Friday, July 11, 2014
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Daytripping in Futureville

Daytripping in FuturevilleNewberg, OR -- We have such big dreams of tomorrow, and we discard them so quickly. Where the hell is my personal rocket pack? Why aren’t we all peeling back our foil pouches and eating food sticks for dinner tonight? Where did Futureville go? Did it move out of town and leave no forwarding address?

Dreamers of all kinds have tried to build the houses of Futureville. This quest grew more intense during the 1930s. Back then, sleek design and automation were all the rage, and affordable housing was a dream (sound familiar?). The movement continued to escalate over the next few decades.

Our country sneaked peeks at Futureville at World’s Fairs. In 1933, we walked through bold houses of the future at Chicago’s Century of Progress Expo. Over the next few decades, we caught startling glimpses of Futureville in the now-yellowing pages of magazines. Back issues of Popular Mechanics, House & Garden, and more will blow your mind.

Many of the architects of Futureville just sought to make houses more affordable. More functional. More streamlined. But, the funky Jetson’s houses that sprang from their brains are dazzling. The names roll off your tongue like chrome-frosted, candy-colored, fin-tailed funmobiles cruising off the assembly line. The Dymaxion. The Aluminaire. The Lustron. The Polychrome. The Usonian.

All-electric. All-plastic. All-aluminum. All-motorized. Dwellings stripped down to their barest essentials. Dwellings stretched to meet the wildest flights of fancy. Houses that fly. Houses that scratch your back and light your cigarette. Houses where you sit on a butter-soft leather couch in your combined living room/garage. You gaze at your gleaming Packard. Perhaps you use it as an end table.

Or, what about the “Push-Button Miracle House” that a 1958 Cosmo article predicted we’d all live in come 1982? Because scientists said so. In his great book, “Populuxe,” Thomas Hine unveils this house—“the ultrasonic closet, in which vibrations would rid fabrics of every particle of dirt…the ultraviolet ray that would be directed at visitors as they stood on the doorstep, so that they would enter the house germ-free…it would be possible to alter the color scheme of your house on a whim, because the walls would be electroluminescent…”

Did some of the designers of Futureville’s houses just want to spark our imaginations? To help us see the hope in the world of tomorrow? Did some of them know that their plans would never launch off the drawing board? For whatever reason, many stories about Futureteer designers begin with a blast of excitement and whimper out moodily with the words, “But there were not sufficient funds to realize their plans,” “Nobody knows quite what happens, but the project did not come to fruition,” and “While a grand scheme, the house was never built.”

Even when the dreamers built their pieces of Futureville, we read some sad endings. Check out the death of Disneyland’s Monsanto House of the Future, “A giant wrecking ball was brought in, but bounced off the sturdy plastic construction. A crew of several men had to go in and demolish it by hand, dragging most of it away. Unfortunately, none of the original building was ever salvaged.” Dreams of Futureville die hard, but they’re goners when you gut ‘em by hand.

Sure, it’s just Disneyland. They can melt their House of the Future down and use it to make Beauty and the Beast action figures. But other, better pieces of Futureville also suffered tragic fates. The post-mortems for these houses run along the lines of, “But, the new owners wanted a McMansion, so they tore down the one-of-a-kind house.”

Frances Gabe: At Home in Futureville

Some dreams of Futureville don’t die. A few folks have the genius and guts to make their dreams real. Such is the case with Frances Gabe. Frances is a true renaissance woman. She is a painter, a writer, a sculptor, and a musician. She is also one of Futureville’s most unique architects. She lives in the Self-Cleaning House (U.S. Patent #4,428,085) that she designed. She invented at least 70 devices for the house—everything from a closet apparatus for cleaning clothing to a cupboard-dishwasher for cleaning and storing dishes. All fixtures in the house, as well as the house itself, wash themselves.

In June 2005, Frances gave me a tour of her home. Molly, her pleasingly plump dog, met me at the door. Molly is a fierce protector, but she liked me, so all was well. The day I visited her, Frances was working on floor plans, but she kindly took a break to talk to me about her life and her work. “Folks think this house is either phony or fabulous,” she told me, as she pointed out the self-cleaning house patent that hung on a wall, “Women love it—except for cleaners!”

The best way to grasp the many features of her self-cleaning house is to take a tour through it. You can also read the patent info on the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s (USPTO) Web site. In short, she coated the walls, ceilings, and floors of the house with water-proof resin. A fine spray of water and detergent flows through a 10-inch gizmo in each ceiling of the house. Jets move up and down and rotate to cleanse all walls, floors, and ceilings. Floors slope to remove moisture through a drain. Warm air blows through the house to dry it after the cleaning cycle. The USPTO recognized Frances’s house as the “ultimate convenience invention.” In a blurb about Frances, the USPTO noted that, “Not only is the house of practical appeal to overworked homeowners, but also to physically handicapped people and the elderly.”

Born in 1915, Frances began dreaming about a Self-Cleaning House when she was a little girl. Back then, girls and women had few aids to help them with housework and, as Frances says, “I was so tired of washing socks and snotty hankies.” Frances was not, and is not, a woman who would let a snotty hanky keep her down for long. As we chatted over toffees, diet cokes, and cookies, Frances struck me as a woman who would never give up her dreams and just never give up. Period.

