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Elegant Small Homes of the Twenties: 99 Designs from a Competition

Elegant Small Homes of the Twenties: 99 Designs from a Competition

by Chicago Tribune

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In 1927, the Chicago Tribune sponsored a competition for "trained men of talent, incorporating into the small home ideas of real worth, types of rare charm, and the best possible plans for comfort and convenience." This collection spotlights the challenge’s top results, presenting the nineteen prize-winning designs for five- and six-room houses, plus


In 1927, the Chicago Tribune sponsored a competition for "trained men of talent, incorporating into the small home ideas of real worth, types of rare charm, and the best possible plans for comfort and convenience." This collection spotlights the challenge’s top results, presenting the nineteen prize-winning designs for five- and six-room houses, plus eighty additional sets of the best architectural plans. A new introduction by Daniel D. Reiff, Ph.D., adds interesting detail about the competition and the competitors. These fascinating snapshots of American domestic architecture of the 1920s include glimpses of New England and Southern colonials, Normandy cottages, stately Italianate dwellings, and other styles. Each of the designs features a floor plan and exterior views of the house. Architects, architecture buffs, and historians will prize these authentic renderings of the leading designs in American architecture of nearly a century ago.

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Elegant Small Homes of the Twenties

99 Designs from a Competition

By Dover Publications

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 2008 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-13821-3


Introduction to the Dover Edition

by Daniel D. Reiff, PhD

If a middle- or upper-middle-class family in the Chicago area wanted to have a five- or six-room house erected for themselves in 1927, what were their options? Although one's first inclination might be to "consult an architect or builder," there were in fact a number of choices—some quite economical—open to them.

One route would have been, after consulting a house-plan book, to order the plans and specifications for their home from a mail-order plan company. These had existed for well over a century: The first mail-order plans seem to date to 1856, and the service grew energetically through the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. In the Chicago area two of the most popular firms providing a great variety of plans were The Radford Architectural Co., and the Home Builders Catalog Co.

Another possibility was to order plans from companies that also supplied low-cost building materials (except for masonry portions of the house), cut and fitted to the exact specifications of the house selected. This pre-cut system had been begun by The Aladdin Co. of Bay City, Michigan, about 1908; Sears, Roebuck and Co. also began selling such pre-cut houses in 1918 (prior to then they supplied "enough lumber to build the house," but it was not pre-cut). By the 1920s there were quite a number of such firms who would supply the blueprints and all necessary construction documents along with the material, cut and fitted by machinery at the factory—which would save the local carpenter (still using hand tools in the 1920s) a great deal of labor.

One could also simply consult a local carpenter, builder, or contractor, who would have catalogs of house designs one could choose from—or just take a design from a magazine, or a photo of a house one liked, to him—and he could work up drawings, with appropriate customizing, from that.

But naturally, one of the best methods, to assure getting the most sophisticated design adapted to one's specific needs, was to consult a professional architect. This was usually the most expensive, however, as the "standard" rate for plans, specifications, and superintendence of the construction, was at least five percent of the building's cost. That is where books of "architect designed" house plans came into the picture—either from firms like Radford (whose architects were all "licensed in the State of Illinois"), or from specialized publications of architects' house designs ... such as that published in 1927 by the Chicago Tribune.

Like many newspapers of the day, the Chicago, Tribune had a Home Builders' Department, the aim of which was to provide information to its readers on home building, interior decoration, and to publish the occasional house plan for inspiration to those about to build. This volume of ninety-nine skillfully drawn designs, however, was something special: all were five- and six-room houses that could be built for about $7,500—a fairly substantial sum in those days, but affordable to middle- and upper-middle-class families. Their main purpose was to give readers a comprehensive idea of what could be built, in a "fireproof" house, for that sum.

The Tribune held a national competition to amass all these charming designs. In 1926 they must have put notices of the competition in national newspapers, and in trade publications, for they received entries from all over the country: There are designs from Portland, Maine, New Haven, Conn., Sarasota, Florida; from Buffalo, Indianapolis, and Kansas City; and from Tacoma, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. Major cities had the most entries: New York City with 20, Chicago with 14, and Detroit with 8; 29 municipalities had just one submission. With the ninety-nine designs coming from 18 states, it was certainly a nationwide competition.

As a way of amassing designs meeting a particular program, competitions had been popular in America for almost half a century. The American Architect and Building News (Boston) held one in 1882 for a seven-room house (to cost about $3,000), with a great many of the designs subsequently published in their journal. They held another competition in 1883 for a small house to cost $1,500; the next year one for a double house, to cost $3,000; and in 1885 for a $5,000 house. Carpentry and Building, another professional journal, held competitions for house designs in 1884 and 1893, and in 1898 one for houses in three different price ranges. Architectural Forum (New York) was also a sponsor of architectural design competitions.

But it was the building materials organizations—to encourage home owners and builders to use their particular product—that sponsored the most competitions for house designs. The Association of American Portland Cement (Philadelphia) held one in 1907. In a 1910 house plan catalog the Building Brick Association of America states that the plans were "a selection from more than 800 drawings submitted in a competition," and their plan catalog of 1912 drew its designs from 666 entries in a competition. Almost every building-trade organization of the day held competitions for house designs of various sizes, as mentioned in their house plan catalogs, for example: National Fire Proofing Co., Philadelphia, 1912; Hydraulic-Press Brick Co., St. Louis, 1914; American Face Brick Association, Chicago, 1920; United States Gypsum Co., Chicago, 1925; California Redwood Association, San Francisco, 1925; Weyerhaeuser Forest Products, St. Paul, 1926. From their catalogs one could purchase low-price plans and specifications of the houses illustrated—utilizing their particular product, of course.

