Modernism in Military Housing: Neutra at Mountain Home

During the Second World War, the list of architects involved in United States defense housing projects was practically a roster of leading modern architects in the USA: Walter Gropius, Marcel Breuer, Frank Lloyd Wright, Edward Durrell Stone, Louis I. Kahn, and Richard Neutra. Under the authority of the Lanham Act of 1940, the Federal Works Agency built about 625,000 units of housing for defense workers. (The National Building Museum published a excellent book on this with MIT Press that now appears to be sadly out of print.)

Opposition from the home building industry meant that Lanham Act housing was explicitly a wartime measure, and postwar defense housing reverted to prewar, private industry-led conditions. Under the 1949 Wherry Act, new housing for military families would be built and owned by private developers, subsidised with mortgages from the Federal Housing Authority. When those homes turned out to be substandard or poorly maintained, the 1955 Capehart Act funded a government buy-up of the houses and ordered that further construction be private-built but government-owned. The results were mostly pretty undistinguished. The Department of Defense’s handy architectural heritage guide classes them as either “minimal traditional” (one or two-story homes with conventional gable or hip roofs and little or no ornamentation) or “ranch.”

One notable exception was at Mountain Home Air Force Base in Idaho, where California architect Richard Neutra was responsible for the 270 unit Capehart Act housing project. The Air Force has produced a nice little pamphlet describing the results.

Mountain Home AFB Modern

Mountain Home AFB Modern

Most of the Capehart Act homes constructed by Neutra & Alexander at Mountain Home were multi-unit dwellings, but Mountain Home AFB Modern focuses on single-family Senior Officer Housing. For them, Neutra designed low-slung modern homes with flat roofs, landscaped into the earth with glass back walls looking out over lush patios and back gardens. The Air Force seemed happy with the results: Mountain Home AFB won the 1959 award for best new housing in the Northern Tier of the US.

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