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Dissertation Abstract

"Modernization and Architecture Under the Rural Electrification Administration, 1935-1945" by Sarah K. Rovang, Ph.D., Brown University, May 2016. 

abstract V.1 (as it appeared in the official  manuscript)

In the campaign to bring electricity to the American farm, the New Deal’s Rural Electrification Administration (REA) enlisted architecture to ideological and propagandistic ends. Though REA’s main goal was the extension of power lines, during the late interwar years it also oversaw the design of dozens of power plants and cooperative buildings in a standardized, modernist style. For REA, it was not enough to modernize farm buildings, farmers needed to be modernized as well—transformed into modern consumers able to take advantage of an all-electric lifestyle. Considering the agency’s architecture alongside other contemporary attempts to grapple with the future of the American farm, I frame REA’s modernism as distinctly rural, simultaneously promoting electrical modernization and recalling an idealized agrarian past. While fascination with America’s historical vernacular forms has been well documented in the visual arts, I observe a similar phenomenon in REA’s architecture. In doing so, my project presents an alternative conceptualization of interwar American architectural modernism, which previous scholarship has predominantly associated with industry, urbanism, and elite domesticity. Understanding electricity and architecture as mutually constitutive modernizing forces, I argue that REA promoted a distinctive style of modern architecture that both reflected and instantiated its modernizing program of rural electrification.

Abstract V.2 (How I tell the Story to non-academics) 

The year is 1939 and the place is a cornfield in north-central Iowa. It’s August and the corn, as they say, is “high as an elephant’s eye.” Look to the distance—way out there—and see that from those endless rows of corn emerges a monolithic and starkly modern concrete building. It emits a dull hum; the muffled vibrations of four diesel-burning generators housed within, sparking up the electricity to power the lights, appliances, and farm machinery of thousands of rural Iowans. This building, and many others like it, materialized the radical changes in domestic life and farm work that accompanied the advent of rural electricity. This dissertation tells the story of how the Rural Electrification Administration (REA) used architecture and design to transmit electricity and modern values to rural populations. 
By the mid-1930s, electricity from centralized generating facilities powered the majority of American cities and towns. In contrast, almost ninety percent of farm families lacked this utility; many relying on the same kerosene lamps and wood stoves of their forebears. Founded in 1935 under the New Deal, REA set out to change all that by forming rural electrical cooperatives and funding the creation of new distribution systems and power plants across the U.S. But REA’s mission was not merely technological—it was cultural as well. The agency’s motto, “If you put a light on every farm, you put a light in every heart,” conveyed the idea that electricity could actually change farmers themselves. It was not enough to merely electrify farms; REA believed rural people also needed to be modernized—transformed into modern consumers ready to go “all-electric.” These professionalized, tech-savvy farmers would propel America out of the Great Depression while shoring up national defense with bountiful crops and a robust rural grid. In this campaign to “put a light in every heart,” design and architecture became key weapons in REA’s arsenal. 

The designers and advertising experts of REA’s “Information Division” churned out print ads and posters targeting new cooperative members. They commissioned avant-garde work from high-profile artists such as graphic designer Lester Beall and filmmaker Joris Ivens. The monthly Rural Electrification News was peppered with dynamic infographics and photomontages that looked more El Lissitzky than Uncle Sam. In 1938, the Information Division brought on architect Roland Wank, a leftist Hungarian emigre then designing massive hydroelectric dams for the Tennessee Valley Authority, to supervise REA’s fledgling architectural program. Wank firmly believed that modern architecture embodied progressive values, and that his work for REA could instill those values in rural users. Wank’s designs for cooperative headquarters and power plants forcefully conveyed the modernity of electricity at every level, from their flat-roofed, asymmetrical massing down to their chrome light fixtures and sans serif signage. Across 26 states in the Midwest and Southeast, these concrete or brick buildings anticipated the American corporate modernism associated with the 1950s and ‘60s by more than a decade. As with REA’s films, posters, and print media, Wank’s structures convincingly conflated technological modernization with modernist style.

Today, almost 13% of Americans still receive power from cooperatives created under REA. Despite this continued reliance on cooperative power, the power plant described above is one of the very few original REA buildings that survives. From that same cornfield in north-central Iowa sprouts a new crop of windmills, whirring away above the now silent diesel plant. Across the country, rural cooperatives are caught in the crossfire of the polarizing debate over energy technologies, torn between the expediency of fossil fuels and investment in renewable energy. How we talk about these issues, and the way in which they are represented to the public through architecture (and other media) shapes the nature of the debate. As REA realized in the 1930s, architecture and design are tools not just of representation but of persuasion. 


Chapter Outline

Farm Equipment Tour, c. 1939.  National Archives, College Park, Photographs of REA, Record Group 221-P.

Farm Equipment Tour, c. 1939. National Archives, College Park, Photographs of REA, Record Group 221-P.

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.


Choptank Cooperative, c. 1940.  Designers Roland Wank and Mario Bianculli, Denton, Maryland, 1939. Source: National Archives, College Park, Photographs of USDA, Record Group 16-G.

Choptank Cooperative, c. 1940. Designers Roland Wank and Mario Bianculli, Denton, Maryland, 1939. Source: National Archives, College Park, Photographs of USDA, Record Group 16-G.

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. 


Slattery’s Postwar Home Illustration .  Illustration from Harry Slattery, “Electricity in Your Postwar Home,”  Hygeia: The Health Magazine  22, no. 8 (August 1944), 582.

Slattery’s Postwar Home Illustration.  Illustration from Harry Slattery, “Electricity in Your Postwar Home,” Hygeia: The Health Magazine 22, no. 8 (August 1944), 582.

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.