The thirty houses featured in Outside the Box reflect different architectural languages, ranging from International Style / Modern Movement, Art Deco and Moderne, to Midcentury, Late Modern, and Postmodern. The professional identities of the diverse group of commissioning clients of these houses range from doctors and lawyers to musicians and photographers. The research conducted on these houses so far reveals that while some are designed by well-known architects, many others were created by lesser-known designers and builders. Unfortunately, based on current research, it is fairly certain that the majority of the houses did not appear in architectural and/or shelter publications when they were first built. Viewed together as a group against the backdrop of the houses built in Riverside during the last part of the nineteenth century and the first decades of the twentieth century, they demonstrate how the built environment has continued to evolve over time in response to cultural, economic, and social change.
Ever since it gained traction in the US business community during the 1950s, the playful expression “thinking outside the box” has come to signify the embrace of unconventional approaches to thinking and doing. The somewhat negative characterization of boxes as lacking in creativity is reinforced by another expression, “feeling boxed in.” Further, the characterization of an individual as “square,” an expression born in the US jazz community in the 1940s (together with the expression “Be There or Be Square”), identifies the condition of not being interesting, or cool. Even when it comes to urban planning, the (square) grid is seen as less than ideal, especially compared to countercultural notions “living off-the-grid,” which simultaneously aspire to independence from utilities and liberation from social strictures.
Despite these negative associations, some of the most interesting modern and contemporary houses featured in Outside the Box actually resemble boxes. In the context of modern and contemporary architecture, boxes (i.e. cubes) and squares definitely have not hindered design creativity. Additionally, considering the efforts taken by clients to identify an architect, one can assume that they were fairly independent-minded individuals, used to “thinking outside the box.” After extensive interviewing of the current owners (since most of the commissioning owners are no longer alive), one quickly understands that they are anything but conventional or “square.” Most, even when they are not fully aware of the history, are proud of living in distinctive houses.
Although the houses featured in Outside the Box are all located in Riverside, they can be considered a microcosm of broader patterns of the twentieth-century US domestic landscape, one characterized by complementary and oftentimes competing attitudes toward house and home. For some Americans, a home should resemble a cozy retreat from the hustle and bustle of the world, with plenty of wood and exposed brick to evoke traditional notions of comfort. For others, a home should reflect modern and contemporary values by way of flat roofs and large windows. Modern houses struggled for general acceptance in the US. For example, in Choosing a Modern House (New York: The Studio Publications Inc., 1939), English architect and author Raymond Myerscough-Walker discusses “contrasting methods in America” about modern architecture and traditional styles. He compares a Georgian Revival house designed by Ralph E. Stoetzel in Chicago to a modern house designed by James F. Eppenstein in Ravinia (Highland Park) on the North Shore and concludes with a hint of bewilderment that: “In America there are, at one and the same time, most traditional and most progressive designs.”
Chicago’s reputation for experimental architecture, landscape, and urban planning, developed from the late nineteenth through the twentieth century, is the result of both a skyline defined by tall buildings and a number of single-family houses scattered throughout its neighborhoods. Examples like Frank Lloyd Wright’s Frederick C. Robie House in Hyde Park (1910) and Mies van der Rohe’s Dr. Edith Farnsworth House (1951) in exurban Plano really stand out. But buildings were not the only canvas on which designers experimented. Olmsted and Vaux’s General Plan (1869) for the Village of Riverside was a groundbreaking exploration of how architecture, landscape, and urban planning interrelate. The subsequent arrival of Wright to Oak Park, just north of Riverside, did much to build upon the visibility of suburban cities as sites of design experimentation. At the turn of the century, the Louis Sullivan-designed Babson Estate (1906, demolished) with landscape by Jens Jensen, and Wright’s Tomek House (1903) and Coonley Estate (1911), transformed the Village of Riverside into a laboratory of Prairie architecture and landscape architecture.
A number of houses featured in Outside the Box were built during the 1930s and 40s when interest in the hand-crafted qualities of the Prairie School had waned in favor of a modern, machine-made simplicity. However, a number of the Chicago architects who identified with modernity did take into account some of the fundamental lessons learned about organic architecture, especially in terms of siting and solar orientation. Since the 1930s, architects in a range of different cities and regions throughout the US sought to temper the perceived “otherness” of the International Style / Modern Movement by integrating local materials and building traditions. In the majority of the newly commissioned photographs taken by Will Quam for Outside the Box, the houses appear framed by a variety of trees. They reveal just how important a role nature in general, and trees more specifically, play in Riverside’s image of modern and contemporary living. While the dialogue with trees is not an exclusive characteristic of Riverside, this quality of the domestic landscape does echo the founding vision of Olmsted and Vaux’s General Plan:
We cannot judiciously attempt to control the form of the houses which men shall build, we can only, at most, take care that if they build very ugly and inappropriate houses, they shall not be allowed to force them disagreeably upon our attention when we desire to pass along the road upon which they stand. We can require that no house shall be built within a certain number of feet of the highway, and we can insist that each house-holder shall maintain one or two living trees between his house and his highway line.1
Although the importance of Riverside’s pre-modern Prairie School architectural legacy has been documented by scholars and critics, most of the houses featured in Outside the Box have, until now, remained in the shadows. While these houses all possess distinctive qualities, most were not designed by well-known architects. Rather than view this as a disqualifier, Outside the Box advocates for a historiography of architecture and the built environment that eschews the pursuit of the “Master Architect” in favor of embracing talented professionals who have not yet obtained the visibility they might deserve. Additionally, since the majority of commissioning clients do not have the deep pockets associated with some of the masterpieces of twentieth-century residential architecture, focusing attention on the houses of “ordinary” middle-class citizens reveals a broader range of possibilities.
