The American Small House: Boundless Possibilities

They may be commonly referred to as postward bungalows, cottages, or simply cute houses, but the fact is, homes like the one Red Robin Group currently has listed on Danner Street have a distinct name all their own: the American Small House.

This house type is widespread throughout the entire country, and is most often associated with the development of the Levittown communities  in the 1940s. While Abraham Levitt’s suburban neighborhoods certainly were some of the most concentrated development of American Small Houses, the type has its beginnings in the 1930s, concurrent with the establishment of the Federal Housing Administration. During the Great Depression, Americans had a drastic need for low-cost housing. According to the Historic Preservation Division of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, this need combined with “unprecedented collaboration on the part of the federal government, the building industry, the architectural and engineering professions, the building trades, university ‘extension’ programs, building code officials, and home-loan finance institutions” to create a “clear national goal of providing well-designed, well-built, affordable, small single-family houses.” This phenomenon is unique in American history; no other country has ever put such concerted effort and focus into the development of single-family housing, thus the American in American Small House.

The ideal of the American Small House can be summed up by this line from the 1936 FHA guide book, Principles of Planning Small Houses: “a maximum accommodation within a minimum of means.” Accordingly, the American Small House is compact, and typically features four rooms: a living room, kitchen, and two bedrooms (bathrooms are not counted as a room in architectural terms, but American Small Houses almost always have just one bathroom). This was the minimum size for which FHA would guarantee mortgages. Some larger versions have a separate dining room or a small bonus room. The houses are two rooms deep and often have a small side or back porch. They usually do not have a front porch, but rather just a stoop. Initial exterior ornamentation was minimal.

The beauty of these houses was – and remains today – in their simplicity, which lends itself to limitless possibilities of use and expansion. During the 1930s, through the World War II years and into the postwar period, people bought these houses as “starter homes,” and later finished off the basement, the attic, or added more rooms as their families grew. Other families chose not to expand, as they saw no need beyond the space the house already provided. Like buying unfinished furniture, the lack of ornamentation meant that homeowners could customize and personalize their homes in whatever style they chose. So, although Levittown and similar developments may have featured rows of identical houses when they were initially built, it wasn’t long before each house bore the unique decorating and gardening style of its owner.

Today, the American Small House is experiencing a resurgence in interest, as more and more Americans are realizing that downsizing one’s home can hold many positive results. A larger house means higher utility bills, and the compact size of the American Small House offers coziness and comfort with less money spent on heating and cooling, and less of an environmental impact in so doing. There is also less space to insulate, seal, and otherwise maintain. Additionally, as a growing portion of homeowners are single individuals, couples without children, or empty-nesters, new markets are emerging for the American Small House beyond its original target market of young families. Like the widepread ranch house, American Small Houses are solidly built and bear the high-quality craftsmanship of an earlier age. They feature hardwood floors, mud-set tile, and unique features that maximize usable space, such as built-in shelving and butler’s pantries.

American Small Houses abound in the neighborhoods Red Robin Group serves – Ormewood Park, Grant Park, and East Atlanta. The next time you are out for a walk or bike ride, or on your daily commute, look around and notice all the American Small Houses around you! They vary in shape, size, and configuration, but they have one thing in common: these houses have served Americans well for over 70 years, and will continue to do so for many more decades to come.

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posted: Mar 12, 2013 | No Responses

Posted by:  Amber Rhea

From January 2013-April 2014, Amber managed listing input and oversaw the listing process from start to finish. Amber's background is in web development, but her lifelong love of older buildings and neighborhoods motivated her to pursue a new career in historic preservation. She holds a Master of Heritage Preservation degree from Georgia State University. As listing manager and historic preservation specialist for Red Robin Group, she brought together her expertise in day-to-day operations, technology, and the benefits historic preservation offers to communities.

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