Care-Free Youth, or, My So-Called Mid-Century Life
My childhood home was a "Care-Free Home," one of 24 built by the Alcoa Aluminum Company. It was a Mid-Century design utopia, though I didn't know it at the time. Two years after my family moved out of the house, I mentioned it in passing to the editors of Ohio Magazine, where I was working as an intern. They immediately asked me to write a story about it. Here's the story, from December 1992, and here is information about other Care-Free Homes in the US.
It was the residential equivalent of a ’57 Cadillac -- sleek, high-powered, brash and thoroughly American. The first “Alcoa Care-Free Home,” the Aluminum Company of America’s pioneer housing design, was built in 1957 near Lafayette, Indiana. It was a 1,900-sq.-ft. advertisement for aluminum building materials. There was aluminum in the sky-blue anodized roof, in the heavy gold-hued front door, in the textured iridescent purple siding, and in the Spanish-style grilles over the floor-to-ceiling windows. Inside, there were more Space Age attractions: a wall-hung refrigerator, a trim galley kitchen with interior walls that could be moved to create a different floor plan, toilet tanks hiding behind pastel-tiled bathroom walls, and linoleum squares that bordered the carpeting in each room. The walls of the living room and three identically sized bedrooms were finished in brushed aluminum paneling, intermixed with vinyl and cherry panels.
A Care-Free Home was also built that year on a wooded lot in River Forest, a brand-new subdivision in the then-sleepy village of Dublin, northwest of Columbus. This historic event caused a great local stir at the time. It has, however, long since been forgotten by nearly everyone -- except me. I grew up in that Care-Free Home. And lately, I’ve been curious aboutmy family’s past in that house of the future. From microfilm and memories, I was startled to learn how famous my old house had been long ago.
The Care-Free Home came to Ohio when Alcoa invited Columbus custom home builder Richard Schoen to build one of the twenty-three houses the company wanted to scatter across the country. First, Schoen toured the original home in Indiana, designed by Washington, D.C. architect Charles M. Goodman. He brought along his wife and his banker; Alcoa meant only to inspire the builders, not pay them. All three were impressed. Schoen left with a set of plans and a feeling of euphoria.
Construction was a breeze. Schoen, who was already a twenty-year veteran of the building business, was especially impressed with the free-standing electrical outlets, which sped up wall construction. Everything was efficient. Carefree. The press followed the story in earnest. The October 1957 issue of Better Homes And Gardens featured the house in an eight-page spread. “From sky-hued roof to purple and blue panels and golden front door, you know right away that this is a house that’s exciting . . .different . . .new!”
The Columbus Dispatch interviewed the Schoens, and photographs of this Space Age house dovetailed nicely with the paper’s reports of the Sputnik launch. “Beautiful textured carefree aluminum panels,” sighed the ads. “Thrill after thrill awaits you at the Alcoa Care-Free Home. It’s the last word in modern living.” Columbus residents agreed. Four thousand had turned out on Sunday, October 27, 1957, the first day of open house. Husbands liked the idea of simply hosing down the house instead of painting it; housewives loved the futuristic General Electric appliances. The Care-Free kitchen was a “bright, efficient workshop,” declared the brochure each visitor received. “Mother’s no longer left out. “
Twenty miles away, my mother was oblivious to it all. In 1957, she was living a carefree life of her own, as a popular brunette bobby-soxer who sang soprano in the Columbus North High School choir. Her “Mr. Wonderful” was my father, who played tackle for Worthington High and was learning to drive his family’s brand new Chevy. They had gone steady for two years, but Mom once said they’d started talking about marriage at age thirteen. In 1962, they married. By that time, the Schoens had sold the house and moved on to their next building project. The Alcoa Care-Free Home was now known as 5266 Ashford Road. It would be another fifteen years before the Care-Free home came into my parents’ lives.
