the sheet and tin plate company edison concept houses of gary, indiana

The history of early twentieth architecture is replete with innovations in building technology, especially in sometimes experimental industrial housing developments. Finding appropriate, humane housing for the masses of laborers needed to drive the engines of our industrial centers was a primary concern for architects and inventors alike. In looking for housing solutions, new building materials and techniques were introduced to make the construction process faster and less expensive. Around the turn of the century, innovations in the production of cement, an essential ingredient in concrete, as well as the addition of steel reinforcement, made concrete into a viable structural material that could be used in many building types.

Thomas Edison, having played a significant role in the ongoing development of the rotary kiln, a device essential to the production of concrete, was eager to find a way to make concrete useful for housing.

Prior to his production breakthrough in 1902, concrete had not yet been employed at any significant scale in residential architecture, beyond foundations and sidewalks. Edison created a proposal for houses to be made entirely out of concrete, which was a radical departure at the time. As stated in his patent application: “The object of my intention is to construct a building of a cement mixture by a single molding operation – all its parts, including all the sides, roofs, partitions, bath tubs, floors, etc., being formed in an integral mass of a cement mixture.” His attempt at casting entire homes in one single, monolithic pour was fraught with problems. Issues such as the expansion and contraction of concrete, as well as the need for the concrete to have a low enough viscosity to reach all areas of the mold (which undermines it’s structural integrity), made the prospect of mass producing these homes quite difficult.

However, many architects learned from the shortcomings of Edison’s rather extreme proposal, and it was Washington D.C. architect Milton Dana Morrill who succeeded in designing a system of modular steel forms that could be reused up to one thousand times. Between 1910 and 1913, Morrill’s system was employed by the Sheet and Tin Plate Company of Gary, Indiana, in the construction of worker housing designed by architect D.F. Creighton.

About seventy-three of these houses remain today, in states ranging from renovated and owner-occupied to completely abandoned and decaying. The houses are almost all clustered in attached groups of 10 over several blocks near downtown Gary, and each cluster features a Spartan but unique relief detail on the facade. On the exterior, one can still observe the twenty-four inch square pattern created by Morrill’s movable formwork module, pressed into the elevations of the houses like they were bars of chocolate. One of the changes Creighton and Morrill made to Edison’s proposal was to replace the concrete floors and roofs with traditional wood construction. This design modification lent the homes a more familiar quality, but also resulted in a structural condition compromised by its exposure and neglect over the years. Creighton further moderated Edison’s concrete fervor by employing traditional interior finishes and fixtures as opposed to the cast-in-place versions suggested in the patent.

Even though concrete housing didn’t exactly catch on at the time, due both to technological shortcomings as well as low acceptance of concrete as a housing material in and of itself, concrete today is ubiquitous in most forms of construction. However, the difficulty of using a relatively inexpensive material with the goal of providing quick and cheap housing seemed, then as now, to lie in the connotations of the material itself. While contemporary applications of exposed concrete can be seen as a high-end finish, exposed concrete can also be interpreted as a cold, industrial substitute better suited to the sidewalks where we are accustomed to seeing it. Much has been done since these early concrete housing experiments to exploit and expand the plasticity of the material, but little has been done to move forward in our thinking of housing itself.

First published in   Proximity Magazine #3 ,  Winter 2008-09

First published in Proximity Magazine #3Winter 2008-09