The Chicago Tribune compendium of designs was different, however. Monetary prizes were awarded for the nine best five-room houses, and for the ten best six-room houses. The Tribune provided "complete working plans, including blueprints and specifications," however, for only three of them: the first prize for the five-room house, and the first and second prize six-room houses. The plans cost only $1 each (or "$1.15 by mail")—a real bargain, since the usual mail-order house plans from organizations such as Standard Homes Company cost $20, and of course custom-designed house plans by an architect—though it would include superintending construction too—would probably be five percent of the cost, or $375 for any of the Tribune designs.

If a reader, or a contractor, wanted to build one of those three prize-winning designs, he was in luck; but what of the other ninety-six designs, some of which might be more appealing than the prize-winning ones? Here the reader had two viable options. One was to write to the architect who prepared the published design to order the plans, or prepare something similar adapted to the exact specifications of the prospective home owner. This was surely what most of the architects submitting designs hoped would happen, and their addresses are prominently listed with each design.

But the prospective home owner might also simply take one of these designs to a local builder or contractor, who could easily work up specifications from the details and dimensions given on each plate, and thus build a "bootleg" copy of the original design. This was, after all, how house designs in books had been used in America since 1738, when Drayton Hall was erected following a plate in Palladio's Quattro Libri; how Samuel McIntire used plates in pattern books by Asher Benjamin and William Pain to create his Gardner House in 1804; and how countless builders and carpenters copied—freely or meticulously—A. J. Downing's famous gothic cottage design of 1842 all across America.

The designs provided by the Tribune volume were varied. Many were based on the English vernacular, and some reflected the reformist mode of Charles Voysey; some had half-timbering details, or a touch of English Regency style. Many had references to American colonial, or Spanish southwest forms, and a few were "modern" in their cubic severity. But none was too far from popular tastes. Whether one used these designs for general inspiration, purchased working drawings from the original architect, or had a local contractor erect a copy—or variant—of the design, one could be assured of a professional plan and design that would stand the test of time.

Were any of these houses actually built? Now that this volume is being reprinted, it will be interesting to see if some of these charming houses can be found in the Chicago area—or further afield. But it does seem that these appealing models had an impact on other designers. For example, the hipped-roof house on p. 93 certainly could be the inspiration for the similar dwelling in Robert Jones's Small Homes of Architectural Distinction (1929), p. 270. (This volume was reprinted by Dover in 1987 as Authentic Small Houses of the Twenties, Dover 0-486-25406-2.) Several other designs appear to be models for homes published by the Plan Service Company, St. Paul, in their Ideal Homes (11th ed.): Two-Story Houses of the 1930s. Such well-designed, and historically allusive homes do have a perennial appeal.


Introduction to the 1927 Edition

The small house of today is improving rapidly. Where formerly the attention of skilled architects was seldom given to the house of modest dimensions, we now find trained men of talent incorporating into the small home ideas of real worth, types of rare charm and the best possible plans for comfort and convenience.

The designs published in this book, a chosen few from among the many submitted to The Chicago Tribune in its Homes Competition, reveal the present trend of domestic architecture in our country; that movement which seeks to draw inspiration for small homes as well as large ones from the accumulated art of generations past and from sources widely separate.

Few of these homes boast any strict adherence to period form, but accentuate rather the elements of interesting design. A strong effort is made towards the creation of those types which are most truly representative of our complex life.

There is one very definite advantage to be enjoyed from choosing for one's home a house plan which a recognized architect has drawn up, not for any one family alone, but rather for general public approval. The majority of the drawings this book offers possess this advantage! It too often happens that the individual ideas are too exclusively personal to give to the house a practical, general appeal. This means that in case the owner wishes to dispose of his house in a few years he will find that he as strayed too far from the average taste and the resale value of his home greatly lessened.

The designs shown in this book keep close to generally accepted principles. While they satisfy artistically they conform practically to the general mass desire.

Architecture has followed varying roads in this country for the last two centuries. Formerly our architecture was almost completely subject to English, French, Dutch, and Spanish influence. These different nationalities brought to our country their own architectural preferences. The early supremacy of the English made itself felt architecturally, so that by the time of the formation of the thirteen colonies our domestic architecture was Colonial in character.

We find it possible today to design our homes in an infinite variety of styles. We have dozens of materials to incorporate into our homes and hundreds of appliances to utilize to improve our living conditions.

In this book will be found the formal Colonial of New England, the gracious Colonial of the Southern states, the purposely unsymmetrical and picturesque homes of the English cottage types and the quaintly artistic Normandy and Brittany dwellings. There are examples too of the stately ornate French, the Italian, the softly appealing Spanish.

If, in the study of this book, some spark of that striving and that inspiration which has gone into its drawing strikes a chord responsive in others, if the homes amid its pages reach out and make their appeal, bringing men and women a step beyond there dream home and a step closer to their real one, then surely its mission will have been accomplished.



Excerpted from Elegant Small Homes of the Twenties by Dover Publications. Copyright © 2008 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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