Snatched from Oblivion

Henry Dreyfuss and Edward Larrabee Barnes’s prototype manufactured home is rediscovered—just before being sold as a teardown.

Using jet bomber technology and materials in 1949, industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss and architect Edward Larrabee Barnes collaborated on the Vultee, the only house ever known to be built in an aircraft factory. Because sales never got off the ground, only two prototypes were made. Though they were believed destroyed and long forgotten, one was rediscovered earlier this year in South Pasadena, California, not far from the former location of the Dreyfuss studio and the Consolidated Vultee Aircraft factory. When the house was unknowingly offered for sale as a teardown, the Los Angeles Conservancy Modern Committee rallied to save what represents one of the most unusual and pedigreed chapters in the history of manufactured homes.

“The Vultee is particularly interesting today because it is an early example of the type of prefabricated housing that is currently ­experiencing a nationwide resurgence,” says Adriene Biondo, chairperson of the Conservancy Modern Committee. Comprising 28 parts, the two-bedroom, one-bath structure appears larger than its 810 square feet because 75 percent of the exterior walls are windows. The remaining interior, roof, and garage walls are constructed of “lumicomb,” a lightweight material made of a cardboardlike honeycomb core bonded between sheets of high-strength aluminum, used at the time for airplane bulkheads. The lumicomb adds to the open feeling of the house by requiring less floor space than traditional wall and roof ­construction.

Dreyfuss’s familiarity with large-scale manufacturing meant that he was able to successfully reappropriate materials and techniques for new purposes. “He avoided the lost-in-translation effect that typically occurs in the manufacturing process to make design and production more efficient,” says Niels Diffrient, who worked in the Dreyfuss office for 25 years. Because the resulting design was so unorthodox, Reginald Fleet, president of Southern California Homes Incorporated, opted for a novel way of marketing it. Fleet resided in the prototype with his wife and daughter, leaving it open for prospective buyers to see what life was like in a modern prefabricated home.

New owner Sergio Santino was about to close escrow and planned to raze the house until the South Pasadena Cultural Heritage Commission informed him of its significance. “As soon as I learned about the history of the house, I realized it couldn’t be torn down and I didn’t want to tear it down,” he says. “But I initially bought the property to develop it and make money. I couldn’t go through with the sale if the City of South Pasadena wasn’t going to let me build a house.” Santino is working with city officials on a plan that preserves the structure and permits construction of a second home on the private lot. One option is to remove the detached garage, use the salvaged materials to restore the original house, and construct the new house in its place. “This is an even better project than if the house was simply torn down,” he says, adding that the Vultee could be “a great guest house.” Glen Duncan, chairperson of the Cultural Heritage Commission, imagines other possible uses for a historic second property on a residential site. “The house could be a bed and breakfast or an office for an architect or designer,” he suggests.

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