Clients may pay architects for homes, but in many ways, they buy into the neighborhood. It’s often one of the biggest selling points for potential homeowners: a subdivision or development where they feel comfortable and at ease.
It was no different during the midcentury era, when scores of developers and designers began building out suburban homes for the booming postwar population. After years of sacrifice and shortage, and buoyed by the purchasing power of newly returned GIs, America was in a buying mood. This spirit of optimism, and the desire for modern design to complement a contemporary lifestyle, set the stage for the growth of midcentury modern suburbs and developments.
These clusters of contemporary homes, built on the outskirts of newly booming suburbs and metro areas, show how developers across the country cashed in on homebuyers hungry for contemporary style. While developers such as Joseph Eichler, renowned for his massive neighborhoods across California, or neighborhoods such as Paradise Palm in Las Vegas, are often held up as as paragons of postwar building, many other architects and real estate developers realized the potential of more modernist neighborhoods and communal living. Here are just some of the striking examples of midcentury modern developments from across the country.
Arapahoe Acres in Englewood, Colorado
This development south of Denver, a bevy of butterfly roofs and low-slung, horizontal homes, showcases a high point in postwar residential development. Built between 1949 and 1957, Arapahoe Acres was the brainchild of Edward Hawkins, a local businessman who first worked in Chicago, and local architect Eugene Sternberg, recruited to design homes for the burgeoning middle class.
Inspired by the work of Frank Lloyd Wright, the first few homes were quick sellers, a clear sign Hawkins was on the right track. Celebrated for its great layout and exceptional planning, the subdivision, which eventually encompassed 124 homes, was the first of its kind added to the National Register of Historic Places. A few years ago, it was listed on the Cultural Landscape Foundation’s “At-Risk Landscape” list, due to a number of botched renovations that threatened to disrupt the continuity of its design.
Windemere in Phoenix, Arizona
One of a score of modernist developments designed and built by Paradise Valley midcentury icon Ralph Haver—so prolific the term “Haver Hoods” has been applied to his developments—Windemere stands out, not least for its relative integrity (blocks of newly renovated and well-preserved originals keep prices consistent, though as time goes on, continued renovation may dilute its historic character). According to Modern Phoenix, the development was marketed as the “Home for Southwest Living,” with the name derived at least in part from the inclusion of air conditioning in each home, still a big selling point when the area was first sold in 1955. Homes, which started at $11,100, originally came with open carports.
Snake Hill in Belmont, Massachusetts
In the heartland of Colonial and conservative architecture, some of the country’s first modernist neighborhoods took root, with some appearing even before the end of World War II. Perhaps the most famous of these developments is Snake Hill, a 1940 development overseen by architect Carl Koch. The neighborhood’s first five homes, which helped create a cohesive community on what was considered a rocky, difficult hillside, were acclaimed as “one of the best known and most significant groups of contemporary houses in the world” by Progressive Architecture magazine in 1945.
According to author and architect David Fixler, who wrote about the proliferation of midcentury modern developments in New England, the Snake Hill project was as innovative technically as it was socially, showcasing modern material and construction techniques. The steep access road was even fitted with radiant hot-water pipes to melt ice and snow. Other neighborhoods in the area were soon to follow, including Six Moon Hill in Lexington, designed by the Architects Collaborative, accentuating the area’s role as a hotbed of architectural and social experimentation.
Hollin Hills in Washington, D.C.
The vision of Robert C. Davenport, a New Deal-era Department of Agriculture employee-turned-postwar Virginia builder, this tucked-away enclave offered a rare vision of modernism in the greater Beltway region, set just 10 miles from D.C. Davenport oversaw the transformation of a hilly, 326-acre plot of winding creeks and steep lots near Alexandria, Virginia, into a modern subdivision, with glass-enclosed homes designed by architect Charles Goodman and landscapes shaped in part by noted designer Dan Kiley, who focused on privacy and retaining the lush woodlands. The first unit was completed and sold in 1949, and new construction ended in the early ’70s. Today, the development (named after a plantation owned by founding father George Mason) features more than 450 homes, with just a handful of non-Goodman designs.
Hilltop in Bellevue, Washington
Part of a wave of woodsy, anti-urban residential development in the postwar era, the Hilltop Community, planned between 1947 and 1950 near downtown Bellevue and the Puget Sound, offers not just an expertly planned subdivision, but a who’s who of Northwest Modern architecture. The development’s dozens of homes, part of a planned cooperative community inhabited by artists, architects, engineers, and academics (founders chipped in the build a community well), were conceived by some of the region’s foremost modern designers, including Perry B. Johanson, John Morse, Fred Bassetti, Paul Hayden Kirk, Wendell Lovett, Lionel Pries, Tucker & Shields, John Van Horne and Edward Cushman, and Lee McRae. Wrapped in a greenbelt, the tucked-away community features many hallmarks of the Northwest Modern style, including the use of local materials and exposed structures, and still abides by many of its progressive founding principles. Recent sales suggest the neighborhood still commands a premium.
Parkwyn Village in Kalamazoo, Michigan
Another communal creation, this time by a group of workers from the Upjohn Company, Parkwyn was kickstarted in 1946, after founders purchased a 47-acre tract of land for $18,000. The community recruited Frank Lloyd Wright to design a series of homes, which would highlight his Usonian principles of architecture for the common man. Wright only ended up designing the neighborhood’s layout, a series of woodsy lots on streets such as Parkwyn and Taliesin drives, and four homes, but other architects, notably Norman F. Carver Jr., would continue to add to the development, which now features the work of a number of architects.
Crestwood Hills in Los Angeles, California
Some of the luster of this utopian community has been lost over the years, but it doesn’t make this experiment in communal living and modernist design any less important. Founded in the ’40s by LA musicians, the neighborhood eventually grew to encompass 400 members, and featured many then-avant-garde, post-and-beam homes designed by architect A. Quincy Jones, who was just starting his career at the time. The progressive ideals of the development have weakened over time; its multiethnic composition fell victim to midcentury housing covenants, a 1961 fire destroyed many of the early designs, and decades of renovation and rehabilitations have watered down the community’s coherence. But to this day, the collection of homes in the hills above Sunset Boulevard still contain some modernist stunners.