When I asked Frances how she built her house, and what advice she had for others, she quickly responded, “Pray, shut up and listen, and obey.” Frances feels like she had two angels on each shoulder who guided the design of her house. That sense of inspiration, along with her sharp wits, knowledge of construction and design, and hatred of cleaning led her to move her slice of Futureville from paper to reality.

While many of Futureville’s engineers hatched from ivy-covered incubators—Harvard, Yale, Frances is a self-made woman. She is, and always has been, strong. She grew up with a difficult stepmother and was on her own early in life. Her father taught her all about building and design, and for many years she headed up a construction company that she and her husband owned.

“You know,” Frances said, offering us a toffee, “I was blessed with a vivid imagination. Some people just don’t have any imagination at all.” She was always special, and sometimes she was the target of jealousy. As she noted, quoting a favorite author, “Envy and malice are nothing more than homage rendered to superiority.”

Frances also has a photographic memory and can use both hands with equal ease. As bright as any of the ivy league Futureteers, Frances entered the Girl’s Polytechnic College in Portland, Oregon when she was 14 and sped through a four-year program of studies in two years. “A professor once told me that I was another Einstein, at least,” Frances said, passing the cookie plate yet again, “I wasn’t sure what that meant, so I went and bought a book about Albert Einstein. I wanted to see what I was supposed to be!”

As her dog Molly gently snored at her feet, Frances took out a box jam-packed with her writings, including short stories and an autobiography. She read me a story that she wrote titled, “All’s Right with God’s World.” Then, getting to her feet—rousing Molly in the process, who promptly rolled over and fell back to sleep with a peeved snort—she walked to her pump organ and played me a song.

As the notes rolled out of the organ—which she assembled herself, having found the pieces of the organ lying around in a box—my eyes wandered around the room. Everywhere I looked, I was inspired. Creativity courses through Frances’s life like a swiftly-moving river. Every day of her life, she has made objects of beauty and utility out of wood, plexiglass, resin, metal, cloth, clay. They surround her. The desk that she built from pieces of wood from a bridge. The life-size, striking statue of a reclining woman that graces her garden, the crockery that fills her cupboards that she spun off her potter’s wheel, her charcoal paintings, the clothing on her back. As she finishes up her song, Frances told me, “My husband would bring me pieces of salvage and ask me, ‘Honey, can you do anything with these?’ Some of these windows came from a laundry, and others came from a sun porch.”

Frances Gabe: Futureteer. She took her vision, combined it with salvage, and built a solid structure that represents what she wants life to be like. No snotty hankies to wash, and plenty of time to be guided by her angels and muses. There is no one quite like her. Thank you for showing me your house, Frances. And, thank you for not letting your dreams be demolished.


About Frances (look under Bateson, Frances G., or look up the patent # 4,428,085)

Monsanto’s House of The Future

Read the tragic blurb and view the film clip of Monsanto’s House of the Future. Dig that crazy ultrasonic dishwasher. See sis manipulate the “lavatory that can be tailored to size.” Most of all, enjoy the eerily perky 1950s educational film music that hiccups along, an ultra-cheery swan song of the House of the Future’s heyday and demise.

The 1950’s All-Electric House

Johnson County Museum of History
6305 Lackman Road
Shawnee, Kansas

Jump in the car and take a road trip to General Electric’s “All Electric House” based at the Johnson County Museum of History? What’s that? You already spent your gas allowance for this year? Understood. You can take an online tour through this juiced-up 1950s ranch house, too. Check out the bedside “control panel” with which you can turn every appliance in the house on and off.

The Homes of Tomorrow Exposition at Chicago’s 1933 Century of Progress

Picture this: At the end of the Chicago exposition, five of the “homes of tomorrow” were moved across Lake Michigan by barge. View photos of the houses’ cruise across the lake on the two Web sites listed above, plus photographs and floor plans of all of the houses. The five remaining homes—The House of Tomorrow, The Armco-Ferro House, The Florida Tropical House, Cypress Log Cabin, and Wieboldt-Rostone House—are not open to the public, but you can take a driving tour of them.

Library/Bookstore Pit Stop

Populuxe by Thomas Hine, 1986

Dig Populuxe’s fun, but thorough close-up on U.S. pop culture and pipe dreams from 1954–1964. The “Just Push the Button” chapter is a prizewinner. You’ll regret it if you don’t find a copy of this smooth, well-written and lavishly illustrated book.

Yesterday’s Houses of Tomorrow by H. Ward Jandl, with additional essays by John A. Burns and Michael Auer, 1991.
Travel through a quirky landscape of Futureville houses. In the richly-detailed description of each house and its design—here’s where you read about the Dymaxion, the Aluminaire, the Polychrome, the Lustron, the Usonian and more—science and fiction, innovation and machination, brilliance and business meet, marry, and often have angry divorces.

“The World of Tomorrow: The Future with a Past” by Rosemarie Haag Bletter in High Styles: Twentieth Century American Design.
Explore the evolution of the design of Futureville houses. “The World of Tomorrow” chapter has some great gold nuggets of information about “homes of the future” buried in this larger treasure chest of interesting articles about design.


"Harley, old man," I said, "why don't you just sit here in your easy chair and read the guidebooks? You would know exactly as much as you do after taking a trip, and think of the money you'd save."

Walter Beebe Wilder
Grandfather vs. Peru

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