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Thursday, February 11, 2010

Model Homes and a "Dream House" on Fifth Avenue

Yesterday, when our friends at Gothamist ran the above picture as part of their in-depth coverage of Snowpocalype 2010 (or is that Snowmageddon?), they asked us if we had any information on the cute house on the right side of the photo, which was located at Fifth Avenue and 48th Street.

At first, we thought it must be one of many "Dream Houses" built in 1948 to coincide with the release of the film Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House. (More on that, below.) However, the facts didn't quite gel. The photo credit from LIFE magazine notes that it was taken in December 1947 -- months before the film and its related houses would have been built. Also, the New York Times mentions a two-story building with a sun deck and a game room above the garage, which is clearly not the home pictured in this photo.

So what was this house? Another New York Times article provided a clue, referring to the "Dream House" location as "Fifth Avenue's suburban corner...where country cottages are displayed for good causes." Was the "Dream House" not the first model home to grace that intersection?

It turns out it wasn't.

But first, a little bit about Mr. Blandings. In 1946, Eric Hodgins published the novel Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, which tells the story -- based on Hodgins own experiences -- of a family living in a cramped, Upper East Side apartment who decide to buy a Colonial home in Connecticut. Like so many urban dwellers, they are drawn by the fresh air and promise of more room. However, their newly acquired home turns out to be so run down that remodeling it isn't an option. Mister Blandings has to tear down the old house and start fresh. The story then becomes a comedy of errors, with construction of the new house fraught with bad contractors, nosy neighbors, and constant delays.

The book was a bestseller and in 1948 a film version was released starring Cary Grant and Myrna Loy as the Blandings. In conjunction with the film's release, General Electric and other manufacturers signed on to build identical "Dream Houses" across the country. At first, there were to be sixty -- and New York was not going to be a part of the promotion. But the number of sites soon expanded to 73 and a Blandings home was built on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 48th Street. The home showcased all the "mod cons"; admission was by donation, with proceeds benefiting the New York Heart Association.

(It's ironic that in the film Mister Blandings is escaping the city, yet here was his "Dream House" now plopped down in the center of Midtown.)

But back to the house in the snowy picture above. It is almost certainly a prefabricated five-room "cottage" put up by the Spence-Chapin Adoption Agency in December 1947. According to the Times, the house -- valued at $12,000 -- was to not only "serve as headquarters for [the agency's] fund drive" but also would be raffled off at the end of the campaign. The house was won by Karl Hinz, a cabinet maker from New Jersey, in April 1948. Hinz initially couldn't decide if he wanted to keep the house and what happened to the structure next isn't clear. However, by May it was gone and ground was being broken for the "Dream House," which opened to the public in June of that year. The model home proved to be so popular that it was later remodeled as "Dream House II," which opened in February 1949.

The highlight of "Dream House II"? A television room, complete with a pair of "tele-chaises" and an accompanying "tele-chair" which featured "a deep circular base and a swivel seat."

When did the corner of Fifth Avenue and 48th Street stop being the site for charity model homes? Stay tuned....

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Read more about New York in the 1940s
 Inside the Apple: A Streetwise History of New York City
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Elizabeth Bolton, Cambridge said...

What fun! I've always loved the book and the movie but never knew about the promotional houses. I often refer to Colonial Revival houses from the 1930s and 1940s as "Mr Blandings houses" - or "Leave It To Beaver houses" - they tend to be very charming.

Red Jackson said...

New York City is truly one of the finest place to build your dream house. However, the Big apple seems not yet ready for diy build your own home ,since most of the buildings and residence area there are old lofts or upper east side or west side lofts. The value of lot in NYC is surely higher than in other states.Living in NYC is ideal for starting families.

Christine said...

Very interesting information, thank you! I live in a Mr. Blandings model home in Des Moines, Iowa. We have the original newspaper articles detailing the story and companies besides GE who contributed items for the home. Here, the viewing was hosted by the Des Moines Women's Club.

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