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Teaching the American Twenties: Exploring the Decade through Literature and Art


House and Home

Where to Live in the 1920s?

After World War I, great shifts occurred in where Americans made their homes. With increasing industrialization, many people moved from rural areas into cities for employment opportunities, resulting in an urban housing shortage. By 1930, 56% of Americans lived in urban areas, whereas only 45% had been urban in 1910. Simultaneously, some residents moved beyond the increasingly overcrowded cities because newly paved roads and automobile ownership facilitated commutes to urban workplaces from suburban residential areas. Both the urban and suburban migrations spawned innovation by architects and city and regional planners.

In large cities such as New York, construction of apartment buildings began to replace the huge townhouses inhabited by elite families in previous generations. City architects had varying ideas about how to position these apartment buildings. Some wished to see them tightly packed together; others thought they should be separated by large intervals of open space and parks. One New York designer went so far as to suggest that they should be built on bridges in the waterways surrounding Manhattan.

Few architectural dreams were fully realized, as the apartments were generally constructed to be most profitable instead of most visually pleasing or socially beneficial, but the aesthetically pleasing ideas influenced later urban construction and development.

With increased availability and use of the automobile for home-to-work commutes, suburbs as we know them today started becoming popular in the 1920s. Upper-middle-class suburbs at the time contained few businesses and served only as residential areas. Residents depended on their automobiles to take them to other locations for shopping and services. Styles of houses within these suburbs varied, though generally remained traditional, and the country club came to be the representative suburban landmark during the Twenties. The magazine Architectural Forum dedicated entire issues to the country club in 1925 and 1930.

Architectural historians have noted that smaller homes of the era were strongly regional in their design, such as the ranch-style houses in California. Though elements of homes and other buildings, such as windows and doors, began to be mass-produced around the Twenties, most ventures offering fully-manufactured houses did not meet with great success.

While many homes at the time were still built in traditional styles, designers were working on their plans for the future. For example, after collecting information and developing ideas, Norman Bel Geddes presented his designs for the "future home" in a 1931 issue of Ladies' Home Journal.

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Printed photographs of a 58th Street apartment in New York City
Printed photographs of a 58th Street apartment in New York City
John Wallace Gillies

The September 1925 issue of Architectural Forum featured recently constructed urban apartment buildings. These selections from the magazine show the exteriors, interior plans, and details of entryways for apartment houses on 58th and 66th street...
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