Dad first saw the house on a hot summer night in 1977. For two years, our family had been living in what my artistic mother called “our nice tract house,” and she was itching to move. A realtor friend took my father on a tour of the Care-Free Home. Dad’s 1977 reaction was not as enthusiastic at Dick Schoen’s twenty years earlier. “It’s an awful ugly house,” Dad reported to us, “but it’s on a beautiful piece of property. And another thing -- the kitchen’s smack in the middle of the house.” He paused, then plunged ahead. “I think we should make an offer. It’s underpriced, actually.” A consummate salesman, Dad pitched the house as a dramatic, artistic statement. That was enough to convince my mother. Ours was the fifth bid.
My father, my mother, my sister Liana and I drove to Dublin to see what we were bidding on. After the Schoens had left, the present had rapidly overtaken the house of the future. The wall-hung fridge was history, and the 350-pound concrete squares that were once “attractive walkways” surrounding the house had disintegrated. The purple and blue siding around the outside of the house looked hopelessly dated in the beige Seventies. Someone had graciously painted the golden entrance door a muddy brown. There were baseball-sized dents in the aluminum walls and bullet holes in the windows. There were roof-high weeds, and an homage to someone named “Lucky Lynn” was spray-painted on the rear brick wall of the garage. Tire tracks crisscrossed the acre of dandelion-beseiged yard.
Mom quickly realized that the Care-Free Home had stopped caring a long time ago, but, “It was a dream house for a former art student like me, and l lusted after it. I saw potential,” recalled Mom, who is temperamentally optimistic. It still looked modern, in a dated sort of way, and visions of Frank Lloyd Wright besotted her brain. Luckily for her, the other bidders dropped out within a month, unable to contact the current owner, who had moved to carefree California. We owned the Care-Free Home shortly before Thanksgiving, 1977.
We welcomed our first guests on New Year’s Eve, 1978, when my parents threw a costumed Fifties “sock hop” for several couples. The house was a major part of the nostalgia and an instant hit. “From the start, our friends liked the drama of the house,” remembered Mom. “They called it ‘The Glass House.’ And your father used to love to tell them that the kitchen had movable walls. I think it fascinated him, as a builder, to be able to move parts of a house.” Dad’s builder friends were also amazed at the house’s symmetry. “Each room was 12 X 12,” said Dad. “It was so symmetrical, workers would get lost. They’d find themselves in the backyard, when they thought they had walked out the front door.”
I was not, at first, enthusiastic about the new house. Movable or not, the kitchen layout made it impossible to sneak in unnoticed to taste the chocolate fondue on that New Year’s Even. So I decided to be a mature seven-year-old and walk, very quietly, into the kitchen to steal a fondue stick. I remember hearing deep, grown-up laughter followed by jokes I couldn’t hear. I smelled cigarette smoke and perfume. I heard ice rattle in glasses. I peered around the corner and saw a woman in poodle skirt and saddle shoes dancing the two-step inside a tight square of white linoleum that served as the Care-Free Home’s dining room. It seemed odd to see grown-ups being so seriously silly. It was a lighthearted house.
It was never my mother’s intention to restore the house to its original glory; she was too practical and yet too fanciful for that. In any case, who in the Seventies would have considered a ’57 Cadillac of a house worthy of “historic preservation”? My mother spent that first year tearing out most of the conveniences that had made the house a standout in 1957; they had become modern nuisances. “Those freestanding electrical outlets jutted out of the floors everywhere, and you couldn’t vacuum around them,” Mom said in disgust. “The white linoleum tiles bordering the carpet in every room got dirty if you looked at them funny. The toilet tanks were inside the walls, so you could hardly repair them.” The stake through her heart, though, was the formerly futuristic decorating. “For God’s sake, the walls were quilted lavender aluminum!”
Over the thirteen years that our family lived in the Care-Free Home, my parents devoted themselves to improving the house’s livability. The garage at the back of the house was converted into the master bedroom, doubling the square footage of the house. The carpeting was extended to the edges of each room. The bathroom walls were pried open so the toilet tanks could be replaced. The dented aluminum walls were smoothed with Spackle and covered with wallpaper.
