Exhibit at U.S. Natl. Building Museum: WWII & the American Dream
WORLD WAR II AND THE AMERICAN DREAM
How Wartime Building Changed A Nation
National Building Museum Washington, D.C.
Nov 11, 1994 - Dec 31, 1995
On September 1, 1939, German forces marched into Poland and war broke
out in Europe. In the United States there was the hope that America
could stay out of the war. Then, when German forces defeated France
in 1940 and Britain was under attack, it became increasingly clear the
the United States could not maintain its official position of
neutrality. The Army began a large-scale draft, the Navy prepared for
a two-ocean war, and the government set into motion a building program
of unprecedented scope.
This war time building program included a wide range of construction
projects: military camps to train the aarmed forces, factories to
produce munitions and military transport vehicles, government test
facilities to develop military applications for technology, and housing
for civilian defense workers. By the end of the war, the government
had invested $23 billion in this massive undertaking.
Of course, a building effort of this magnitude both required and
effected enourmous changes throughout the country--many of which are
still felt today. Industrialists entered into lucrative partnerships
with the government to construct and expand thousands of war plants.
Architects and engineers came up with ingenious, practical solutions to
wartime construction challanges. Manufactures created substitute
material for those in short supply, while scientists devoted their
research to the pursuit of war technologies. War workers migrated by
the millions to areas offering defense industry jobs. People did
without many consumer items--from refrigerators to automobiles--as
production lines were converted to meet the needs of war.
Americans who endured both the Great Depression and the years of wartime
sacrifice projected their hope and optimism on the American dream--how
different, and how much better, life would be when the war was over.
The war building program,with its innovation in technology and
phenomenal levels of productivity, made the achievement of that dream a
reality for millions.
WORLD WAR II AND THE AMERICAN DREAM presents the products of the war
building program--from the Quonset hut to plexiglass to standardized
housing in suburban Levittown-and explores the effects of war on the
material dreams and aspirations of Americans.
- The government instituted the nation's first peacetime draft in
September 1940 and began to prepare troops for combat. At that time
the Army's training camps could accommodate only 300,000. What made the
biggest mobilization in American history possible was the large-scale
use of mass-production techniques for the design and construction of
training camp facilities.
- In 1941 a team of architects working for the Navy developed the
Quonset hut, a metal mass-produced building that could be adapted to
almost 100 different purposes-from barracks to hospitals and chapels. By
1945 more than 170,000 huts had been shipped around the world.
- At the outbreak of war in Europe, the United States was ill-prepared
to play a major military role. By early 1941, however, 34 new munitions
factories were under construction across the country, and by 1944 U.S.
factories led the world in armaments production.
- Responding to fears of raids or invasions along the United States
coasts the Navy expanded its blimp fleet to patrol the seas for
submarines. To accommodate this expansion, th Navy built two blimp
storage hangars with traditional steel trusses, but wartime metal
shortages caused architects and engineers to develop an innovative
hangar design using wood. Seventeen of these hangars were built.
Measuring over 1,000 feet long, almost 300 feet wide, and 18 storied
high, they are still the largest wood structures of their kind in the
- America's growing combat fleet required the construction of massive
refueling facilities. The Red Hill fuel storage depot built in Oabu,
Hawaii, was the largest of many Navy facilities constructed underground
to decrease the risk of destruction by enemy fire. A hill was hollowed
out to accommodate 20 domed cylindrical storage vaults 250 feet tall
and 100 feet across, all connected by a series of tunnels. This
super-secret tank form had a 6-million-barrel capacity.
- Construction of the Pentagon outside Washington, D.C., began in
September 1941. Within 16 month crews had completed the largest
office building in the world, a 4 million-square-foot structure for
400,000 defense workers.
- The armed forces developed portable runways and hangars to enable
Allied military aircraft to take off and land in recently conquered
territory. Designed to be constructed quickly by unskilled labor using
a minimum of equipment, these "instant" air bases were completely
demountable and transportable by air.
- President Roosevelt's demand for new military aircraft forced factories
to operate 24 hours a day. Some new plants were built as windowless
blackout structures so that night shifts would not emit lights to attract
enemy planes. As a result, fluorescent lighting, used sparsely in the
1930s, won widespread acceptance for its efficient, around-the-clock
- Among the most imaginative wartime construction projects were
camouflage schemes created to protect defense facilities from air
attack. The scenic disguises could be quite extensive--in some cases,
entire war plants were covered with canvas houses, fake trees, and
camouflage netting to present the appearance of suburban subdivisions.
- Four California aircraft companies -- Douglas, Consolidated Vultee,
Lockheed, and North American Aviation-- agreed in 1942 to finance the
Southern California Cooperative Wind Tunnel in Pasadena. The most
technologically advanced facility of its kind, the tunnel was used to
test model aircraft for vital aerodynamic data.
- Industrialist Henry J. Kaiser built Vanport, Oregon, in 1942 for
workers at his nearby shipyards and their families. With men away in
combat, women comprised a large portion of Vanport's population of
40,000, making up nearly a third of the construction force that built
the city. Their around-the-clock shipyard jobs induced Kaiser to
construct child-care centers--open 24 hours a day, every day.
