But emotionally and socially, surely it is.

Or as Emerson said long ago: "A man builds a fine house; and now he has a master, and a task for life: he is to furnish, watch, show it, and keep it in repair, the rest of his days."

Do we keep our houses, or do they keep us? Both, of course, which is what makes it House and Home, as this exhibit says. And distinguishes it from a Stalinist apartment bloc. And even its residents/inmates struggled to preserve their individual identity. For there's still no place like home.