Multifamily Private Housing Since World War II

-A A +A

The Gilded Age and Progressive Era are often regarded as the golden age of apartment construction and design in the United States. It was during these periods when the apartment type—which evolved from the residential hotel, artist‘s studio, and working-class tenement—first appeared in the United States, and when many of the finest and best-equipped examples were built. Yet the period of significance for the U.S. apartment did not end with the widespread adoption in the 1910s and 1920s of municipal land-use zoning, which prohibited apartment construction in some areas, or the real estate crash of the late 1920s. Scholarship typically focuses on low-rent public housing and single-family suburbs, while overlooking privately developed multiple-family housing (both rented and owned). Found in a variety of locations—large cities and small, suburbs and resorts—this housing type enjoyed a period of almost uninterrupted growth from the economic recovery begun under the New Deal in the late 1930s through the early twenty-first century, driven by new patterns of family life; geographies of production, consumption, and wealth; and construction technologies. This essay surveys four major typological trends in this dynamic arena of domestic architecture.

The first, which lasted from the mid-1930s to the mid-1960s, saw the emergence and serial repetition of what in most regions was called the “garden apartment”: a low-slung complex, often large in scale with hundreds or even thousands of tenants, in which architects and developers arranged apartments in multiple small, wood-frame buildings of one to three stories on a spacious landscaped campus. Typically built on greenfield sites in the outer sections of cities or in suburbs—and often, as a result of zoning regulations, clustered along major roads—they included ample automobile parking along interior drives, on surface lots, and in banks of attached individual garages. Many featured basic community amenities such as small shopping centers and playgrounds. Expressions ranged from stucco-clad Moderne to Tudor Revival, but the majority assumed a cloak of streamlined Colonial Revival, especially after World War II.

This physical form was modeled indirectly on well-publicized examples of social housing built on the outskirts of UK and German cities in the interwar period by housing reformers, through the auspices of the state, who believed that decentralization was an essential remedy for the high cost of urban housing. More immediately, the garden apartment drew from experimental efforts in the United States to emulate the European types, as at Clarence Stein’s and Henry Wright’s model Sunnyside Gardens (1924–1928) in metropolitan New York and Chatham Village in Pittsburgh. It was synthesized in 1935 by architects working on the staff of the new Federal Housing Administration (FHA), who regarded it as an up-to-date, efficient, and expedient alternative to older types, especially the city-center elevator building, which had been overbuilt coast-to-coast in the late 1920s and had become financially unprofitable. FHA, established in 1934, was set up to insure mortgages made by private lenders against foreclosure on properties meeting the agency’s underwriting standards, including for design. The initial focus was on renovation projects and stimulating production of one-to-four-family houses. Within a year, however, it also began to prioritize “large scale” or “rental” housing by insuring construction and permanent financing.

The first FHA-insured garden-apartment type was Colonial Village in Arlington, Virginia. The developer was Gustave Ring, who had previously built several of Washington, D.C.‘s most expensive and handsome high-rises, including The Westchester. The new complex was a great success, with 15,000 applications for 276 apartments, largely by word of mouth. Second and third phases followed, along with many similar groups in and around the city, such as Buckingham Village.

FHA promoted the new type to builders nationally and it soon appeared in and around most other U.S. cities. Some examples, such as the modernistic, richly landscaped Baldwin Hills Village (today The Village Green) in Los Angeles, aspired to the scale and precepts of the German Siedlungen, British Garden City, and American Neighborhood Unit, which had been pioneered by New York City playground advocate Clarence Perry in the 1920s. Most, however, hewed to generic FHA design guidelines derived from Colonial Village, diminishing the role of the architect. The type, which smaller builders in many places adapted for in-fill lots, immediately became the predominant form of private multifamily construction. In the late 1940s alone, thousands of complexes, containing approximately 700,000 apartments, were built to ease the postwar housing crisis. Early postwar examples, which continued earlier trends, include Hancock Village in Brookline, Massachusetts, and Parkfairfax, developed by Metropolitan Life, and Fairlington outside Washington.

