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The midcentury aluminum homes that would have changed U.S. suburbs

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A look back at the Alcoa Care-free homes, on their 60th anniversary

A single-story house clad in colorful aluminum panels and brick sits behind a lush green lawn, tucked into a stand of trees. A car sits in the driveway, in front of the home.
A midcentury Alcoa Care-free home in Brighton, New York, designed by Charles Goodman.
Photo via Wikimedia Commons

“Here is your Dream House Made Real” began the promotional brochure for the Alcoa Care-free Home, an aluminum prototype home designed by Charles Goodman and launched 60 years ago, in 1957.

Ductile metals are not usually the stuff of dreams—unless you’re an aerospace engineer—but Alcoa, a Pittsburgh-based aluminum company, hoped that homes made of their flagship product might find a place in your local cul-de-sac.

They largely did not. That largely seems due to their price tag of $60,000 (just shy of of $438,000 in today’s dollars, and more than twice what was advertised), rather than due to any defects in the design. But the program—and the two dozen homes actually built—are a powerful argument for Charles Goodman’s clever midcentury design.

“Tomorrow Town” at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York City—featuring homes sponsored by the National Lumber Manufacturer’s Association, General Electric, and the Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company—was an early foray by large U.S. companies into home design, one followed subsequently by Beech Aircraft’s aluminum Dymaxion house, Consolidated Vultee’s Fleet house, and, later, the Alcoa Care-Free Home.

If an America housed in dwellings built by corporations, or even bearing their names, sounds like a dystopia, the houses themselves are strong arguments to the contrary: Care-Free Homes are bracing departures from the styles found in otherwise anonymous American suburbs across 16 states, like the average Ranch or the Cape Cod home.

To put it in suburban terms, the Care-Free Home wasn’t an ascetic metal-and-glass neighbor turning up its nose at vulgar vinyl surroundings; it was a barbecue host wearing a loud shirt—the facades featured prominent purple aluminum panels, gold doors, and swirling teal-aluminum window screens—and somehow pulling it off. Grilles of brick surrounding half of the house offer some balance against chromatic excess.

Much of suburbia offers metal fences and brick walls. But here we have a brick fence and metal walls. The roof, which, initially, looks normal, contains a gap over the home’s courtyard to admit light and air.

An Alcoa Care-free home in Brighton, New York.
Photo via Wikimedia Commons

The house is aggressively modern in its plan, too: It contains an open-flow sequence of rooms with only one passage. A living room, dining room, and family room open to the patio at one end, all surrounding a galley kitchen, and connected to small front and rear entrances. The home’s other side, beyond the kitchen, features two bathrooms and access to the three bedrooms. Each of these contain sliding doors connecting to the internal courtyard.

The Care-Free Home’s brochure seems eager to establish that that the home was not simply a caprice of metallurgical monomania. It quotes House and Home magazine: "The Alcoa Care-free Home is not an all-aluminum dream house: It's a house for today that makes practical use of aluminum products now on the market.”

The brochure prominently notes more familiar homebuilding components, “mellow cypress and rich walnut for wall panels, ebonized pine for columns and beams, cypress again in the continuous ceiling.” Vinyl and cherry panels also lined interiors in the bedrooms and living room.

Though wood may have been present to reassure, aluminum was present to accomplish almost everything else. Goodman packed 75,000 pounds of aluminum materials into each home; its brochure features a litany of that metal’s uses, beginning with exterior walls and roof, and moving on to “fascia strip”, “heat diffuser strips”, “electrical switch plates,” and even “termite shield.”

Alcoa care free home #alcoacarefreehome #charlesgoidman #alcoa #aluminumhome

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Aluminum trim accents—and separates—most uses of wood, along with internal aluminum decorative panels and every window, making for a constantly segmented geometry. It’s an effect echoed in the tidy blocks of appliances in the GE kitchen and the neat, squared carpets, each surrounded by strips of linoleum. If floorplans are open, wall surfaces are not. It brings to mind Saarinen’s Miller House bookcases, or a midcentury Mondrian, with pastels swapped in for primary colors.

