August 15, 2012
Twenty-eight years ago this month an exhibit called Yesterday’s Tomorrows opened to the public at the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. I wasn’t even a year old yet, but this 1984 exhibit would have a profound effect on my life many years later after I discovered the exhibit book by Smithsonian curators Joseph Corn and Brian Horrigan.
Back in 2007, the Paleofuture blog was still just a hobby for me, but once I discovered Yesterday’s Tomorrows I felt a sense of validation that this weird and wonderful topic of retro-futurism was indeed worthy of serious study. Maybe my blog more than an excuse to write about how cool flying cars and jetpacks might be; maybe we could learn something deeper about the American experience from all these hopes, dreams and fears for the future. After all, I may have been a lowly blogger, but here were two brilliant Smithsonian historians who had tackled the subject of historical futures so thoroughly nearly a quarter of a century earlier.
The book that I discovered and would prove so influential to my life is divided into five main chapters. The first chapter looks at the rise of futurism in America and its role in American life at the dawn of the 20th century through books, magazines, advertising and toys. The second chapter is devoted to the community of tomorrow and what future American cities and towns were supposed to look like. The third chapter involves Brian’s specialty and delves into the houses of tomorrow, while chapter four was Joe’s area of expertise: the transportation of the future. The last chapter explores the weapons and warfare of yestertomorrow, highlighting the various ways people imagined humanity (and of course, robots) might fight in the future.
Yesterday’s Tomorrows was undoubtedly the retro-futurism bible and so, back in 2007, I did some quick Googling in an attempt to track down Joe or Brian. I learned that Brian was working at the Minnesota Historical Society. I emailed him in the fall of 2007 and we had lunch at Cossetta’s down the street from the History Center in St. Paul. I had recently moved back to St. Paul after going to school in Milwaukee for a few years. During lunch I learned that not only did Brian live in St. Paul, but that we lived on the same street! Needless to say, Brian and I really hit it off and became fast friends. I have fond memories of sitting out on his porch on Sunday afternoons drinking martinis while we talked about history and politics and futurism.
In 2008, Brian introduced me to the great Joe Corn when he was visiting Minnesota to see some old friends. I immediately liked Joe and was honored to have some time to ask him questions about historical futures and America’s rate of technological progress. I’ll never forget his challenge to me — that I never accept preconceived notions about people and their attitudes toward the future. Generations are made up of people, and though it may be tempting to try to lump those people together to fit our needs, don’t assume you know what an individual was thinking based upon what generation they might belong to.
I really wish I had had the opportunity to see Yesterday’s Tomorrows in the flesh, as it were. The exhibit opened on August 9, 1984 and was on display at the National Museum of American History until September 30, when it then went on a tour of the United States. Though I was but a drooling rugrat in 1984, I have some wonderful artifacts from the exhibit that were generously given to me by Brian. One of those artifacts is the pamphlet from the exhibit shown above.
Brian also gave me some newspaper clippings that described the exhibit in great detail. A writer in the August 10, 1984 Washington Post was especially impressed by the 18 minute film at Yesterday’s Tomorrows, which was produced and directed by Karen Loveland and Ann Carroll:
The show ranges from utopian and dystopian views of mankind’s future to children’s playthings. All those toys we wish our parents had kept for us, some people have — and in mint condition. The display covers the play-time continuum in the final frontier: a 1937 Buck Rogers ray gun, a 1952 Space Patrol diplomatic pouch and a 1966 Star Trek phaser.
The highlight of the show is an 18-minute continuously playing movie, tracing science fiction in film clips from the Jules Verne-inspired “Un voyage dans la lune” in 1902 to “Blade Runner,” inspired by Philip K. Dick, in 1982. As the announcer intones, “All of us have wondered what the world would be like 10, or 100 or 1,000 years from today…”
The exhibit included over 300 models, toys, illustrations, photographs and other artifacts that gave people a glimpse into the future that never was. Brian gave me a handful of photos which show the exhibit as it stood, working jetpack and all.