Cumulatively, the modern and contemporary houses featured in the exhibition demonstrate that boxes are not devoid of architectural merit and that the people who inhabit them are anything but conventional. So why do certain members of the general public tend to perceive “boxy” houses as “cold,” “boring,” or simply too austere to be cozy, comfortable, or elegant? An answer to this question might be found in the important functional and symbolic role traditionally played by the pitched roof in signifying “home.” Modern houses, especially those designed and built during the 1930s and 40s, have flat roofs. Fourteen of the thirty houses featured in Outside the Box have flat roofs. Flat roofs are associated by many with buildings such as factories, schools, warehouses, and malls, more so than with residential architecture. Yet, even traditional boxy houses can have pitched or gabled roofs. For some, when associated with single-family houses, flat roofs can appear somewhat unsettling and perhaps not associated with domesticity.
Some modern houses designed in Riverside with flat roofs were subsequently transformed with the addition of a pitched roof. For example, when the flat-roof steel-panel house built in 1933 by General Houses, Inc., led by architect Howard T. Fisher for the Century of Progress International Exposition, was moved to Riverside, an additional floor and a pitched roof was added. A Moderne house at 478 Kent Road, completed in 1941 and based on the same model for 555 Byrd (1938), was given a pitched roof in recent decades.
To be sure, not all traditional houses eschew associations with boxes. For example, the American Colonial New England “saltbox house” is a much-loved historical type that continues to be replicated today. Although it is “boxy,” it is also crowned with a gable roof that ultimately contributes to its traditional image of home. Another vernacular house type is the American Foursquare, popular from the mid-1890s to the 1930s. It too has a roof that crowns the building as it reaches to the sky and tempers its cubic form to reinforce a traditional image of home.
Adding further complexity to the role of the flat or pitched roof within American domestic architecture are traditional adobe Pueblo dwellings in the Southwest and some types of Mediterranean revival houses that began in California and eventually made their way to suburbs throughout the country. Despite colloquial expressions that tend to equate boxes with “objects” that are not necessarily comfortable or cozy, modern and contemporary architects are often drawn to the geometric qualities of cubes. To be sure, the term “cube” is a much less pejorative expression and a more elegant and specific way of referring to “boxes.” “Cubism,” a major twentieth-century development in art, celebrated the geometric and spatial qualities of the cube.
Before and during the 1930s, a time when a series of exhibitions and expositions held in major cities like New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles introduced Americans to modern architecture and design, the debate over flat and pitched roofs generated passionate disagreements amongst many European architects with different ideological perspectives. These architects tended to disagree over whether buildings should embody regional, national and-or international qualities in terms of the plan, materials, construction techniques and siting. Recall, for example, the heated debates that surfaced in conjunction with the Weissenhof Siedlung, an experimental housing estate built in Stuttgart in 1927, to which a number of architects in and outside of Germany contributed. These single-family and multi-family model houses, all designed with flat roofs, were part of an exhibition sponsored by the Deutscher Werkbund overseen by Mies van der Rohe, who also designed a multi-unit housing block. During the politically charged years leading to the rise of the Nazis, conservative German architects believed that pitched roofs were both technically useful (they pushed away potentially harmful rainwater and snow) as well as stylistically important, since they recalled the traditional image of the German home. Other more internationally oriented German architects believed that since modern architecture used new materials like reinforced concrete, a pitched roof was not necessary because a flat roof could not only withstand the weight but also provide additional outdoor living space.
If one assesses the typical single-family houses built in cities and towns throughout the US during the first half of the twentieth century, it is fair to say that the general American public was lukewarm about embracing an architectural modernity of European origin. Although Mies’s glass and steel Edith Farnsworth House enjoys a worldwide reputation amongst modernist enthusiasts, Wright’s Fallingwater in Pennsylvania continues to attract the crowds that the Farnsworth does not. Perhaps the only exception to this embrace of Wright is the popular interest by Americans in midcentury architecture and design; Midcentury architecture tempered the machine-like materiality of modern architecture with organic materials and often introduced shed or gently pitched roofs. Over the years, Alan Dunn, the witty American cartoonist whose work was featured in publications such as The New Yorker and Architectural Record, offered ironic commentary about American’s love and hate relationship with architectural modernity.
