This Old House

A piece of prefab history in Massachusetts must find a new site—or else be demolished.

Imagine this classified ad: “Free to good home”—or perhaps “Good free home”—1,600-square-foot prefabricated steel house, circa 1935, rendered in the International Style; one of few remaining original examples of Howard T. Fisher’s General Houses Inc., a leading entry in the early 20th-century prefab housing boom. Must be willing to relocate from Cambridge, Mass.

Last July the Cambridge Historical Commission was alerted of a request to demolish the Bowers House, a rare intact example of the steel-paneled “house that Science built.” Howard Fisher—a Harvard dropout and architect—aimed to bring Ford-like assembly techniques and installment-plan financing to the housing industry with a house that, as the New York Times wrote in 1932, “would revolutionize the appearance of the American town.”

Working with a cooperative owner, the commission was able to postpone demolition of the Bowers House for six months, to find a “buyer” willing to disassemble the home on its current $2 million lot and move it to greener pastures. “It certainly seems habitable to me, and it was occupied until last fall,” says Charles Sullivan, the commission’s executive director, who notes that there are some areas of rust where water has penetrated the steel-paneled exterior. “In one place the cable guys just punched through with a 5/16-inch bit to put the cable in,” he says, “so there’s been condensation.”

However, Sullivan says there’s a more likely culprit for the house’s would-be demise: “It’s a victim of rising expectations.” A boxy, steel, flat-roofed, preassembled house that originally cost $9,000 might be a dream home for someone, but not for the wealthy site owner’s son, who plans to erect a house of more than 6,000 square feet with a three-car garage. “It wasn’t very well detailed,” Sullivan admits. “But what’s remarkable, apart from its construction methodology, is the massing—the architectural vernacular—which is pretty astonishing for Massachusetts in 1935.”

Fisher’s General Houses, despite being the hit of the Chicago Exposition of 1933, never did revolutionize the American town, though several dozen were built. Morgan Fisher, son of Howard Fisher and a California-based artist, recalls that when he came of age in the 1950s his father had already put General Houses behind him. The scheme had run aground largely on the hostility of building codes and banks’ reluctance to finance flat-roofed houses. “My father was deeply wounded by this, and he seldom talked about it,” Fisher says. He moved on to other work that included urban planning and pioneering computer-mapping, and by 1962 had become a full professor and founder of Harvard’s Laboratory for Computer Graphics.

The Bowers House, the first Modern home in Cambridge, was a wedding present from the estate’s original owner, Edward Waldo Forbes—director of the Fogg Art Museum and patron of Modernism—to his daughter. “The house outlasted the marriage,” Fisher observes.

Roger Panek, an architect in Brookline, Massachusetts, inspected the house on behalf of an interested party. He says contractors will have to be hired to take down and eventually reassemble the house, as well was demolish a number of nondismountable features, like a masonry chimney and foundation. “I don’t think you could do this for less than $50,000,” he says. While Panek hopes that someone with the energy and money to relocate the house will come along, he adds, “I’m not optimistic.”

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