The August 9, 1984 Washington Post declared that the most impressive of the artifacts at Yesterday’s Tomorrows had to be a scale model construction of a Dymaxion House from 1927:
The show’s greatest artifact, hands down, is a model constructed by Jay Johnson from the original plans of Fuller’s wonderful 1927 Dymaxion House. Metal cables from an aluminum mast suspend the glass walls and inflated rubber floor. The living quarters are raised for view and air.
That Dymaxion model is on the left in the picture below.
This next picture includes the nuclear powered car of the 1950s and if we look closely we can see some artwork from Wernher von Braun’s Collier’s space series and a 1943 rendering of a helicopter from Alex S. Tremulis in the background.
I’m forever indebted to both Brian and Joe, without whom I very likely wouldn’t have the profession I enjoy today. In 2010, I had the honor of giving a talk hosted by the Minnesota Historical Society with Brian at the Turf Club in St. Paul. Thank you Joe and thank you especially to Brian — your work and guidance have meant the world to me, an accidental historian doing his best to fill the shoes of the two great men who preceded him in this exploration of yesterday’s tomorrows.
Yesterday’s Tomorrows started at the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. but went on to many other cities around the U.S. The exhibit was also revived in the early 2000s and went on a limited tour of the U.S. at that time. If you visited the exhibit in the 2000s or in any of these cities from its original tour in 1984-85, I’d love to hear your impressions of the experience in the comments: the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry, the Willamette Science and Technology Center in Eugene Oregon, the California Museum of Science and Industry in Los Angeles, the Oakland Museum in California, the Museum of Science in Boston and the Whitney Museum of American Art in Stamford Connecticut.
June 18, 2012
After Ellis Island was closed in November 1954, no one was quite sure what to do with it. The 27-acre government facility located in New York Harbor had stopped processing immigrants coming into the United States and no government entity was stepping up with a plan for the site. So in 1956 the U.S. government started soliciting bids for any private corporation or person that wanted to buy it.
As Vincent J. Cannato notes in his book American Passage: The History of Ellis Island, there were a number of different proposals:
“…a clinic for alcoholics and drug addicts, a park, a “world trade center,” a modern and innovative “college of the future,” private apartments, homes for the elderly, and a shelter for juvenile delinquents. Other proposals were less realsitic. Bronx congressman Paul Fino suggested a national lottery center would be in keeping with the history of the island, since immigrants “gambled for a new life in this land of ours.”
But perhaps the most lavish idea came from the highest bidder, Sol G. Atlas. Mr. Atlas offered the government $201,000 and wanted to build a $55 million resort. According to the February 17, 1958 issue of the Monessen Valley Independent in Pennsylvania, “The plans call for a 600-room hotel, museum, language school, music center, swimming pool, convention hall, shops and a promenade. The island would also have a heliport, seaplane base and ferry slip.”
The government declined Mr. Atlas’ offer — they thought that the facility was worth at least $6 million — and Ellis Island sat dormant for years. In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed a proclamation that made Ellis Island part of the Statue of Liberty National Monument, dashing once and for all any plans for a swanky resort. A museum about the history of immigration was opened at the site in 1990 and today it is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the National Park Service—even without swimming pools.
June 15, 2012
Before I moved to Los Angeles (almost 2 years ago now) I had never heard the word Googie. In fact, when a friend — a native Californian — used the term I initially thought it must have something to do with Google. I didn’t know the word, but I definitely knew the style. And I suspect you might too.
Googie is a modern (ultramodern, even) architectural style that helps us understand post-WWII American futurism — an era thought of as a “golden age” of futurist design for many here in the year 2012. It’s a style built on exaggeration; on dramatic angles; on plastic and steel and neon and wide-eyed technological optimism. It draws inspiration from Space Age ideals and rocketship dreams. We find Googie at the 1964 New York World’s Fair, the Space Needle in Seattle, the mid-century design of Disneyland’s Tomorrowland, in Arthur Radebaugh‘s postwar illustrations, and in countless coffee shops and motels across the U.S.
Googie is an odd word; a funny word; a word that feels like it’s doing a few vowel-drenched laps around your tongue before finally flopping out of your mouth. Oddly enough, Googie was used as a deragatory term almost from the start — born in Southern California and named for a West Hollywood coffee shop designed in 1949 by John Lautner, a student of Frank Lloyd Wright. Architecture critic Douglas Haskell was the first to use “Googie” to describe the architectural movement, after driving by the West Hollywood coffee shop and finally feeling like he had found a name for this style that was flourishing in the postwar era.
