The First American Prefab?

We Americans have long been obsessed with documenting — or claiming — firsts in achievements and innovations. A claim to “being first” can be influenced by the precise definition of the achievement, the available information at the time of the claim, and yes, ego. In the case of architecture, many prefab homes have been erroneously awarded the title of “first prefabricated house in America.”

Sears & Roebuck Catalog House, "Vallonia" design (Manteo, NC)

Some folks think prefab in the U.S. dates back to the Sears Homes of the 1910s to 1930s, since they are perhaps the most successful and well-known kit homes. Many other prefab homes are mislabeled as “one of the earliest,” but actually miss the mark by at least 40 or 50 years.

Some examples:

“Just last week, Chateau Marmont hotelierAndre Balasz began touring [Jean Prouve’s 1951] Maison Tropicale (the first prefab house) by parking it at the Tate Modern in London.” – Brook S. Mason, artnet

“Many experts say [Kocher and Frey’s 1931 Aluminaire] is the country’s first prefabricated house.” – New York Times

[Albert] Kahn also designed the “Honeymoon Cottage” on the property [Milfer Farm in Unadilla, New York], one of the earliest prefabricated houses built.” – Diantha Dow Schull, Landmarks of Otsego County

In 1910 Gordon-Van Tine offered to the public its first prefabricated houses — apparently the first ever offered by a commercial firm.” – Gordon-Van Tine Co., 117 House Designs of the Twenties, 1923

“Sears and Roebuck introduced the first prefab home back in 1908, selling approximately 100,000 units of various models over the next 32 years.” – Caroline Kim, Swindle Magazine

“…in 1886 the pieces of Thomas Edison’s summer home were built here and loaded onto four schooners for the voyage to Fort Myers, Florida, where they were assembled. Today they serve as a tourist attraction and the nation’s first prefab home.” – Down East Magazine (and many others)

Who’s on first?

Surprisingly, some historians claim our first prefab was built not by 20th-century modernists, but by early American colonists. The first prefabricated house in America is widely accepted to be the “Great House” shipped from England to Cape Ann, Massachusetts in 1624 to house the Dorchester Company’s fishing fleet. Moved several times, parts of the framing were allegedly used in the construction of a later house in Salem.

Authors mentioning this 17th-century prefab always cite Charles E. Peterson’s 1948 article, “Early American Prefabrication,” as their source. However, some authors describe the house as a pre-cut timber frame house, while others refer to it a wood panelized house. And the difference between the two types could, depending on your definition of “prefab,” determine whether the 1624 Great House is deserving of its claim to fame.

Timber framing

Peterson’s article makes no mention of the 1624 Cape Ann prefab being a panelized house, simply that it was “a wooden building.” The subsequent characterization in other books and articles of the building as a panelized structure may stem from a possible mis-statement in the oft-cited 1951 book, The Prefabrication of Houses by Burnham Kelly. Kelly also cites the Peterson article as his source, but that can’t be where he got the idea that the Cape Ann prefab was “a panelized house of wood.”

It’s more likely that the Cape Ann house was a hewn timber frame house like most other wood frame 17th- and 18-th century buildings. Peterson, describing other pre-cut wood frame houses shipped the West Indies and the Pacific islands, indicates they were all “of the old massive hewn-frame type, mortised and pinned together with wooden pegs in the same way that wooden ships were sometimes made for assembly on distant beaches. ”

What counts as a prefab?

Can a massive timber frame house, produced by the hands of highly skilled craftsmen instead of machines, really count as a prefab? Certainly, the house was pre-fabricated in the Old World, far from the building site, before it was shipped to the Massachusetts colony. And perhaps the wall sheathing, windows, and roofing materials accompanied the timber frame, making it the packaged house of its day.

But from a contemporary standpoint, the key factors of prefabrication are mass production and standardization, spurred by the Industrial and Machine Ages. Could a one-off, custom built house qualify under this modern definition?

In the recently published Museum of Modern Art exhibit catalog, Home Delivery: Fabricating the Modern Dwelling, Barry Bergdoll and Peter Christenson point to England’s 1830s Manning Portable Cottage as the first documented prefabricated house.

I’ll take a look at other contenders for the title of “first prefab” in Part 2 of this post, coming soon.

1 thought on “The First American Prefab?

  1. Great stuff here!
    Modular / prefab homes will offer solutions to the world’s housing shortage for the deprived, under-privileged and low income populations in society by providing a total system for basic, low-cost, quality built housing. The modular housing constructed with sandwich panels is the lowest in cost, most rapidly erected, simplest in design, and most structurally sound basic housing in existence today. Plus, you can ship 21 houses in a 40 foot container.

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