How a Mid-Century Architecture Competition Reimagined the American Home

By Siobhan Moroney 

Adapted from Chicagoland Dream Houses: How a Mid-Century Architecture Competition Reimagined the American Home by Siobhan Moroney. Copyright 2024 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Used with permission of the University of Illinois Press.

In its Sunday, September 30th edition, the Chicago Tribune in 1945 announced a major project for the benefit of the city and its surrounding suburbs.

“To encourage better home designs, to help launch America’s building revival and to create more jobs The Chicago Tribune announces the $24,000.00 Chicagoland Prize Homes Competition.” The mission was explicit: “It is the Tribune’s hope that the designs produced will combine the best of the old with the best of the new—so that America may be better housed, with greater comfort, convenience and happiness, at costs which will make home ownership attractive and practical to new millions of families.”

A housing shortage due to Depression-era economic straights continued when the United States entered the World War II, and everyone expected it to exacerbate even further with millions of returning veterans upon the war’s end. An economy centered around the war effort was ready to collapse, too, when millions of domestic war jobs came to a halt. The Tribune committed itself to addressing the housing crisis. Along with its instructions on how to submit designs, the paper announced another feature of its enterprise.

Watch for Prize Home Construction! When the winners have been selected, it is the Tribune’s intention, conditions permitting, to sponsor the actual construction, in Chicago and suburbs and in cities and towns throughout [sic] the middle west, of a number of homes based on prize-winning designs produced by the competition. Watch the Tribune for complete details.
Efforts to move winning designs from the competition from paper to reality distinguished the competition from others, even from the paper’s earlier, 1926 house architectural competition. Putting builders on the jury signaled, from the outset, the building project’s seriousness. This would be no mere ideas competition. The competition was clearly popular; the Tribune received nearly 1,000 submissions, including some from Marcel Breuer, Marion Mahony Griffin, Ralph Rapson, and I. M. Pei. Several factors compromised the ambition, however, and the building project was at best a mixed experience for potential home buyers. In the end, it did not present a realistic solution to the Chicago housing shortage.

As predicted, the United States suffered from a postwar housing crisis. Despite President Truman’s commitment to prioritizing veterans’ housing, policymakers clashed on how to confront the problem. Government agencies wanted more control and oversight over new construction; banks and contractors wanted less. In one Chicago-related example of the conflict, Truman’s national housing administrator, Wilson Wyatt, sought authority over other governmental agencies and private industry. Wyatt admired prefabricated solutions to housing, thinking the speed of prefabrication could address the urgency of the housing problem. Builders, and especially banks, were skeptical; prefab houses had no proven track record, and lenders were skittish about whether the houses would hold up. (A Tribune article in 1947 told of the prefabrication industry’s attempt to avoid the stigma by promoting the label “factory made.”) Wyatt planned to commandeer a Chrysler/Dodge auto manufacturing facility in Chicago and turn it over to the Lustron corporation, a pioneer in prefabricated houses. Truman (later no stranger to seizing manufacturing plants) refused to grant Wyatt the sweep- ing authority he wanted, and the plant continued making cars. Only a few weeks later, Wyatt resigned, also frustrated with Truman’s lifting of price caps on building materials and a Congress that viewed government regula- tions as “socialistic” practices to be resisted.

Chicago ended up with 100,000 homeless veterans, according to 1945 data; add spouses and children, and the number increases significantly. The Tribune covered the crisis as it played out locally, highlighting veterans and their families’ personal stories. In the fall of 1946, several articles confirmed the emergency. Desperate for housing, George Rasse and his wife were willing to pay six months’ advance rent to secure a bungalow. Once they moved in, a representative of the real owner showed up; the family had been defrauded, the legitimate owner wanted to sell rather than rent, and the family had to move. Their “rent” had disappeared. Another human-interest feature also confirmed the importance of newspapers—in particular the Chicago Tribune—in the process of securing housing. Nineteen-year-old Darwin Gilmore, a Navy veteran, waited overnight on a Saturday with his wife and seven-month-old baby in the lobby of the Tribune Tower, hoping to get first crack at the real estate listing in the Sunday paper. They had no family nearby with whom they could live and—the very next day—were due to lose their temporary lodgings in a Homewood hotel. The Gilmores’ sad story drew the Tribune’s particular attention, but other house hunters had the same idea, also camping out in the Tribune Tower lobby.