The Great Blizzard of ’78 was the first real challenge. Without electricity, the house of the future was cold. When I wasn’t huddled close to my family by the fireplace, I toured the house, marveling at the slushlike state of my favorite shampoo and making sure my goldfish hadn’t frozen to death. The bank of windows at the front did, however, give us an uninterrupted view of the whiteout outside. My parents listened nervously to the roof. “It kept making these cracking noises,” Mom recalled. “Your dad shoveled snow off of it because we were afraid it would cave in. By that time the roof had oxidized to a light blue color, and we didn’t know why.”
I knew why, eventually. By researching our Care-Free Home thirty-five years after it was built and two years after we’d moved out, I’d learned a lot -- from the nostalgic memories and from what I’d uncovered. I’d contacted the Schoens, who sent me a copy of the orginal Alcoa brochure. It was time to break the news. I slipped the brochure across the table. Mom read, wide-eyed. “Sky blue! Sky blue!” she laughed, shaking her head. ”Good Lord! You mean that color was intentional?” She called for Dad, who sat with us and studied the brochure with the same look of disbelief. Dad was surprised to learn that the “damn holes in the gutters” were intentional as well. He read aloud, “It says, ‘Dramatic high-lights along the length of house are formed by light through perforations. Aluminum strip rims the eaves to diffuse rain so it will softly spray the shrubs.’” He groaned. “I remember cleaning through those dead, clogged leaves every spring.” My sister and I remembered dodging the waterfall the trapped leaves created over our front door each time it rained.
My mother then recalled the “tall academic-looking” woman who’d appeared at our door two years after we moved into the Care-Free Home declaring that she lived in the only other Care-Free Home built in Ohio, near Cleveland. “She said she was trying to locate all of the twenty-four homes across the country, and she just wanted to see ours,” Mom said. “Also, the walled-up toilets in her house were broken, and she wanted to know where she could get authentic replacements. We, of course, had purchased efficient replacements, not authentic ones.” Apparently, the woman’s dream was to have her Alcoa home listed in the National Register of Historic Places. “Even though her house was sinking into the ground, she was fiercely proud of the fact that it had never been ‘altered’ in any way,” Mom scoffed. There is still no Alcoa home on the Register, and we never heard from the mystery woman again.
After thirteen years in the Care-Free Home, we moved into a brand-new house not far away. Once again, Dad made a sales pitch, and Mom got a deal. Our new house was built and decorated exactly to our tastes. It had what the Care-Free Home lacked: storage space, a leakproof basement, a secure garage and a cost-efficient heating system. It had a lot less glass. There was nothing to replace or repair in our made-to-order home; there were no mysteries waiting to be solved. But the new house lacked one thing the Alcoa house had in abundance -- a hopeful eye toward the future. The Care-Free Home was built on a promise, a confident dream of convenience, efficiency and technology that would make the American future truly carefree. When I drove away from the Care-Free Home for the last time, I cried for the future I left behind.
UPDATE: When I visit Ohio, sometimes I do a quiet drive-by and take a peek at the Care-Free Home. I realize now that we broke most, if not all, of the Mid-Century Design Commandments in our renovations and alterations. The current owners have lived in the Care-Free Home for over twenty years now, and I wonder what they have done to make the house their own. Do they have Eames chairs? Is the refrigerator a vintage reproduction? Are the purple panels prominent again? Has anyone tried to move the kitchen? Do the toilets work? The trees we planted are gigantic, and the house hides behind them. So many trees; I raked an entire autumn's worth of leaves from the yard to earn a pair of rainbow suspenders that every Mork And Mindy loving kid was wearing that year. I see the forbidden backyard hill our mom warned us about -- it was full of glass from the previous owners' broken beer bottles. My three year old sister toddled there one summer day and I rescued her, carrying her away from the danger. I didn't even realize my mistake until I saw my own blood on the grass. I ended up with stitches -- because I wasn't wearing any shoes, either. Hindsight is 20/20.
It was a midcentury masterpiece, but I didn't know it then and it doesn't matter now. It was home.