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Your Solar House

The small public library in my home town had very few books on architecture. But it was there in a converted storefront on Archer Avenue that I sat, cross-legged on the floor by the bottom shelf of the “oversize” section, for an afternoon with the first book I recall on the topic of architecture. I think about that encounter and wonder now what it might have meant to my future.

.your solar house

Your Solar House was published in 1947, a large-format book with a friendly old-rose paper-covered cover. In an effort to promote their glass products, Libby-Owens-Ford had asked one architect in each state—there were only forty-eight then, plus the District of Columbia—to design a passive solar house, appropriate for the state’s latitude (i.e., sun angle), climate, etc. The book has never been reprinted, though I’ve managed to find two originals from out-of-print dealers.

YSH01

After an introductory essay on glass and the principles of passive solar design, there is a series of two-page spreads for each state and the District of Columbia grouped in regions, principally for climatic similarity, I’m guessing. North Dakota is grouped with its southern twin, as you might imagine. What I find more interesting is the array of architects chosen for/from each state. North Dakota, for example, is represented by Harold Bechtel with what may be the homeliest entry in the entire book. Bechtel was architect for the Lincoln Mutual Insurance building that has become Klai Hall; the original was characterized by Vince Hatlen, who once worked for Bechtel, as the best building he ever did. By contrast, South Dakota’s tasteful entry was the work of another Harold—Spitznagel—still “alive” in the TSP Partnership. Consider the Missouri house:

YSH MO01 YSH MO02

Handsome, Isn’t it? Now do the math: A very rough calculation of area (excluding garage and circulation) is about 1250 square feet. I’ve seen houses on HGTV with “Great Rooms” bigger than that. WTF have we become?

The list of architects is interesting as a whole, with names that were notable then and which have become icons for mid-century Modernism. Harwell Hamilton Harris (“where hurricanes hardly ever happen”) designed the “Texas” house. Cerny did “Minnesota”; the Keck brothers did “Illinois” (meaning Chicago in the late 40s); William Wilson Wurster offered California’s vision. For larger name recognition, Ed Stone did “New York” and Louis Kahn gave us the Pennsylvania take. Like any pattern book or other slice of professional life, it says volumes about the state of architecture at the end of the Second World War. I’d be happy to scan and post here as many of these houses as you would enjoy seeing—probably your first opportunity. When the Agincourt Project was born circa 2006, I thought immediately to include the Iowa design from Your Solar House, but was immensely disappointed when I found it.

The site I chose was Agincourt’s earliest “suburban” expansion at the west edge of the original townsite. Four outlots on Sixth Street NW began the slope down to the Muskrat River through some land that had been put into an apple orchard. But either blight or economic unprofitability had encouraged its reuse in the post-war era of the G.I. Bill and other suburban delights. The normal 50-by-140-foot pattern of residential lots could be abandoned. Here they would be 85 feet wide and between 200 and 400 feet deep down to the river’s edge, most of which was unbuildable due to Spring flooding. But, try as I might, I could not place the “Iowa” design on any one of them, either as the plan stood or in a horizontal or vertical flip. Its architect should be embarrassed.

I simply could not imagine that any client would want to build this house (as it was presented in the book, at least). So, instead, they chose the “Minnesota” design by Cerny. In the ongoing cultural battle between these two states—Minnesotans tell Iowa jokes and vice versascore one for Minnesota.


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