Outside the Box features a range of modern houses designed and realized in Riverside between the 1930s through today. Given that the Century of Progress International Exposition played an important role in broadening awareness of modern architecture, art, and design, it is fitting that the exhibition begins with an example of a prefabricated steel-panel house realized by General Houses, Inc. that was moved to Riverside after the Exposition closed. The exhibition selection includes a number of houses built during the late 1930s and throughout the 1940s, defined by formal volumes with flat roofs. These demonstrate the extent to which Riverside was active during an important decade for the development of modern architecture in Chicago and beyond. After the slowdown caused by the Second World War, the 1950s witnessed a flurry of building activity. The boxiness of the 1930–40s architecture was substituted with organic, land-hugging variations of one-story and split-level “ranch” houses that featured gently sloped roofs combined with a material palette of brick and wood so as to reflect a more informal approach to post-World War Two living. A spacious midcentury modern house, remarkably still intact, was designed by architect Zay Smith for the progressive same-sex couple “Misses Slack & Wright” and completed in 1953. From the 1960s through the 1970s, a variety of Late Modern houses such as the Privecka House (1963) by IIT-trained architect Roy Binkley and the Freeark House (1975) by another set of IIT-trained architects, Vinci & Kenny Architects, brought yet more variety to Riverside’s streetscapes. Binkley softened the boxiness of the house’s volume with a dramatic curved roofline. This house demonstrates the extent to which architects during those years set out to transform the modern box without rejecting it. A decade later, Richard Potokar designed a home for his family (1987) that recalls Robert Venturi’s house for his mother Vanna in the suburbs of Philadelphia (1964). Potokar was part of a wave of postmodern architects who sought to revisit the tenets of modern architecture, by embracing more contextual approaches to building, including the use of pitched roofs and traditional materials.
While it can seem counterintuitive to consider modern houses and their interiors “historic,” since being modern tends to be identified with a “forever young” attitude, they too show signs of aging. According to the National Park Service, structures become eligible to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places once they are fifty years old. (This means that the majority of the houses featured in Outside the Box are eligible to be listed if the case can be made that they fulfill one or more of the National Register Criteria. The most typical building-oriented criteria is C: “Property embodies the distinctive characteristics of a type, period, or method of construction or represents the work of a master, or possesses high artistic values, or represents a significant and distinguishable entity whose components lack individual distinction.”) Embracing the preservation motto of “repair, not replace” could help homeowners maintain the authenticity of their homes. Without constant upkeep and in the absence of a strategy of preservation, modern houses can lose what made them special in the first place. The same is true for interiors. Identifying interiors that are still in their original condition remains a challenge. A handful of rare period photographs of the Freeark (1975) and Chlumsky (1941) Houses, passed down from owners of some of Riverside’s most distinctive houses, attest to the beauty of their original interiors.
Modern living requires different building types. Although single-family houses are the focus of Outside the Box, there are a number of other significant modern structures in Riverside that support the life of its residents. Like houses, these too require vigilance in terms of preservation. Recall the remarkable Blythe Park Elementary School designed by Perkins & Will (1949–50), which is still extant and in use. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about the Henninger Rexall Drug Store (1941), formerly located in the town’s business area. The original vitrolite and neon façade, subsequently modified before the store eventually closed down, were a boost to the image of Riverside’s modernity during the first half of the twentieth century.
The research and writing associated with Outside the Box stems from a desire to not only raise awareness of these significant examples of modern and contemporary houses, but also to draw attention to the financial challenges—and the need for patience—that often come with preservation and stewardship. In order to support the ongoing mandate of the Riverside Historical Commission and Historical Museum, where individual files are held for every property in the Village, homeowners are encouraged to share plans, photographs, and any kind of documentation they have in their possession in order to increase knowledge about these homes. Showcasing a selection of thirty significant modern and contemporary houses that embody “thinking outside the box” also serves to encourage future residents to extend Riverside’s legacy into the twenty-first century. As we move forward into uncertain times, especially in terms of the climate crisis, we must continue to believe, as did the homeowners and architects who built the houses featured in Outside the Box, that inspired design can and does add value to our pursuit of beauty as an everyday civic value.
SUGGESTED FURTHER READINGS
Virginia Savage McAlester, A Field Guide to American Houses (New York: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2015).
Susan Benjamin and Michelangelo Sabatino, Modern in the Middle: Chicago Houses 1929–1975 (New York: The Monacelli Press, 2020).
Marcus Levigne, Fotini Kaim, and Pauline K. Hong, Jazz Age Modern Tour. Riverside’s Art Deco & Art Moderne Houses (Riverside: FLOS, 2021).
You can purchase the exhibition catalog from the Riverside Arts Center:
→ Outside the Box: Modern and Contemporary Houses in Riverside (Riverside Arts Center, 2023).
Curators: Kim Freeark and Michelangelo Sabatino
Catalog Editor: Michelangelo Sabatino
Photographer: Will Quam
Catalog Design: Dan Streeting
Text: Bianca Buczko, Kim Freeark, and Michelangelo Sabatino
3D Models: Andrew Obendorf
Publisher: Riverside Arts Center
Printer: Graphic Arts Studio
Dates: September 10–October 21, 2023
About the Riverside Arts Center
The Riverside Arts Center (RAC) is a regional anchor for creative practice and learning. Home to galleries, artist studios, and a school that showcases the art of our time, RAC has served as a hub for artistic exploration and community engagement since 1993.