Photo: Gelbin House & Studio, circa 1974, located at 23 Spring Pond Road in the Mid-Century Historic District, Norwich. The District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2018. Photo by Lyssa Papazian, 2017, author of the nomination document, accessed April, 2023.
Following World War One, Americans were attracted to the traditional and familiar details of Colonial and other Revival architecture and even experimented with the less formal but still nostalgic Arts and Crafts style. These were the pervasive styles found in new American residential developments and which were fully propagated through catalog and eventually factory-built housing. Notable exceptions to the norm in America were the work of Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright in the mid-west which created new forms in the fledgling skyscraper and in the Prairie School of design, respectively. In Europe, however, the trauma of the World War One led to radical social and artistic changes in many facets of life, including architecture. Architect Le Corbusier in Switzerland and the Bauhaus school in Weimar Germany overseen by Walter Gropius and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe created a stark departure from traditional forms and Victorian or Revival ornament. Emphasis was on honesty of form and material, simplicity of design that expressed Mies van der Rohe's principal of "Less is More." The European Modernist movement, known later as the International Style, was slow in its arrival in the United States. The rise of Hitler in Germany in the 1930s, however, whose regime targeted artists, led the main architectural practitioners and teachers, including Gropius and Mies van der Rohe, to emigrate to the United States where they found academic homes at the Harvard Graduate School of Design and what would later become the Illinois Institute of Technology, respectively. Bauhaus architect Marcel Breuer joined Gropius at Harvard where they taught and practiced. Architectural historian Carter Wiseman wrote of their influence: "... no school of architecture except the Beaux‑Arts itself could claim to have produced so many architects who would have such a pervasive impact upon their society. So powerful was the educational experience in that place and time that even those graduates ... who did not go on to fame contributed with zeal to the propagation of the faith they absorbed under their Harvard mentors." The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) School of Architecture, also in Cambridge, MA, produced many modernist architects as well.
Frank Lloyd Wright had created a philosophy of organic architecture with simplified geometric shapes driven by concepts of open living and form following function. He established a lab and workshop at Taliesin East, in Spring Green, WI, and Taliesin West, in Scottsdale, AZ. At each location Wright trained and worked with many young architects — some coming out of the Harvard environment. He also believed in democratizing his concepts by creating an alternative to the more traditional and inexpensive homes of the rising suburbs in his Usonian homes. It was these two influences on American architecture of the 1940s – Gropius/Mies van der Rohe and Wright that created the Mid-Century Modern design approach and aesthetic that became so influential in later 20th century American building.
American residential architecture in the mid-20th century evolved in two ways: the vernacular, which exploded across the country in post-war expansions by builders and developers; and the academic/high-style propagated by Gropius, Mies van der Rohe, and Wright.
The American vernacular buildings of the vast post-World War Two suburban expansion and growth tended to the traditional in style while utilizing some of the manufacturing advances of the age. The economic prosperity of post war America in which robust wartime industries shifted to peacetime products and services was greatly enabled by the federal government through massive infrastructure spending on transportation, the creation of federally guaranteed mortgages and especially the G.I. Bill which provided educational and housing assistance to millions of veterans creating new families. "In the realm of housing, the GI Bill established a mortgage aid program that provided long term mortgages with a low down payment. Prior to the war, homeowners had to provide a 50% down payment and were given a short mortgage term of five to ten years. With these changes, home ownership was no longer relegated to the wealthy and the nation transformed from a culture of renting to a culture of home ownership." The main federal mortgage provider was the Federal Housing Authority which, given its enormous task of assisting the creation of millions of new affordable homes, operated with very broad strokes. The goal was to create new well-designed residential communities. This included a guiding manual that restricted funding to housing that met certain criteria which included the types of subdivision design such as curvilinear or cul-de-sac streets, houses uniform in lot size, scale, style and setbacks. This had the effect of creating what became the typical American suburb of look- alike or similar homes on miles of curving new streets. Thousands of suburbs were filled with new homes in familiar and ubiquitous forms like the cottage and more modern ranch. New neighborhoods were thus created of a common vocabulary and were accessible to many who could afford a simple home for the first time. The traditional Colonial Revival was and still is a dominant style in residential and institutional architecture. It was also the style preferred by the Federal Housing Authority, which was the primary funding source for the new homes. There were, however, small modernist homes designed for suburbs that offered an alternative. These included Wright's Usonian houses and those of developer Joseph Eichler, which were primarily found in the west and mid-west. Carl Koch's Techbuilt and William Berkes' Deck House modular homes can be found in the northeast.
