It was a time when all your friends were moving into low-slung ramblers perched on vast green lawns. Who cared if they looked like every other tract house on the block? It was the 1950s and ’60s, when the emerging suburbs were shiny and new — and lured young families desiring a life that seemed modern compared with that of their parents.
“The housing, baby and technology boom — as well as the increase in the middle class — all contributed to this suburban lifestyle,” said Kate Roberts, senior exhibit developer for the Minnesota History Center. “We’ll never see an era like this again.”
“Suburbia,” the History Center’s new exhibit, interweaves first-person interviews, magazine and newspaper articles, photos, TV and film clips and interactive displays to create an eye-opening snapshot of Twin Cities suburban life from the post-World War II period to the 1970s.
It’s sure to appeal to nostalgic baby boomers, who made last year’s retro “Toys” exhibit a big hit.
“Suburbia” begins with the origins of the mass homebuilding movement, when GIs came home after World War II to a shortage of housing for the multitudes of young families. So developers cut down trees and turned acres of farmland into subdivisions, filled with row after row of carbon-copy ramblers with attached garages.
The style and layout of these new neighborhoods were different from those in the city. The winding streets had gentle curves and cul-de-sacs — but no sidewalks to interrupt the expanses of green lawn.
“The builders wanted to create a parklike setting,” said Holley Wlodarczyk, historical consultant.
Suburbanites embraced the new car culture that required driving everywhere — from shopping to going out to eat. “It gave people the feeling of progress and independence,” she said.
The exhibit uses “Nesting Houses” to track the evolution of housing size and design trends over time. The wider suburban lots allowed one-story ranch houses and ramblers, boasting casual wide-open spaces, to sprawl out — instead of up. And these modest homes in first-ring suburbs such as Crystal and Richfield were affordable. In 1950, the average U.S. house was 800 square feet and priced at $8,450. Pastel blues, pinks and shiny chrome finishes were all the rage. By 1970, homes were an average of 1,200 square feet and cost $23,450 on average; green, brown and gold tones filled the interiors.
Visitors can walk through a model home whose living room features a midcentury modern TV console. Press a button and it plays clips from “Ozzie and Harriet,” “The Donna Reed Show” and other TV shows depicting the idealization of wholesome all-American families. “The mother always wore a dress and high heels when fixing breakfast,” Roberts said.
A time capsule kitchen’s speckled Formica countertops surround a retro, mint-condition Magic Chef gas stove and General Electric refrigerator. Dad’s domain was the patio, the place for family barbecues and yard games. “The outdoor living aspect originated from the ranch houses in California,” said Roberts. The exhibit also focuses on how advertisers targeted housewives who yearned for state-of-the-art appliances, gadgets and furnishings for their new homes. “The washing machine was the No. 1 thing women wanted,” Roberts said.
“Suburbia” also pays tribute to groundbreaking Southdale — the nation’s first enclosed climate-controlled mall, built by the Dayton family in 1956 in Edina. Architect Victor Gruen’s purpose was to create a new kind of glitzy town square where people in the sprawling neighborhoods would gather, Roberts said. Vintage newsreel footage shows suburbanites shopping at Dayton’s and Donaldsons. Even the massive parking lot and its whimsical signs were innovative. “Gruen invented the animal graphics in the parking lot so people could find their cars,” she said.
To its credit, “Suburbia” makes it clear that this “American dream” wasn’t all cheery pink flamingos and cool cocktail parties. “We address the issue of race and how many people were excluded from living in the suburbs,” Roberts said. Many minority families were denied mortgages for suburban homes until the passage of the Fair Housing Act in 1968. A display chronicles the struggles of a black family wanting to build a home in Maplewood in the 1960s.
The exhibit also spotlights the role of the suburban housewife. “Feminist critics called suburbia ‘lace curtain prisons’ for women,” Wlodarczyk said. “A lot of women felt isolated at home with the kids all day.”
The exhibit closes with “Living in Suburbia Today,” noting that families are smaller, with more single-parent and same-sex households, and neighborhoods are more racially diverse. It looks at new models, such as Jackson Meadow, a conservation community in Marine on St. Croix, as well as walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods.
The last display questions whether the next generation of home buyers, the millennials, will choose to settle in the city or the ’burbs.
“Time will tell if they’ll want to live in the suburbs, which offer many affordable starter homes,” Roberts said. “We hope this exhibit gets people talking about the future.”