Even more dire was the story, told over several weeks, of a battle between veterans and the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA). Approved for housing but fed up with waiting for assigned apartments, a group of White veterans stormed the office at the Airport Veterans’ Housing project where units were finished (or nearly so) but still unoccupied. They overpowered the site manager, seized keys, and moved their families into sixty units. The CHA sought assistance in removing the squatters; neither the mayor nor the police department was willing to step in. Personal testimonies of the veterans show why hesitancy and delicacy were required.

Paul Principato, 31, who served 2 ½ years in the European Theater—They’ll have to get troops to move us out. These buildings are for veterans, and there are veterans in all of them. I’ve been living with my mother and my wife and the kids have been living with her sister. There’s an example for you of why the courts are full of divorces.

Mrs. Adele Seibert, whose husband, Victor was wounded as a gunner on a navy torpedo plane—Even if they throw us out it was nice while it lasted. I guess we’ll have to go and live at the city hall. We haven’t anywhere else to go.

Willis Abeln, 33, overseas with the navy for 21 months—My wife, June, and Judy, 4, have been living in a basement all the time I was overseas, and I’ve been there since I got out.
Roman Pezdek, 27, a navy veteran with 18 months overseas—If they throw us out where can we go? My wife has been sleeping with her mother, and I’ve been sleeping in the basement. Four years in service and when you come out there’s no place to live.

Mrs. Margaret Gianis, 26, whose husband William, 31, was an infantryman in Europe for two years—We and the baby, Anne, 4, were evicted from a one room place where we had been living since last August. When we read about this we just came over and moved in. The only thing the housing people ever referred us to was a four room flat with stove heat over a garage. But children weren’t permitted.

Mrs. Robert Boggs, 21, whose husband was a 2d lieutenant in the air training command for three years—We’ll stay here till we’re kicked out. Then I don’t know where we’ll go. We’ve had an application in for a place here since the first of the year. I hope they let us stay.

Robert Kakuska, 20, a navy veteran with 18 months overseas—My wife is pregnant, but I can’t bring her up from Alabama until I got a place to live.

Jack Crawford, 22, navy signalman with 23 months overseas—We’ve been living in Elmhurst but my folks got notice to move. We read about this and moved in when we found it open. This will be my first Christmas home in four years. I’ve never spent Christmas with Jill. She’s just 3.

The CHA, despite lack of assistance from other political stakeholders, fought back. Sympathetic as their stories were, the squatters had jumped ahead of veterans who had also been waiting and had been on the list for far longer than the occupying families, some for as long as a year. Those veterans had equally compelling stories. The Frales, with four children five and under, had been living with the wife’s mother, eight people sleeping in two bedrooms. The Heys and their two sons were living in hotel room; it lacked private toilet and cooking facilities. To counter the complaint that the units were “sitting empty,” the CHA quickly put the finishing touches on the units (they still lacked stoves and some heating), renting them to approved tenants.