The FHA-type garden apartment remained the norm in most places for the next 15 years. The primary exceptions were older city centers, where construction of elevator types resumed, as at Mies van der Rohe’s pathbreaking 860-880 Lake Shore Drive in Chicago, and the far West. There, a range of more compact types flourished, including the “stucco box” or “dingbat” apartment, pioneered in the 1950s by small-scale landlords and production architects; these maximized space, typically by raising structures over “soft”-story surface-level parking.

The 1960s ushered in a second type of low-rise, medium-density multifamily construction: the well-equipped, well-serviced “club-type apartment.” FHA designers had conceived of the garden apartment, following Neighborhood Unit principles, as an environment for sowing middle-class values in all children of the metropolis. In material terms this meant an alternative to the tenement—but also to the possibility of public housing as proposed by reformers like Catherine Bauer, who argued in her 1934 book, Modern Housing, for a system that would serve not just the poor but also most working- and middle-class households, putting the speculative developer out of business. The great need after World War II, however, was for small units built quickly. With the general exception of owner-occupied complexes designed with the participation of prospective tenants, such as the veteran-sponsored Bell Park Gardens in Queens, New York, postwar garden apartments economized in the extreme, leaving many redundant once the housing shortage ended.

By the 1960s, however, new lifestyle groups came to constitute a huge new market for somewhat similar, but much better-equipped, housing. The catalysts were rising disposable incomes along with social and sexual revolutions, which made it possible for more, and more kinds of people, to establish households of their own or as roommate groups with unrelated peers. Chief among them were young adults and seniors, both of whom in earlier eras tended to live in family groups or in other, more institutional, kinds of congregant housing like boarding houses and residential hotels.

Beginning in Southern California in the late 1950s and early 1960s, developers adapted the garden apartment and stucco box to cater to these increasingly affluent and leisure-oriented groups. They added a greater variety of unit types, including apartments with previously unheard of features in mass housing, such as en suite bathrooms for every bedroom. They added elevators, balconies, patios, and elaborate, often lush, landscaping. They budgeted for marketing and bought display advertisements in newspapers. And they offered amenities previously found only in a small handful of higher-end, planned single-family subdivisions: swimming pools, tennis courts, and clubhouses, along with staff to program social activities. Complexes geared to singles offered hot tubs, hootenannies, and co-ed socials. Those for retirees, such as Charles Warren Callister’s influential Rossmoor in the San Francisco Bay Area, included meeting rooms, hobby rooms, classrooms, branch libraries, auditoriums, and putting greens, if not full golf courses.

Club-type complexes, which concentrated in suburbs and Sunbelt cities, also embraced new expressions, jettisoning the postwar patriotism of the Colonial Revival for a variety of fresh themes. Early West Coast examples, building upon the dingbats of the 1950s, were modernistic, with simple stucco facades punctuated by aluminum-frame windows and wood-frame balconies. In an increasingly competitive market, builders soon began to embrace exotic visual languages to better attract fickle tenants and, more important, catch the attention of passersby—close to half of tenants in the postwar period, like today, found apartments by driving past them.

This diversification was aided by the field’s growing independence from FHA. FHA underwriters had long believed that tried and tested styles enjoyed a longer economic life than contemporary ones, which might quickly fall out of fashion. But with an explosion in demand for apartment living in the 1960s, thanks especially to baby boomers, banks became eager to lend without the agency’s helping hand. Developers quickly abandoned FHA, with its reams of paperwork and restrictions on profits. (In a concession to age-old tensions between landlord and tenant, FHA established its apartment program on a limited-dividend basis, capping rents and, at for-sale complexes, re-sale prices.) With this new freedom, developers asked architects to reference a variety of eye-catching styles, blanketing the country by the 1970s with complexes with names like Spanish Trace and Barcelona (Mediterranean Revival architecture), Bordeaux and LeMans (Second Empire), Red Lion (Tudor), Ski Lodge and Tanglewood (rustic), and Moonraker (futuristic).

