Thursday, August 10, 2017

Alcoa Desisgned House in Richmond

Hobby Hills Farms and Fernleigh, Traylor Estates and Wayland.  You don’t hear these names very often, but these are Richmond neighborhoods in what was once north Chesterfield.  Today they are in the south-west corner of the City of Richmond.  Out beyond the crossroads of old Bon Air, these neighborhoods were the products of the great American automobile commuter culture, of Baby Boom America, and the spread of the city out from what in the late 1950s and 1960s was a declining urban core.

Broadly speaking, the architectural program along the winding streets of these Richmond suburbs were variations on one of two plans: the Ranch-style house, and the Tri-level (sometimes called a “Split Level”).  As two style houses covered what had been the forest, the driveways filled with station wagons and sedans with fins and only the curving roads and oak trees broke up the relentless vista of Ranches and Tri-levels stretching down to the James River.

There are a few bold exceptions to this architectural norm.  One unconventional Richmond home was the Half Moon House, owned by Howard H. Hughes, who operated a successful used car business on Broad Street under the name, “Mad Man Dapper Dan.”  It was designed in 1965 by  a Richmond architect, Haigh Jamogachian, who also designed the round Markel Building near Willow Lawn.  Sadly, Mad Man Dapper Dan’s crescent-shaped home was demolished in 2005 and some oversized mediocrity has taken its place on the banks of the James.

Counter to the usual styles of the Richmond suburbs, a house with unusual styling and materials was constructed on Cedar Grove Road by the Aluminum Company of America (Alcoa).  This manufacturing giant was buoyed by increasing development of light-weight building materials.  Their aluminum-clad corporate headquarters, Pittsburgh’s 1953 Alcoa Building, was considered a great success and a showplace of the use of the metal.  In a grand campaign to introduce Americans to the  advantages of aluminum as a residential housing material, twenty-five examples of an aluminum house would eventually be built in locations across the country.
A view of the original Alcoa Care-free home from the original sales brochure.

Alcoa hired Washington, D.C. architect Charles Goodman to design a house that would free the owner from of the high-maintenance of shingled and painted houses.  Goodman had a long record of innovative design in what became known as the Mid-Century Style, having designed Hollin Hills in Northern Virginia in the late 1940s.  VCU student Kimberly Sacra, writing in 2006, noted that that houses of Hollin Hills and the design commissioned by Alcoa shared several common design features, such as large expanses of glass, carefully planned vistas, and similar patterns of interior arrangement.
The gable end of the Care-free home.

Charles Goodman is also credited with the design of Highland Hills, a neighborhood adjacent to the older section of Bon Air.  With their open gables and airy floor plans, carports and wooded setting, the entire neighborhood looks like it is populated by smaller versions of the Care-free house.  These houses were available as prefabricated kits from a company called National Homes, whose Goodman designs could be mixed and matched according to the customer’s needs and the site.  To place the Care-free home campaign in Goodman’s work during this period, his development called Hollin Hills began in 1946, Bon Air’s Highland Hills was created in 1955, and the Care-free house on Cedar Grove Road is 1958.
This is the house that Alcoa built in the Richmond suburbs near Bon Air.

For the Alcoa commission, Goodman was also said to have drawn on surveys and advice from the 1956 Woman’s Congress on Housing, in order to fine-tune his planning on living spaces, privacy, social spaces and private rooms.
In addition to simplicity of floor plan, the Congress determined that a house should lend itself to both private and semi-public family living.  The dining area should be equally accessible to living room, family room, and kitchen so that children may be familiarized  with the polite forms of social living.  The 1,900 square foot Alcoa Care-free Home satisfies these requirements.  It has a living room and family room separated by the dining area, plus a central kitchen, three bedrooms, two baths, heater room, a 288 square foot storage-workroom, and a two-car carport.
Floor plan of the Alcoa Care-free home.
For the stay-at-home mothers of the 1960s, managing and cleaning the house became more and more of a chore as families moved from post-World War II housing into a comparatively sprawling suburban home.  The house was clearly marketed toward this increasingly affluent demographic with the lure of modern living that carried freedom from the tasks of the housewife:
Freedom from backbreaking home maintenance - long the dream of the housewife - comes closer to reality Sunday with the opening of the Alcoa Care-Free Home…More than 80 per cent of this structure can be kept clean with a damp cloth, due to architect Charles M. Goodman’s careful selection of materials and the development of new ideas and products by Aluminum Company of America.
Detail of decorative aluminum screen on the windows of the Care-free home.
The Care-free house campaign was begun in 1957 with much fanfare, and Alcoa vowed the house design would be “the most talked about home in America this fall.”  The company lavished promotional money on the campaign, starting with a four-page advertisement that ran in House Beautiful and Better Homes and Gardens.  Artwork of the house and photographs were distributed to hand out.  Thirty decorative aluminum butterflies “of assorted sizes” were distributed for eye-catching window dressing in department stores and a hundred thousand color brochures were printed extolling the virtues of aluminum and the stylish house the metal could produce.

