Chapter 1: Exhibiting Rural Modernity: Architecture, Utilization and the All-electric Lifestyle
This chapter considers REA’s building program as part of an already existing array of exhibition and display spaces designed to sell agrarian populations a complete electrified lifestyle. I argue that REA’s architectural program constituted an essential part of “building loads” (or encouraging farmers to use more electricity). While previous histories of REA have noted the importance of modernist graphic design and cinema in this endeavor, this chapter recovers the undervalued role of the built environment. Case studies include the REA Farm Equipment Tour (nicknamed the REA Circus; see image at left) and several exemplary model farms and farming exhibitions, most prominently the Electrified Farm at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, a consciously modern farm exhibit mounted by REA’s competitors in the private power industry.
Chapter 2: Branding, “Electrical Merchandising,” and Visual Identity in REA’s Early Architecture Program
Based on my findings from the Records of the REA at the National Archives in Kansas City, MO, the second chapter explores how REA’s architecture transitioned from a program of economic necessity to formulating a new typology of easily recognizable buildings to bolster the agency’s brand identity.The early architecture program (1938-1939) was a small-scale and experimental collaboration of a few key players at REA and the architecture team at the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). This chapter explores the role of architecture in REA’s development of an agency brand, contextualizing this evolution within the organization’s initial efforts to establish a unified visual identity. The three primary case studies in this chapter are also the first major projects of the building program, which represented three divergent prototypes for architecturally representing REA to the public. The development of these three projects allowed the program’s architects and designers to test out various approaches to purchasing real estate, remodeling existing facilities, and hiring local architects to collaborate in the design process. Ultimately, these factors would shape the formal and stylistic elements that comprised REA’s evolving architectural identity.
Chapter 3: From Corporate to Cooperative: Dreaming and Building the Ideal REA Project
Based on archival evidence gathered from the Judson King Papers at the Library of Congress and the Harry Slattery Papers at Duke University’s Rubenstein Library, I argue that behind REA’s desire to build its brand through architecture lurked decidedly utopian planning principles. The correspondence of King, a leading figure in the fight for public power, and Slattery, the REA administrator under whom the building program expanded exponentially in the immediate prewar years, reveals that these leaders envisioned a more radical reformist agenda for REA than past scholarship has suggested. Slattery viewed electric cooperatives as the seeds from which would grow “ideal rural communities,” decentralized nodes of industry distributed evenly across the American landscape.
Chapter 4: Rural Electricity for 194X: REA Buildings and Postwar Planning
From 1942 to 1945, REA imagined what the postwar world would bring for its rural electrification and the corresponding building program. Administrators, architects, and planners attempted to anticipate the design demands that would arise with a return to peacetime. Banned from building, REA's architects were forced to work on paper, turning their attentions to planning and promotion. This caesura of building provided the opportunity and impetus to analyze REA architecture to date and to codify future developments. Conflating the demands of military industrialization and pre-existing anti-urban tendencies associated with the back-to-the-land movement, REA envisioned a fully electrified, decentralized agrarian society. This chapter explores the interplay between rural electrification mobilized for defense, paper architecture, and the recruitment of wartime ideology in imagining postwar realities.
Chapter 5: Electrified Modernization Comes Home to the Farm
Drawing on the disciplines of material culture and landscape history, my final chapter investigates the extension of electrical lines and on-the-ground issues of wiring farms for electricity. I suggest that the proliferation of above-ground power lines across the nation and the fervency with which REA disseminated images of electrification brought to the farm a new way of understanding rural space, which I term the “new electric imaginary.” With an emphasis on rational planning that mirrored its power line construction and architectural design, REA urged farmers to “plan ahead” in regards to farm wiring and lighting. The introduction of wiring and the electrical conveniences that accompanied it transformed the American farm in palpable ways, often resulting in farmhouses that appeared increasingly suburban and farms seeming more industrial. Approaching rural modernization as a bottom-up phenomenon, the final chapter of the dissertation considers how REA’s modernizing ideals were incorporated into (or rejected from) the structure and layout of the American farm during this period.