The Private Home in Early-20th-century American Professional Discourses

Sonia Hirt


Couple at model home Arch Forum Sept 1926 p 119

The detached single-family home has long been a dominant feature in the cities, towns and suburbs of the United States by far more so than it is in most other Western nations such as those in Europe. To this very day, the private home is considered a constitutive element of what we call the “American Dream.” This paper seeks to uncover some of the mechanisms through which this home acquired and maintained its commanding presence in the American imagination and consequently, in American urban and metropolitan space. Specifically, the paper turns to professional discourses from the early 20th century—a time period when American urban nodes were growing in leaps and bounds and a time when the parallel pressures of industrialization and massive immigration were causing urban land prices to perpetually rise, hence making it increasingly imperative to build higher-density housing in lieu of private homes. The paper argues that city-building experts from that time period—urban planners, architects and landscape architects—collectively envisioned the private home as having a “right” to the American city and converted this vision into a persuasive story. Through their storytelling, the experts helped craft a number of government strategies that defended the home’s “right to the city” through the remainder of the 20th century.    




SHirt_1760x1600-300x272Sonia A. Hirt is Professor in the College of Architecture and Urban Studies at Virginia Tech, where she also serves as Associate Dean for Academic Affairs. Hirt is the author Zoned in the USA: The Origins and Implications of American Land- Use Regulations (Cornell University Press, 2014); Iron Curtains: Gates, Suburbs and Privatization of Space in the Post-socialist City (Wiley-Blackwell, 2012); and Twenty Years of Transition: The Evolution of Urban Planning in Eastern Europe and the Former Soviet Union, 1989-2009 (UN-HABITAT, 2009, with K. Stanilov). Iron Curtains received the Honorable Mention for the 2013 Book Prize in Political and Social Studies by Harvard University’s Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, awarded by the Association for Slavic, East European and Eurasian Studies. Zoned in the USA received the Honorable Mention for the 2015 Best Book Prize by the Urban Affairs Association. Hirt is also the editor of The Urban Wisdom of Jane Jacobs (Routledge, 2012 and 2014, with D. Zahm) and the co-editor of the Journal of Planning History (with N. Bloom).