- The largest single construction project of the war was the Manhattan
project, the federal government's $2 bilion effort to create the atomic
bomb. Led by the Army Corps of Engineers, the project involved
building three top-secret cities. At one--Oak Ridge, Tennessee--the
government spent $1 billion to house 47,000 workers and their families.
Oak Ridge was developed to produce only a few pounds of uranium 235, an
essential ingredient in the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
- The movement of more than 15 million Americans to war production
centers resulted in the greatest internal migration in the nation's
history. Between 1940 and 1944 more than 500,000 people moved to Los
Amgeles, many of them to work in new aircraft plants on the city's
outskirts. Devlopers built residential projects near these plants,
hastening the decentralization of Los Angeles.
- A tri-level highway interchange, reportedly the nation's first, was
built in 1942 near the Willow Run bomber plant outside Detroit to
accommodate the thousands who commuted to work there.
- Shut out of defenses jobs in the South, 65,000 African Ameracans
moved to Detroit, the largest defense producer in the nation. The
construction of the government-funded Sojourner Truth defenses housing
project created racial tensions that ultimately sparked a massive riot
in 1943 in which 34 people died and 675 were injured.
- Leading modern aarchitects such as Frank Lloyd Wright, Walter Gropius,
and Richard Neytra waere commissioned by the government to design defense
housing communities. Their projects were among the first in American to
feature elements of European modern design-flat roofs, large windows, and
site plans that harmonized with the landscape.
- The largest private builder of housing communities in the eastern
United States was Levitt and Sons. Before the war their specialty had
been custom-built houses in affluent New York suburbs. Their wartime
experience consstructing defense houses in Norfolk,Virginia, was
success- fully applied to the famous postwar Levitowns in New York and
- Near the end of the war Consolidated Vultee Aircraft Corporation
hired industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss to develop various postwar
reconversion projects. Dreyfuss's Convair Car was a flying automobile
with a detachable wing and engine apparatus. It flew but never went
into production. The Vultee house, designed in collabortion with
architect Edward Larrabee Barnes, featured aluminum-clad walls
patterned after the bulkheads of military aircraft.
- In 1944 the Beech Aircraft Company of Wichita, Kansas, agreed to
collaborate with R. Buckminster Fuller to produce the designer's
aluminum and plastic Dymaxion house. Beech hoped that it's employees'
plane- manufacturing experience would transfer easily to the
construction of the airframe-like house, although other problems
prevented its mass-production
- The molded plywood chairs, tables, and screens introduced by Charles
and Ray Eames in 1946 grew out of the wartime designs for molded
plywood stretchers and leg splints that they developed for the U.S.
- The Lustron Corporation in 1948 began producing prefabricated steel
houses in surplus wartime aircraft factory. Backed by a government
loan, the company sought to capitalize on housing shortages. The
enameled steel houses never needed painting and could be washed down
with a garden hose. Approximately 2,500 Lustron houses were constucted
before the company folded in 1950.
- During the war Zenith Plastics of Los Angeles used fiberglass to
reinforce plastic on airplane radar domes. Intrigued by fiberglass
technology, designers Charles and Ray Eames contacted Zenith,and
together they developed the first one piece plastic chair whose surface
was exposed rather than upholstered. In 1950 Zenith began
mass-producing these still popular armchairs.
WORLD WAR II AND THE AMERICAN DREAM grew out of interest by the Departmen
t of Defense in studying and documenting the historical significance of
troop barracks an other structures located on millitary reservations
throughout the country. As the project developed, the focus of the
exhibition was widened to encompass the entire wartime building program
in order to explore the largest American construction effort on the
occasion of the war's 50th anniversary. As the people of this country
prepare to confront the challenges of a new millennium, the experience
of World War II should help to remind us of waht we can accomplish as a
united society of dedicated individuals. The buildings erected for war
are indicative of both the achievement and the cost of this mammoth
effort. In producing this exhibition, the National Building Museum
fosters awareness of our rich building heritage. By reflecting on how
the imperatives of war were expressed in physical structures, we can
better understand the subtle and often unseen ways that our past
WORLS WAR II AND THE AMERICAN DREAM is made possible by the Legacy
Resource Management Program of the Department of Defense. Additional
funding has been provided by the Martin Mariette Corporation, the College
of Fellows of the American Institute of ARchitects,and the United States
Gypsum Company. The National Building Museum also wishes to acknowledge
the assiatance of the National Park Service.
Guest Curator: Donald Albrecht
Priject Historian : Joel Davidson
Curatorial Assistanat: Hether Burnham
Exhibition Designers: Michael Sorkin Studio and Design Writing Research
Lighting Designer: George Sexton Associates
Exhibition Fabricator: R.H. Guest, Inc.
Audio-visual Producers: merrick Communications
Interpretive Exhibition Text Writers: Sharon Blume and Sharon Wyse.
Brochure Designers: Design Writing Research
NATIONAL BUILDING MUSEUM
Chairman, Board of Trustees: Kent W. Colton
President and Director: Susan Henshaw Jones
401 F Street N.W., Washington D.C. 20001
Metro Red Line (Judiciary Square Station)
Hours: Monday-Saturday 10am-4pm; Sunday 12-4pm.
[This announcement is an electronic version of the pamphlet distributed
on the exhibit.]
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