In the United States, high–style modernist architecture was practiced by stylistic leaders heavily influenced by the Bauhaus school and Le Corbusier in Europe. It emerged from colleges and universities such as the Harvard Graduate School of Design, where Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer taught young architects the minimalist and stripped-down approach to design that became known as the International Style. This stark style suited new, large commercial, industrial, and institutional buildings exemplified by Mies van der Rohe's Seagram Building (1958), Lever House (1951) by Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, and Story Hall at Harvard (1948) by Gropius and the Architects Collaborative; as well as some residential buildings like Gropius' own home in Lincoln, MA, Marcel Breuer's Stillman House in Litchfield, CT, Mies van der Rohe's Farnsworth House in Plano, IL, and Phillip Johnson's Glass House in New Canaan, CT. However, especially in residential design, the starkness of the International Style evolved into something more human-scaled through the countering influence of Frank Lloyd Wright and his students and colleagues. A Wrightian or modified approach to the severity of International Style evolved into what is broadly called Mid-Century Modern style which includes a wide gamut of cutting edge architect–designed work. The Mid-Century Modern style, like the International Style, exploded traditional building form, but then incorporated the Wright-derived ideas of an open interior plan, outdoor living, and informality to residential projects that made use of local materials and craftsmanship. Siting, terrain and landscape played an important role in these house designs in which glass and interior courtyards were used to literally bring the outside in or to make the transition between them seamless.
While Wright had practiced mainly in the Midwest, a related evolution of the modern style developed in California—termed the Redwood or Bay Area style and incorporated the materials and openness the climate allowed while celebrating the hand-crafted carpentry traditions of the earlier Arts and Crafts era. In the northeast, the Harvard Graduate School of Design produced a group of architects who evolved the modern concepts and married them with a Wrightian aesthetic within the New England tradition of wood and stone.
Architectural historian William Jordy observed of mid-20th century architecture:
Regional differences were especially obvious in the United States because the centers of modern architecture were widely separated, existing as pockets of activity in the suburbs of certain cities: principally New York, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francesco. In the beginning not even these suburban areas as a whole were affected; rather only such enclaves as New Canaan, Connecticut, or Lincoln and Lexington, Massachusetts. Like psychiatrists of the period, modern architects tended to cluster; they often stayed close to the architectural schools from which they had graduated. They enjoyed one another's company in what was then a rather lonely point of view. They shared with potential clients the liberal attitudes toward culture that filtered into the environs of the biggest cities...
They were also able to get work from clients in the same areas who were exposed to and admired the modern buildings built by their colleagues.
In the words of architectural historians Carlos J. Dunn & Sarah K. Cody, "Mid-century modern design embodied the Nation's ideals of progress and optimism, as Americans left the war behind and looked forward towards the future."24 It is no surprise then that it was embraced in commercial construction to express and advertise businesses and opportunities for recreation. In resort locations such as Palm Springs, CA, and south Florida it became the signature style of hotels, restaurants, apartment buildings and even office buildings. One of the most notable Mid‑Century Modern clusters is in Miami and surrounding areas, known as Miami Modern, or MiMo, and includes exuberant design features that worked with the intense sun and climate such as pre‑cast concrete screens with geometric patterns, cantilevered roofs perforated with cut‑outs for palm trees, open-air corridors and staircases, and exterior decoration that evoked a sense of the tropical and seashore environment. According to Dunn and Cody, "Some of the most noted MiMo architects include Morris Lapidus (Fontainebleau and Eden Rock Hotels), Igor B. Polevitzky, Robert Law Weed, Gilbert Fein, and Charles F. McKirahan, among others."
†Lyssa Papazian, Historic Preservation Consultant, Town of Norwich/Norwich Historic Preservation Commission, Norwich Mid-Century Modern Historic Distrcit, nomination document, 2017, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.