John Lautner: Modern Visionary

Today is as good a day to discuss John Lautner as any other day, especially since this is his birthday. Unfortunately, John Lautner passed away in 1994; however, many of his architectural works of art live on for all to enjoy. Originally from Michigan, John Lautner became an apprentice of Frank Lloyd Wright at Taliesin in 1934. As a consequence, much of his earlier work was influenced by Wright. Later, Lautner developed his own unique style of architecture. Lautner moved to Southern California in 1940 to work on a few of Wright's projects. Later he decided to stay and set up his own practice.

His homes have such a unique design and appearance that many have been used on television and in movies such as: the Malin Residence or Chemosphere (Body Double, a similar style in Charlie's Angels (2000), and Current TV's set design), the Elrod Residence (Diamonds are Forever as Willard Whyte's Las Vegas home), the Sheats-Goldstein Residence (The Big Lebowski), the Garcia Residence (Lethal Weapon), and the Reiner Residence also known as Silvertop (Less Than Zero)

He is also known for Googie's Coffee Shop, which gave rise to the Googie style of architecture that epitomizes the futuristic look of space travel (some argue that the Chemosphere was the inspiration for The Jetsons). The Arango Residence situated overlooking Acapulco, Mexico is perhaps his most celebrated design.


Military Modernism: The Wherry/Capehart Housing Acts

Following World War II, some “15 million” service people returned stateside to restart their lives in the new post-war society.  Developers all across the nation were scrambling to build new and affordable  housing for the expected housing need. Developers like Joseph Eichler in California, and Charles Goodman in DC were busy adapting the new technologies developed during the war to modern home construction.  Even though peace was at hand, the political realities of the emerging Cold War demanded that America also garrison large numbers of soldiers, airmen, marines, and sailors. 

Military bases everywhere were poorly situated to handle the surge in population.  Housing shortages were at a critical level.  As a result, two government programs came into existence.  The first was created by Senator Kenneth Wherry of Nebraska.  Senator Wherry introduced a bill on March 5, 1949 to to build military housing on bases throughout the US.  Developers obtained “low-interest loans, insured by the Federal Housing Administration on lands leased from the Army.”1 The military ensured that installations where Wherry homes were built became permanent bases. After forty years, each “Wherry” sponsor was to transition the project over to the Government. 

Unfortunately, many of these homes were built rather poorly, and of varying architectural styles.  In the end, some “264 Wherry projects were built for three military departments, totaling 83,742 units.” 2  Still, more housing was required.

 A restored mid-century era home at Fort Lewis, WA

The second effort was headed up by Indiana Senator Homer E. Capehart.  The Capehart Housing Act was passed on August 11, 1955.  This act allowed for larger floor plans combined with newer building restrictions. Modernist ranch designs figured into several of the single-story types.  “Privacy, preservation of the natural environment, and integration of the neighborhood into existing facilities were also key issues in Capehart housing, as well as a move toward more single-family and duplex-style housing.” 3 Wherry houses were also incorporated into the Capehart program which continued until 1964.

In 2001, the military realized that many of these Wherry/Capehart homes were nearing 50 years of age, and becoming candidates for historic preservation.  Unfortunately, many of the Capehart houses have been demolished as bases are closed.  The situation has become dire for many of these houses since the military has privatized housing.