The CHA implied the squatters had another agenda. “Ugly rumors have been heard that the squatters moved in because they heard Negroes might be allowed to occupy part of the project,” said an official. “CHA treats all veterans alike, regardless of race, creed, or color. Negroes have been invited to move in and we welcome a squatter spokeman’s statement in a radio talk Friday that the squatters support the CHA policy.”11 Six offenders (thought to be the leaders of the action) were charged with criminal trespassing, and by the end of November, the remaining squatters had agreed to vacate the premises. Despite the assurances of Wilson Wyatt, Truman’s administrator of federal housing policy, that housing for veterans was “certainly not intended just for white people,” policy did not overcome culture. An apartment unit was reassigned when its original designees, Black veteran Theodore Turner and his wife and infant, declined the opportunity to live there, “after he realized the feeling against Negroes in the neighborhood.” In December 1946, when two Black families moved in, White people rioted, injuring police officers and the press, overturning cars, and throwing rocks. The Turners were not the only Black families to decline the housing opportunity, though they must have been as desperate for housing as any other veterans’ families. The fate of the six charged with trespassing is unknown. The Chicago Defender, Chicago’s daily newspaper catering to the interests and perspectives of the city’s Black population, covered that riot and other acts of violence and intimidation, concerned that the housing situation was worsening, not improving, for Black veterans.

In May 1946, a new federal law planned an ambitious national building program, setting a target of 2,700,000 houses for veterans. The federal government would subsidize the production of building materials and increase loan protection to banks, which then could release more mortgage loans. To be eligible for the federal benefits, new house prices were capped at $10,000 and house sizes limited to no more than 1,500 square feet. Builders of low- and medium-priced units got first access to scarce materials. Any newly built house for sale, any newly built apartment for rent, and any building being converted into a habitable dwelling had to be made available first to veterans, for thirty or sixty days after completion. The national housing agency issued official signs and posters proclaiming new housing “Held for Veterans.” Builders jumped, planning construction of single-family houses, rental apartments, and cooperative apartments. Modest projects hoped to provide forty-two, sixty, seventy-four, and seventy-eight units. Other builders planned on a grander scale: 530, 1,500, and 1,650.

Given the urgency, the Tribune’s contribution to the housing problem was certainly welcome and much needed. Its initial publicity noted that a successful Chicagoland Prize Homes competition would lead to some number of built houses. The competition rules booklet sent to those who had registered an intent to submit a design confirmed that aspiration: the jury would select “those solutions which provide the best designs of dwellings which are marketable to the public and attractive as investments to builders and lending agencies, and which can be executed into finished homes by the average small home building contractor and at total costs which would not be considered excessive, uneconomic or wasteful in relation to the floor area.” Boyd Hill, official advisor to the competition, outlined a major building project.

The present plan is to build 56 in the Chicago metropolitan area and 88 in outlying cities within a radius of 300 miles of Chicago. It is felt that every entrant should know that in case he [sic] is a winner in the competition, his winning design will not be merely a dream house on paper but, conditions permitting, will actually be built.

That ambitious plan for 144 houses, however, was never reflected in the newspaper coverage. Tribune articles referred to the “more than a score” of houses to be built. The latter number is more accurate; the paper publicized the erection of fewer than 20 houses, and research has turned up around 30 in the Chicago area.

While the Tribune’s first call for submissions indicated its intention to see winning designs through to the building phase, in 1945, the Tribune never mentioned the houses would go specifically to veterans. It is not clear when that decision was made—or by whom. By the spring of 1946, however, when the paper promoted house building, from groundbreaking ceremonies to model home showcases to just-moved-in families, they highlighted that Prize Homes houses would go to veterans, featuring six particular veterans. This practice dovetailed with the Tribune’s overall coverage of the housing crisis, in putting a personal and familial face on the problem (and revealing the Tribune to be a problem solver). Building delays, supply shortages, and cost overruns, however, kept the houses from being affordable to the average veteran or the average house buyer. In the end, only one of the six named veterans ever moved into a Prize Homes house.

Despite the shortfall of the project, many of the built houses still exist. There are surely others in existence. The Art Institute of Chicago exhibited winners and other submissions; thousands visited that display. Winners and other designs also travelling in exhibits in banks, libraries, and department stores throughout the Midwest. In 1948, the paper published Prize Homes, a hardback catalog that included winning designs and 68 others. While the competition fell out of Chicago’s history, in its time its reach was wide and significant.

Siobhan Moroney is an associate professor of politics and the chair of American Studies at Lake Forest College.