How did this bold modern experiment go? Unfortunately, not particularly well. Alcoa subcontracted the construction of these homes to independent contractors, who soon discovered that the $25,000 price tag was vastly unrealistic. Several eventually joined in a class-action lawsuit against the company.

Twenty-four homes were built, however, and some found enthusiastic owners—or at least others open to their unique charms.

One of those Care-Free Homes was built in Upper Saint Clair, a southern suburb of Alcoa’s corporate home of Pittsburgh, by Ed Ryan, founder of pioneering suburban homebuilding company Ryan Homes. Finding no takers, he eventually sold the home to friend Joe Hardy, the founder of the building supply retailer 84 Lumber. His son, Joseph Alexander Hardy IV, a real estate developer who subsequently acquired vast experience of homebuilding, recalled the home:

“Alcoa wanted to get into the housing business and they didn’t quite know how to do it. So what they did is they went to builders like Ed Ryan and they offered him an incentive to build an Alcoa house. At the time, Ed Ryan was becoming the largest builder in the state. He went ahead and built this home in Upper Saint Clair and found that after he built it he couldn’t sell it. Nobody wanted it. It was too contemporary, just different. Everybody was used to brick. This was teal and purple—it just was not a normal-looking house.

He was stuck with it. My father and he were friends since youth, and my father said ‘okay, I’ll buy it.’ And Ed Ryan sold it to him for $40,000 in about 1960, and we moved in. I was 13. It was an unusual home not only on the outside but in the inside, in that it was a pretty much all-open home. Today, if you knock down walls and open a home, everybody wants that. But back then,in 1960, everybody had walls. Everybody had hallways. And this particular home didn’t have hallways; it was pretty much open.”

The house was a considerable break with more conventional living, which meant highly sociable communal spaces, with a pool table installed in the family room and constant guests.

“Privacy was not really very important when it came to that Alcoa home,” adds Hardy. He recalled perhaps overly communal bedrooms. “They had glass transoms above the interior doors, which meant that back then when I was in the bedroom making out with my girlfriend, my brother and sisters would be up on ladders looking down!”

One common problem of the homes was heating; aluminum and thin wood made for very poor insulation; homes were accordingly cold in the winter and hot in the summer. Hardy’s father installed a yellow, “Mercury spaceship-like fireplace” stove like a space shuttle) in that home. “After Christmas he’d take all the wrappings and throw them in the damn fireplace—well it got so hot it melted the fireplace. So that didn’t work out too well.”

An all-aluminum roof was also like a drum overhead in the event of rain. His father eventually sold the home for a loss, at $35,000. “It was not a house that was appreciated or in demand. It was an odd duck.”

There are several online accounts of these homes from former or current residents, which record both frustrations and delights. Protruding floor outlets, for example, seemed a formula for inconvenience and stubbed toes. Some of the midcentury details failed to enchant; a woman who grew up in a Dublin, Ohio, home commented “For God’s sake, the walls were quilted lavender aluminum!”

Some subsequent modifications were common. The carports were often rapidly converted to garages: perhaps the legitimate strangest feature of the original design was the direct view of the carport from the home’s bedrooms. Several, including the former Hardy home, now have enclosed courtyards. One replaced the carport with a large bedroom. Purple paneling and gold doors have also often given way to duller shades.

Care-free homes often survive in substantially good repair; if some flaws became apparent over time, so did many virtues: The durability of much of its construction remains a common plaudit (no rust here!). Even the modified homes are often substantially recognizable—and several are in superb condition, most notably homes near Rochester, New York Portland, Oregon; and Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Though the Care-free Home didn’t succeed, unfortunately much more aesthetically dubious care-free siding did. It’s a typical irony that while American buyers balked at homes made of aluminum, the country soon seemed more than happy to clad most of its new homes in it. There's no accounting for taste, but there is something to be said for the trail blazed by the 24 extant Care-free homes. Hopefully, their number won't shrink.