THE ALUMINAIRE HOUSE
In 1930 Walter Sweet, co-chair of the joint Allied Arts and Industries and the Architectural League of NY exhibition, asked A. Lawrence Kocher to come up with an idea for the biannual buildings products display. Kocher had been managing editor of Architectural Record since 1928, and thus had contact with people in the building products industry. At the previous League exhibition Kocher had made a full scale “modern architect’s office space” which had been a popular success. Perhaps in relation to this, Kocher hired albert Frey, a 28 year old Swiss architect who had just arrived in the United States, having worked for Le Corbusier in Paris. The two proposed a model dwelling utilizing, and thus displaying, standard, “off the shelf” materials.
The design was influenced by the modern movement which had reached its zenith in Europe in terms of both image and its progressive political concern with housing. Albert Frey’s experience in Le Corbusier’s office provided the principle idea for a “maison minimum” which had been a common European concern for the housing problem of the industrial revolution city. In fact Kocher and Frey published an article in the same month’s Architectural Record showing similar units in an inner city ‘super block’ organization. However, it also seems to have been influenced by the American growth of industrial mass production materials and the advanced representation of this in Bucky Fuller’s work.
From 1930 to 1931 Kocher and Frey designed the house and negotiated to have the manufacturers or distributors assemble their components into the whole. It was assembled in ten days in the GrandCentralPalace that was adjacent to Grand Central Station and opened on April 18th, 1931 for one week. Over 100,000 people toured the house.
It was widely reported in the popular press, much of which contained speculation about the future “way of life” it suggested. It also became part of on going debates about solutions to the housing issues in the United States.
The three story, 1,100 s.f. (excluding the garage and 460 s.f. of terrace) house measures 23’- x 28’- x 27’-3” high. The ground floor has an entry hall, off of a covered terrace and a garage with garage doors at each end of the car. From the entry hall one could see over the stair parapet, up through to the ceiling of the roof. Also, in view was the boiler, situated as a 20th c. art object in a semi-circular niche. At the top of the stirs, one entered the double height living room through the dining room. Off the dining room, with it’s fixed in place, roll out table, was a stainless steel kitchen. Off the living room was the bedroom with a semicircular curtained exercise area and an open bath room. The toilet was housed in an aluminum framed cabin. Above the dining and looking over to the living room was a library or guest room with its own bathroom, precariously projected over the living room and a large outdoor terrace. A dumb-waiter connects the entry with the kitchen and roof terrace.
The principal material was aluminum which was used in the 6 - 5” diameter columns, the girders and beams (except where they didn’t show) and the exterior panels. The alloy was , mill finish ie unanodized, and the panels were 20 gauge, 1/32“ thick and ribbed for stiffness. The frame was bolted together with aluminum bolts, washers and nuts. The other significant material was steel used in the wall girt system, the channel shaped floor decking, stairs and industrial windows. The walls were 3” thick with a 2” steel angle girt system hung off the girders and beams and ½” insulation board on both sides nailed to wood “nailers” attached to the girts. Building paper and the 48” x 58” metal panels were screwed with aluminum screws and washers to wood nailers in an overlapping pattern, revealing a 44” x 48” surface with a tartan grid of screws. Inside pastel colored rayon “Fabricoid” was applied like wall paper requiring no paint and was washable. The floor was linoleum throughout. Albert Frey, in an interview with us, said that they chose aluminum because it was quite new and had become a popular material used in all kinds of things from cars to jewelry. He liked the play on words, that aluminaire combined aluminum and luminous. He had had a long fondness for the material, loving both its color and malleability. There was also an expectation that it would become cheaper multi use material. Ironically it reached its zenith as siding imitating wood.
At the close of the show Wallace K. Harrison bought the house and moved it o his property in Huntington, Long Island. It was in this “weekend” location that it has been best known.
In 1932 The House was included in the MOMA exhibition, “Modern Architecture: an International Exhibition” organized by Henry Russell Hitchcock and Philip Johnson as well as in their book The International Style.
It took Harrison more than six months to rebuild the house and he immediately began to add onto it. Around 1940 the house was moved to a new location on the property. The ground floor was removed to adapt it to a sloping topography. The house was also altered to increase the number of bedrooms by enclosing the roof terrace and infilling the double height living room.
In 1974 the Harrison estate was sold and in 1986 the owner obtained a demolition permit in order to “develop” the property. This was protested by architects and historians and in 1987 I negotiated both with the Owner to remove it, and with New York Institute of Technology to accept it. I also obtained a $130,000. grant from New York State Department of Parks Recreation and Historic Preservation to dismantle, move and rebuild the house with students on a site adjacent to the School of Architecture. Since then, with Professor Frances Campani, we documented the existing house and produced documents including an Historic Structures Report to rebuild it. When complete it will be on the National Register and a museum, open to the public. It should serve as a demonstration of the history of the search for ways to create affordable housing.