But Haskell was no fan of Googie and wrote a scathing (by architecture critic standards) satire of the style in the February 1952 issue of House and Home magazine. The New York-based Haskell wrote part of his article, “Googie Architecture,” in the voice of a fictional Professor Thrugg, whose over-the-top praise was an indictment of Googie’s popular appeal. Haskell was an advocate of modernism, but a modernism constrained by his ideas of taste and refinement. Haskell, writing sarcastically as Professor Thrugg:
“You underestimate the seriousness of Googie. Think of it! — Googie is produced by architects, not by ambitious mechanics, and some of these architects starve for it. After all, they are working in Hollywood, and Hollywood has let them know what it expects of them.”
Haskell’s disdain for Googie was clearly rooted in his hatred for the flourishes and perceived tackiness of Hollywood.
Perhaps no one has studied Googie and its relationship to mid-20th century futurism more closely than Alan Hess: an architect, historian and the author of Googie Redux: Ultramodern Roadside Architecture (2004) and Googie: Fifties Coffee Shop Architecture (1985). I spoke with Mr. Hess by phone at his home in Irvine, California.
“Googie started after WWII as a definable style and it caught on fire in the culture and lasted for a good 25 years or so,” Hess says.
Googie is undeniably the super-aesthetic of 1950s and ’60s American retro-futurism — a time when America was flush with cash and ready to deliver the technological possibilities that had been promised during WWII. “I really feel that Googie made the future accessible to everyone,” Hess says. As he explains it, Googie was an unpretentious aesthetic meant to appeal to the average, middle-class American: ”One of the key things about Googie architecture was that it wasn’t custom houses for wealthy people — it was for coffee shops, gas stations, car washes, banks… the average buildings of everyday life that people of that period used and lived in. And it brought that spirit of the modern age to their daily lives.”
Hess insists that Googie was a realization of the future rather than simply a promise of things to come. “Since the 19th century and Jules Verne — coming up into the 1920s and 1930s — there had been these future-oriented movies and novels and so forth which looked to the future with great promise,” Hess says. “But after WWII, a lot of that promise was actually fulfilled not only in the buildings but also the automobiles that the average American used during that time. I really feel it did not only capture the future, but it brought it in a meaningful way to people. And you see this interest in these futuristic ideas not only in architecture or car design but in cartoons like The Jetsons and places like amusements parks like Disneyland’s Tomorrowland — in advertisements, in magazines, and so forth, certainly in the movies as well. So this interest, this intrigue, this appeal of living in the future just went all across the culture.”
Googie was born in southern California and much like the billboard scene here, owes some of its popularity to something very practical: driving in a car causes you to miss a lot of commercial activity. Which is to say, businesses want your attention, so they need to stand out through increased size and a certain degree of weirdness. As Philip Langdon notes in his 1986 book Orange Roofs, Golden Arches: The Architecture of American Chain Restaurants, the laissez-faire expanse of California freeways contributed to the rise of Googie:
California, unlike eastern and midwestern states, did not build toll roads and make travelers captive to restaurants that had been commissioned to operate at designated rest stops. California was the land of the freeway, with the choice to eat at competing restaurants at one interchange after another, so the restaurants’ need for a conspicuous profile was especially intense. The question confronting restaurant operators by the late fifties was: What would catch the eye of fast-moving motorists?
Hess elaborates on the experimental spirit of postwar Los Angeles: “Yes, it really did start in Southern California, though it was a national phenomenon. Texas, Florida, New Jersey, Michigan, all of these areas also had Googie architecture. But Los Angeles — because it was one of the fastest growing cities at that time — had a tradition of experimental modern architecture. So the seeds of it were in Los Angeles.”
The 1962-63 version of The Jetsons was so dripping with Googie that you could argue Hanna-Barbera didn’t really exaggerate the style — they copied it. Googie at its most flamboyant and cartoonish is almost beyond parody. And it’s pretty clear that the artists behind The Jetsons were inspired by the style that surrounded them in Southern California.
