Atlantic Cities

The 'New Old' Way We Market American Real Estate

The 'New Old' Way We Market American Real Estate
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"I can't tell one from the other, if I found you or you found me."

So sings David Byrne in the 1980s Talking Heads hit, "This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)". It's a feeling many of us have in that singular exercise that Americans on average perform five times in their lifetime: move into a new place to live. The song plays as Charlie Sheen checks out an Upper East Side condominium tower in the movie Wall Street. We want home to be in a good location and structurally sound, but we also prefer our shelter to speak to us somehow, to symbolize a new stage of life.

The world of real estate marketing knows this very well. That was evident after a visit to the exhibit "Selling the Dwelling: The Books That Built America’s Houses," which concluded recently at the Grolier Club in midtown Manhattan, and flipping through the companion volume of the same title. Author and curator Richard Cheek, an architectural photographer and rare book collector, chronicles the way the home has been sold and packaged to American families from Revolutionary times to the suburban expansion of the second half of the 20th century.

In the earliest days of the republic, homes were built according to builders' guides and pattern books, all based on European architectural standards. The books served as a template for how to craft the overall frame, doorways, windows, roof framing, stairways, and mantles, and included painstaking detail. Most were generated out of Philadelphia, a hotbed for essentially how-to design manuals, but they were closely guarded by carpentry guilds.

Things opened up through the 19th century, as wealth increased, building methods evolved, and more Americans sought access to building their own single-family home. Design options expanded well beyond the European template, with Greek Revival, then Gothic, Colonial Revival, and the Beaux-Arts styles. Before and after the Civil War, the home was portrayed in a menu of options, including the first do-it-yourself kits. Then came the explosion of home catalogs – the assemble-on-site kits sold by Sears, the Arts & Craft bungalows, and developers working with lumber companies selling "homes for the millions" in planned communities such as Radford.


A Cape Cod house, circa 1910. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

In the post-World War II suburban boom, homes were marketed as safe, affordable, and a sound investment. In places like Levittown, the Cape Cod house became dominant, followed closely by the Tudor, the ranch, and the colonial. The streamlined efficiency of modern architecture had some appeal – modern kitchens and open-plan living rooms, as seen in the television show The Brady Bunch. But Americans overwhelmingly favored the traditional for their dream home, Cheek says.

The ubiquitous McMansion provided more square footage and three-car garages, but tastes may be changing – and going back to the future. The builder's assistant guides of the past are being used by some developers to re-create authentic "new old" houses, according to the Wall Street Journal.

In the digital era, marketing real estate – presenting choices, features, and location – has entered a dizzying new phase. In the hottest markets, such as New York City, condo shoppers can download an app to see 3-D animation including room layouts and views. They might also use augmented "reality goggles" that project an image of a space and facilitate a virtual walk-through. "Real estate has always been about selling a dream," says Rodrigo Lopez, creative director at Neoscape, the architecture and real estate branding firm. "Technology is changing the way we communicate those ideals."

I guess that means that if Wall Street was filmed today, Charlie Sheen, flush with riches, would have swiped through pages on an iPad, before saying, "I'll take it. This is home."

Top image: Sunny studio-Igor Yaruta/Shutterstock.com

Anthony Flint is a fellow at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, a think tank in Cambridge, Mass., and author of Wrestling With Moses: How Jane Jacobs Took On New York’s Master Builder and Transformed the American City and This Land: The Battle Over Sprawl and the Future of America. His next book, Modern Man: The Life of Le Corbusier, Architect of Tomorrow will be published in the fall of 2014 by Amazon Publishing. All posts »

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