contact ME

Use the form on the right to send me a message.

 

           

123 Street Avenue, City Town, 99999

(123) 555-6789

email@address.com

 

You can set your address, phone number, email and site description in the settings tab.
Link to read me page with more information.

A Flat-Roofed Farmhouse Mystery

From the Archives

A Flat-Roofed Farmhouse Mystery

Sarah Rovang

We are now three weeks post-move and finally feeling a little settled in. In our previous apartment, my husband and I lived across the street from Brown's main campus. Now we are several miles from the university where he works. Since my writing has resumed has resumed in earnest, I am learning to balance the quiet, focused solitude of work at home with work on campus and in coffee shops.

As I am preparing a conference paper on a related topic, I'm starting to think about expansions and revisions to dissertation Chapter 5, which deals with the technological and architectural modernization of farm structures during the 1930s and 1940s. This has given me an excellent excuse to go back through my material from the National Agricultural Library. Browsing through dozens of PDFs this morning, I stumbled across one that certainly gave me pause when I first encountered it in the archives last year. It is a 1934 book entitled Farmhouse Plans published by U.S. Department of Agriculture. The overall content of the book is not surprising—USDA released many farm building designs during the early twentieth century, often working with local land grant colleges to produce plans suited to regional climates and prevalent agricultural practices. What is interesting about this particular collection of plans is that mixed in with images like this:

 Caption: "Prepared by L.J. Smith for the department of agricultural engineering, State College of Washington." 

Caption: "Prepared by L.J. Smith for the department of agricultural engineering, State College of Washington." 

And this: 

 Caption: "Prepared by C.W. Heery and B.G. Danner for the department of agricultural engineering, University of Georgia."  

Caption: "Prepared by C.W. Heery and B.G. Danner for the department of agricultural engineering, University of Georgia."  

There are images like this: 

 Caption: "Prepared by Albert Frey and R.G. Allen for the Bureaus of Agricultural Engineering and Home Economics, U.S. Department of Agriculture." 

Caption: "Prepared by Albert Frey and R.G. Allen for the Bureaus of Agricultural Engineering and Home Economics, U.S. Department of Agriculture." 

And this: 

 Caption: "Prepared by Albert Frey for the Bureaus of Agricultural Engineering and Home Economics, U.S. Department of Agriculture." 

Caption: "Prepared by Albert Frey for the Bureaus of Agricultural Engineering and Home Economics, U.S. Department of Agriculture." 

What's the big deal? Well, from the vantage point of the present, really not too much. We are used to seeing buildings with flat roofs and buildings with pitched roofs—sometimes even mixed within the same suburban subdivision. Eschewing shutters and avoiding wood siding are also pretty inconsequential in this era of general contractors and stucco construction. But in 1934, this was a BIG DEAL. 

Keep in mind that American architectural modernism was still very young in 1934. Philip Johnson and Henry Russell-Hitchcock's seminal essay The International Style had only been published in 1932. James Ford and Katherine Morrow Ford would not publish The Modern House in America until 1940. In its earliest iterations, American modernism tended to show up most often in residences for the affluent, office buildings, and industrial facilities. The idea that the precepts of the International Style might be applied to a low-cost, rural residence would have been quite revolutionary at the time. Reading the accompanying description gives some hint of how strange these drawings would have looked to a 1930s audience:

The exterior appearance may seem, at first glance, unusually severe, but by omitting a pitched roof and the ornamental features of cornice moldings and trim decorations, the cost of construction is materially lowered. Everything here has been reduced to the simplest form possible.
— Farmhouse Plans, pg. 43

Also mysterious is how Albert Frey, noted modern architect, ended up working for USDA's Bureaus of Agricultural Engineering and Home Economics. Did anyone actually build from his plans? How true were those cost-saving claims?

I'm particularly fascinated (and a little vexed) by these drawings because the flat-roofed modernist rural buildings that I'm writing the bulk of my dissertation on weren't even designed until the period between 1939 and 1943, at which point they were still provocative and controversial. However, the buildings I'm looking at were really linked explicitly to the technological modernity of electric power. In these drawings, flat-roofed buildings have been inserted into the existing rural landscape. Look carefully and you'll see conventional pitched-roof structures in the backgrounds of each of the Frey drawings, and even a windmill in one. Whatever Frey was imagining, it was not a total modernization of the rural landscape. Rather, I would postulate that these buildings were meant to play a particular role through their economy and functionalism, rather than entirely displacing more conventional kinds of structures. By picturing these houses among many, many pages of stylistically traditional houses dwellings, USDA offers modernism as a choice rather making it the mandate that it would later become.