The artists and animators working on The Jetsons really didn’t need to drive too far to become inspired by the Googie of Los Angeles. The Hanna-Barbera Studio was in Hollywood at 3400 Cahuenga Blvd (I think it’s the site of an LA Fitness now) and buildings all across Los Angeles in the late 1950s and early 1960s screamed Googie. The Los Angeles International Airport had (and still has) the Googie-tastic Theme Building, featured in the October 19 1962 issue of Life magazine — a special issue devoted completely to Americans’ mid-century fascination with California. Ship’s coffee shop opened in 1958 at 10877 Wilshire Blvd, just south of UCLA. Pann’s, my personal favorite breakfast spot in L.A. (try the biscuits and gravy, seriously), is at 6710 La Tijera Boulevard. Hanna-Barbera was also just a short drive from Anaheim, where you could see the Monsanto House of the Future at Disneyland, which opened in 1957. And of course there was the streamlined, Space Age version of Disneyland’s early-’60s Tomorrowland.
The future had arrived for those in Southern California and it was a symbol of even greater things to come. From Hess’s 1985 book Googie: Fifties Coffee Shop Architecture:
Los Angeles in the 1950s was a modern city. The opportunities of the postwar boom in the freedom of Los Angeles allowed architects ranging from John Lautner to Richard Neutra full rein in a new phase of Modernism. The optimistic exploration of materials and structures for the new age continued. But as widely publicized as were Lautner’s Silvertop, or the series of Case Study houses sponsored by Arts and Architecture magazine, or other high art buildings, they were only a fraction of the architecture that filled tracts and lined commercial strips. The roadside buildings gave anyone driving Los Angeles streets the sense that this was indeed a new era, that the long-promised future of benevolent technology and prosperity had at last arrived to deliver the good life to all.
But by 1970, Hess says the architectural culture had changed. ”The interest in the future, the gee-whiz factor about plastics and nuclear power and space flight, travel to the moon, all of these things that had been new and exciting in the 1950s had become more mundane — we landed on the moon in 1969 and then it was over. And also at that time new ideas came in — specifically the ecology movement which began to say that we do have limits on how we can use our resources. And an interest in more lower-scale, residential, traditional, architecture came into fashion. You see this transition in tastes in popular culture I think most vividly in the change of the McDonald’s prototype. In 1953 the prototype was Googie all the way — it was bright, shiny, bold colors, big arches, very dynamic upswept roof, neon, etc…”
“But in the late-1960s,” Hess says, “McDonald’s introduced a new prototype which used brick as its walls and a mansard roof — a very traditional form. McDonald’s felt that it would appeal to their customers at this time, and it did. Those are some of the reasons why Googie eventually faded as a popular style. But then of course it’s ressurected as a popular style in the last 20 years or so.”
The style known as Googie, in fact, has many names. It’s sometimes known as Populuxe, and in some circles is just considered modern architecture. But it seems to me most fitting to call the style by the term used by its most famous detractor. Googie is both the future we long for and the future we never asked for.
So we tip our hats to the believers and non-believers alike — both Lautner and Haskell and all the other weirdos of the mid-20th century, jostling for their own vision of our American landscape. These beautiful, bizarre competing visions of our future — or our future that never was.
Update: A transcription error originally quoted Hess describing a “mansford” roof rather than a mansard roof.
Image credits in order of appearance:
- The Theme Building at LAX by Todd Lapin (2010)
- Googie’s Coffee Shop Menu from Googie: Fifties Coffee Shop Architecture by Alan Hess
- Ship’s Coffee Shop from Googie: Fifties Coffee Shop Architecture by Alan Hess
- Huddle’s Cloverfield from Googie: Fifties Coffee Shop Architecture by Alan Hess
- Jetsons house taken as a screenshot from the DVD release
- Disneyland’s Monsanto House of the Future from the Library of Congress
- Pann’s Restaurant by Matt Novak (2011)
- Lyon’s Coffee Shop from Googie: Fifties Coffee Shop Architecture by Alan Hess
- The two McDonald’s photos are from the Orange Roofs, Golden Arches by Philip Langdon
May 3, 2012
In 1922, eccentric magazine publisher Hugo Gernsback decided that the world needed a 1,000-foot tall concrete monument to electricity. Gernsback imagined that this monument might last for thousands of years, and rather than some static behemoth stuck in time, the interior of his monument would be constantly changed to reflect the technological advances of each new generation.