Reinterpreting the Neighborhood Unit idea for households without children, and in reflection of the growing segmentation of the U.S. consumer markets, including housing, club-type complexes also introduced age and marital restrictions, targeting “active” retirees or “swinging singles.” Yet as tastes evolved, anti-discrimination laws were broadened to protect women and children, and, in the context of urban racial unrest and fair housing, many suburbs made it more difficult to build apartments, especially rentals, and singles complexes quickly faded, disappearing by the 1980s. Those for seniors endured but transformed into multi-type communities, often with a preponderance of detached houses.

A third phase of private multifamily housing, roughly contemporaneous with the club type, saw the proliferation of family-oriented, clustered “town house” groups. U.S. architects had been promoting suburban “group” housing—sometimes with attached row-type units, sometimes with a mixture of types—built at moderately higher densities than typical single-family tracts since the turn of the twentieth century. They did so both because they perceived such places as more socially progressive than conventional arrangements and more exciting to design. Inspired by the anti-speculative principles of Ebenezer Howard and the medievalizing nostalgia of Barry Unwin’s and Raymond Parker’s Letchworth Garden City, U.S. architects and landscape architects developed prototypes like Forest Hills Gardens (1909–1912, Grosvenor Atterbury and Frederick Law Olmsted Jr.) in New York, and and Stein’s and Wright’s incomplete masterwork, Radburn, in suburban New Jersey. Market conditions, however, limited their replication to a handful of speculative examples, such as English Village in Richmond, Virginia.

After World War II, a small handful of similar projects were attempted at various scales, including Gregory Ain’s Avenel Homes in Los Angeles and Park Forest outside Chicago. But the overwhelming tendency, following popular preference, was for conventional houses and apartments—and within complexes, socio-economic and thus physical homogeneity. Efforts by the 1950s were generally limited to government-subsidized demonstrations, such as at Mies van der Rohe’s Modernist Lafayette Park Urban Renewal Area in Detroit, and the Southwest Urban Renewal Area in Washington, D.C., which included, eventually, innovative complexes by Keyes, Lethbridge and Condon, Satterlee and Smith, Morris Lapidus, Charles Goodman, and Harry Weese, such as Capitol Park, Town Center Plaza, Tiber Island/Carrollsburg Square, and Waterside Towers.

In the 1960s, however, the cluster concept became commercially viable as new realities priced many families out of the market for detached single-family houses. After two decades of rapid, low-density decentralization, the price of land around many cities skyrocketed. This was exacerbated by record-high inflation and interest rates as the Vietnam War escalated, followed by the OPEC oil crisis; the trend continued into the early 1980s. At the same time, Americans were developing ever higher expectations for privacy and comfort in housing and, as a consequence, some became willing to forgo the powerful cultural symbols of house and yard for larger and better-equipped interiors, with more bedrooms, bathrooms, and storage, along with features like air conditioning. The shift accelerated as more women, who tended to prefer shorter commutes, began working outside the home, and as more couples divorced.

The new trend asserted itself first in the San Francisco Bay Area, where these larger pressures intersected with widespread affection for the region’s dramatic natural terrain, which generated public support for new restrictions on suburban growth. As early as the mid-1950s the architects and landscape architects behind these efforts began persuading suburban counties to permit “cluster” zoning that allowed concentration of housing within a given tract without increasing overall density, by shifting green space from private yards to common preserves. Soon, adventuresome builders like Eichler Homes pioneered the suburban-type “town house complex.” At many earlier garden apartments, such as Bell Park Gardens, at least some two-bedroom units had been arranged as two-story duplexes rather than as stacked flats. At projects like Eichler’s Pomeroy Green, built in suburban Santa Clara County to plans by longtime Eichler architect Claude Oakland, visual and rhetorical associations with the apartment were excised. The units, which Eichler marketed as individual, privately owned houses, included private patios and built-in carports. Some, in a second phase, also included a version of Eichler Homes’s signature open-air atrium, a popular feature in its single-family houses.