Instead of high-maintenance gutters, the Care-free
home has aluminum rain diverters along the roof edge.

Relatively rare in most Richmond homes but a tantalizing element of care-free life in summertime Virginia was central air conditioning in the Alcoa homes.  In contrast to an era where electric fans were the principal weapon against summer heat, the General Electric Corporation and architect Goodman named central air as an essential part of “good living” in the Eisenhower era:

G. E. Year-Round Air Conditioner, made by the Home Heating and Cooling Department in Tyler, Texas, is featured in the twenty-five Alcoa Care-Free Homes that are being shown this September and October in selected cities through the country…considered to be a necessity in finer homes today, Year-Round Air Conditioning is demanded by the public as one of the requisites to good living according to Charles M. Goodman, architect for the Alcoa Care-Free Homes.

Richmond housewives toured the Care-free house and Kimberly Sacra reported the reactions of members of organizations like the Three Chopt Woman’s Club when the low, modern house was open for inspection.  Many of the ladies were taken aback by the deep purple and gold anodized aluminum panels, but even the most conservative Richmond housewife could appreciate the easily cleaned surfaces and convenience of the galley-style kitchen.  The very latest electrical appliances were used in the Alcoa house, and the women who toured the house marveled at the high-tech, push-button conveniences.  

An interior view of the Care-free home from the original sales brochure produced by Alcoa.

The distinctive Alcoa house was a landmark on Cedar Grove Road and universally known in the neighborhood as “the aluminum house.”  Like the surrounding neighborhood, the Richmond example of the Alcoa Care-free house is well preserved and has changed little. In fact, comparing the Richmond example to images the original sales material shows very few modifications to the house since it was built.  In contrast, changes have been observed in other examples of the Alcoa design, such as the completely understandable conversion of the carport into a garage in the Minnesota house.  The house built in the state of Washington has enclosed the “garden court” with skylights, perhaps another regional adaptation for rainy Portland.
The carports of the Care-free house in Minneapolis
have been converted to garages because of the Minnesota winters.

Ten years after the campaign ended and twenty-three houses had been built all over America, Alcoa returned to the subject of the Care-free home in another ad campaign.  The advertisement extolled the timeless of the design and the durable material from so much of it had been constructed.  Alcoa said the design had proven the application of aluminum for building materials and had led to a world of new uses for the metal.  Nevertheless, the Richmond house and the other twenty-two identical homes may have helped develop and shepherd applications of aluminum for building materials such as siding and gutters and roofing. 

This Alcoa ad, still extolling the design and modern
materials, ran ten years after the Care-free houses were built.

Richmond’s “aluminum house” has remained little more than an architectural curiosity for sixty years, but never heralded the coming of a new wave of Mid-Century housing in stoutly Colonial Revival Richmond as we clung to our Ranches and Tri-levels. Even today, the house’s purple aluminum panels and modern design still speak seductively of a more innocent age, and the lure of an illusive, “care-free” life in the Richmond suburbs.

- Selden. 


NOTE: the Alcoa house on Cedar Grove Road is a private residence and not open to the public.


rocketwerks said...

OMG, jaw on floor. Great piece!

Bob Winthrop said...

Wonderful article.

Steven M. Reiss said...

Great article. Modern Richmond has organized a tour on Sept.23 of five Highland Hills homes, designed by Charles Goodman, as part of our Modern Richmond Week. Visit for more information.

Our Rosewood said...

My dream homes. I grew up in Los Angeles where the modernist movement was more widespread, so to see this here in Richmond is so very heartwarming. My grandparents lived in Manhattan Beach when it was a small resort town not the overpriced mega-McMansion land it has become. There is a neighborhood there, near Morningside Drive I believe, post-war modernist development that had wonderful houses.

SM said...

We lived there as children and loved the freedom and ability to move in, out, around, over, under and through this house! After entering and exiting via the sliding glass doors, one could climb the brick wall to the roof, lift the grates to go underneath. At the time, ('60's) the unusual construction made resale difficult!