Gernsback’s article in the October 1922 issue of Science and Invention magazine explained why electricity was worthy of a monument. Interestingly, he saw it as a message to future generations that even if our civilization should be wiped out by war or natural disasters, we were still able to accomplish something great at one time.
In connection with our editorial of this month, we show on this page a monument dedicated to the age in which we are living. Electricity, more than anything else, has made our present civilization what it is, and if this civilization should be wiped out by war or some other cataclysm, nothing would remain to tell what Electricity did for the race during the past century.
Before the Egyptians built their first pyramid they probably foresaw that unless they built something of a tremendous size it would not stand the ravages of man and Nature. Hence the size and form were chosen in such a way as to make it last for practically all time.
Gernsback explained that this monument would look like a gigantic electrical generator, 1,000 feet tall. By comparison, the Statue of Liberty is just 305 feet tall, and the Empire State Building (which was almost a decade away from being built in 1930) isn’t that much taller than the proposed monument, at just 1,250 feet if you don’t count its spire.
When we therefore propose to build a gigantic monument to Electricity, we have the same objects in mind. On some plateau we could erect an electrical generator, molded in concrete, 1,000 feet high. Molded of the finest concrete, such a monument would last for a thousand years. It would probably not be affected by the weather and the climate, and it is doubted whether it could be easily destroyed by any savage race that might come after us.
In the inside passages, along the walls, could be inscribed, in diagrams and otherwise, electrical fundamentals, from the first static machine down to the latest radio developments. As new inventions come about, these can be inscibed from year to year.
If the entire electrical industry would think well of such a plan, a monument of this kind could be built without taxing any one concern a great amount. It would be a lasting tribute to our race, and to the progress that is exemplified by Electricity.
Gernsback doesn’t suggest where such a monument might be built, but judging by the illustration, it could very well be in Smalltown, U.S.A. The illustration is by Frank R. Paul, who would help define the 1920s and ’30s pulp sci-fi era’s aesthetic. Four years later, in 1926, Gernsback began publishing Amazing Stories, the first magazine ever devoted solely to science fiction. Amazing Stories featured countless covers and story illustrations by Frank R. Paul, whose most famous illustration for the magazine appeared in 1927 for a reprint of H. G. Wells’ War of the Worlds.
March 23, 2012
Recently we looked at a 1946 prediction for a gigantic atomic-powered sphere that would traverse the country as a kind of hamster-ball land cruise for humans.
About a decade earlier there were predictions of a similar looking ball — but for use as homes. The September, 1934 issue of Everyday Science and Mechanics imagined the house of the future as an enormous sphere that would make moving easy if the home owner simply wrapped large tires over the thing and towed it with a tractor.
If spherical, the house of the future can be easily transported to its building lot, set in place, and the fixtures added. The shell is first pressed into shape; then windows are cut, and only a protective tire is need for moving.
The article’s title was “When Home Owners Roll Their Own” and in some ways took the streamline moderne style of architecture to its logical conclusion: the sphere.
For well-known reasons, a tank or vessel shaped like a ball is strongest and lightest. Spherical tanks, gas containers, etc., have been made; the only problem is to construct them, since ordinary methods are not very successful.
A recent patent (No. 1,958,421) deals with pressing metal into shape in a curved container, and pumping in liquid under pressure to swell them out.
Should spherical houses come into favor, as modernistic architects predict, the shell of a house could be made thus; the necessary openings cut; and it would be rolled to the owner’s lot as shown. Properly built-in fixtures would even stand such moving.
The patent that the article refers to was filed on December 17, 1932 by E.G. Daniels. Patent 1,958,421 explains a new method of making spherical containers. It was common for magazines like Everyday Science and Mechanics and Electrical Experimenter to look at the recently filed patents and imagine what fantastical advancements of the future might be achieved.