Introduction to FoMA Annual Awards Ceremony featuring the 1957 Alcoa House
March 26, 2022
Architect Charles M. Goodman (1906-1992) had a blessed career! He was an early leader for modern architecture in America beginning in the early 1930s and a proponent of a movement to design government buildings in more contemporary styles instead of the traditional Neoclassical guise that had been adopted by national leaders to symbolize democracy. He understood that Modern design did this even better.
His oeuvre includes the 1938 design for the Washington National Airport in Washington, D.C., including its means of luggage handling and surface vehicle traffic. In the late 1940s and 1950s, Goodman became interested in prefabricated housing as a way to innovate the United States housing industry. Over 32,000 of his houses were built by 1956. Some of his most outstanding work, from 1941-1971, is the Hollin Hills development in Alexandria, VA, consisting of over 300 acres of housing and landscape. As encouraged in good design, planning for house AND garden, rather than house-THEN-garden, each homeowner was given $100.00 to be used toward a landscape plan. House plans and siting were environmentally based with considerations of sunlight, slope of lot, and privacy. Curvilinear roads with cul-de-sacs and individual landscape plans were formed in collaboration with progressive landscape architects, Lou Bernard Voight (1891-1961), Dan Kiley (1912-2004), and Eric Paepcke (1906-1981). In the 1950s, Goodman formed an alliance with National Homes, the largest manufacturer of prefabricated houses at this time. He remarked about the importance of designing economical and appealing housing: “Architects have to develop and complete, economical structural systems with which to design. They have to be planners. They shouldn’t try to package a mediocre product to make it sell better, but to make the product better all the way through: better in its structure, better in its plan, better in its appearance, better in its economics, and more delightful to live in and thus easier to sell.” (National Trust for Historic Preservation, 2009)
Goodman studied at the Illinois Institute of Technology until 1928 and trained at the Armour Institute of Technology (now Illinois Institute of Technology) until 1931. He was influenced by the work of Chicago architects Frank Lloyd Wright and Louis Sullivan, and developed an admiration for the Bauhaus and the work of Mies van der Rohe.
In January of 1957, to encourage new uses for aluminum, the Aluminum Company of America (Alcoa) announced its intention to expand into the home-building market and began by sponsoring the construction of 50 "Care-Free" aluminum model houses priced under $25,000, offering lower maintenance houses achieved by "the greatest change in residential building materials in centuries." (Returning locally more a moment, in 1947, Harvard trained Carl Koch and John Bemis developed the aluminum Acorn House at MIT, a prefabricated house to take advantage of material left over after the war.)
In 1956, Alcoa commissioned prominent architect Charles Goodman for their project. He designed a standard 1,900 square foot model of post and beam construction that included 3 bedrooms and 2 baths. The design integrated the use of 7,500 lbs of colorful, jewel-toned aluminum details throughout the house, including a sky-blue roof, gold front door and its signature purple siding and blue window grilles.
By the end of 1957 approximately 24 of the Alcoa "Care-Free" houses were completed across the United States, though final costs were a bit higher than expected, ranging from $35K to $60K, which one can speculate led to the eventual demise of the Alcoa project. They never made it to the planned 50 model houses but did produce between 24 to 46 houses throughout the country. The houses were playful and durable, with minimum maintenance required from their owners.
Alcoa’s by-line, “Your dream house, now made real"
was realized for the Simourians in Lincoln in 1957, and as we will see today, for current owners, Dawn Palmer and Richard Gammick, the dream lives on with a sensitive adaptation of systems and spatial reconfigurations tailored to their family needs. The Alcoa House is a unique addition to Lincoln’s significant collection of Modern houses built between 1937 and 1970.
Dana Robbat, March 26, 2022
National Trust for Historic Preservation, 2009
MidCenturia – “Alcoa Care-Free Homes”