Atlantic Cities

The Evolution of the American Dream, from Colonial Times to Today

The Evolution of the American Dream, from Colonial Times to Today
William Henry Jackson; The National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution.

The new House & Home exhibit at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., has been in the works for so long that one of the stories the curators first intended to tell – that of a housing “boomburg” in the suburban Las Vegas desert – has, by the exhibit’s opening this weekend, turned into something quite different. Today, Summerlin, Nevada, has one of the highest rates of foreclosure in the country, making it more a cautionary tale of how our physical houses can prompt financial ruin as much as they can embody gauzier dreams of home, family and community.

But this is all part of the much larger, messier story, anyway. House & Home, the most ambitious exhibit the museum has ever staged, is aiming to cover it all: the construction of American homes, their high art in architecture, the objects we put inside them, the associations they carry for us – and how all of this has evolved over time with new technology, changing politics and population shifts in and around the country. The curators, who have been working on all this since before our housing-related recession, have pulled in mention of everything from the balloon frame to the Homestead Act to models of cooperative living.

This sounds like a lot to bite off in a 7,000-square foot gallery space (one that is, in fact, considerably smaller than a number of the famous homes on display). But the exhibit isn’t skewed for architecture buffs (who will inevitably find some of their favorite housing styles missing) or amateur historians (who will want to know much more about a board game called “Blacks & Whites,” unearthed by curator Sarah Leavitt, created in the 1970s to teach students about discriminatory housing policies). Rather, the exhibit is intended for a broader public for whom our own homes are the most direct entry point into an understanding of the built environment.

As the exhibit’s title suggests, house and home are two distinct ideas. And this is neatly captured by a Paul Fussell quote on one wall: “Since a housewrecker differs significantly from a homewrecker, the inference is clear that house and home mean different things.” (We also love this gem from William Levitt, the godfather of American suburbia and creator of the original Levittown in the 1940s: “No man who owns his own house and lot can be a communist… he has too much to do.”)

On the house front, the exhibit has recreated the life-size bones of several construction techniques across time, from a late 16th century adobe brick house to a glass curtain wall section in a modern eco-home. As the progression suggests, we’ve gotten much better at this house-building thing over time. The exhibit’s best feature is a series of 14 model iconic homes, from Mount Vernon and Monticello in Virginia, to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater and the 1915 Astor Court apartment building in New York City. The models are all built at the same scale, lending a ridiculous quality inside the gallery to the towering copy of the John Hancock building in Chicago that rises above the light fixtures here. Feast your eyes, tiny-model lovers:


Monticello, Charlottesville, Virginia. Model by Studios Eichbaum + Arnold, 2008 (Photo by Museum staff)


Oak Alley, Vacherie, Louisiana. Model by Studios Eichbaum + Arnold, 2008 (Photo by Museum staff)


Fallingwater, Mill Run, Pennsylvania. Model by Studios Eichbaum + Arnold, 2010. (Photo by Museum staff)

The interiors of our homes have changed with time as much as the exteriors have. The museum’s depiction of what we do inside these private places is sentimental and random and amusing. Among 200 artifacts, there’s an electric vibrator from the 1920s on display (you may have a hard time picking it out; it doesn’t look like what you’d expect at all), an assortment of JELL-O molds from the 1960s, as well as that fawning 1976 Farrah Fawcett poster that sold 12 million copies to middle-school boys.

The meatier stuff – the history of the modern American mortgage – is also on display, as are a number of stories about how our homes relate not just to their inhabitants but also to the communities around them. That’s where Summerlin comes in. Of course, all of these topics might merit a solo exhibit. But the museum is hoping the broad survey, available for the next five years, will be just enough to send you home looking at your own house anew, considering the ways in which it fits into a longer lineage of construction and architecture styles, as well as an ongoing history around how we pay for, live in and view these places.

It’s also possible that you’ll just go home wishing you lived here:


Photo by Jack E. Boucher; Library of Congress, Historic American Buildings Survey

Or here:


Photo by Chet Frohlich; courtesy Turnberry Towers Las Vegas

Or here.


Ariel Efron, Local Projects

Emily Badger is a former staff writer at The Atlantic Cities based in Washington, D.C. She now writes for The Washington Post. All posts »

Join the Discussion