By the mid-1960s the cluster and related Planned Unit Development (PUD) zoning concepts had spread nationwide, along with the town house type and a range of new, often imaginative variants. With the exception of William Pereira’s Irvine, in Southern California, the most ambitious—and stylistically avant-garde—examples, including Reston (with its Lake Anne Village) and Columbia, both outside Washington, D.C.; the Woodlands, outside Houston; and The Sea Ranch in Northern California, whose idealistic and deep-pocketed developers imagined their projects to be equivalent to state-built Scandinavian new towns, were financial failures and not completed as planned. But smaller-scale projects, such as Valley Run in Wilmington, Delaware, and La Luz in Albuquerque, succeeded. Especially popular were neotraditional projects patterned after places like Georgetown and Beacon Hill. By the late 1960s the town house complex had all but replaced the small detached house at the entry level of the family-directed housing market in many regions. It also became a popular rental type.

Although the preponderance of postwar multifamily housing was low-rise structures, a fourth and final trend, which also emerged in the 1960s, was the resurgence of the elevator type. Apartment houses—as opposed complexes—never went out of fashion altogether. Even FHA approved of financing for tall buildings, both in cities and suburbs, such as the 14-story 1270 Fifth Avenue (1956–1957, H. Herbert Lillien and Clarence Lillien) in New York. Some city governments, too, promoted the elevator type as a high-density counter to white flight, using public resources like urban renewal subsidies as a stimulus. In the extreme, such efforts produced large-scale privately developed projects that developers would otherwise have been unable to get done, including the massive Stuyvesant Town (1943–1949, Gilmore Clark, Irwin Clavan, H. F. Richardson, George Gore, Andrew Eken) and Penn Station South in New York, and Parklabrea (today Park La Brea) in Los Angeles.

In the 1960s, the high-rise turn accelerated, propelled by many of the same trends that also shaped the club-type apartment. The result was a great number of new towers in large urban centers, from the scalloped cylinders of Bertrand Goldberg’s Marina City in Chicago to Eichler’s swooping The Summit in San Francisco, and in small ones (see Pembroke Towers in Norfolk, Virginia). High-rises also proliferated at key suburban nodes like Fort Lee, New Jersey, and Tysons Corner, Virginia, which resisted the trend toward exclusionary zoning, and, increasingly, in coastal resorts like Miami Beach and Honolulu. The last two areas, in particular, saw a great flood of buildings, like Marvin Grossman’s King Cole and Vladimir Ossipoff’s prestressed-concrete Diamond Head, which were marketed as retirement and vacation homes. Often this was done under rebranded, novel-sounding plans of co-ownership like “condominium,” which was a term introduced to the U.S. in Florida in the late 1950s to recast multifamily ownership as a private rather than communal experience (previously the generic terms for co-ownership arrangements in the United States, no matter the legal structure, were “cooperative” and, in the Bay Area, “community apartments”).

If low-rise complexes including town houses tended to thrive by projecting an image of traditional, if sometimes exotic, domesticity, mostly employing vaguely historicizing or rustic expressions, the new high-rises emphasized convenience and luxury, typically by deploying modernism or allusions to it, including strong geometries and industrialized materials like concrete, white or colored glazed brick, and plate glass. As new products were developed for office buildings, including tinted, mirrored, and curving glass, these, too, were put to use. Postwar high-rises, which tended to allow architects greater freedom of expression than the increasingly generic club-type and town house projects (even as lenders and landlords demanded greater standardization in unit interiors in every type), also embraced new plans. Before the Great Depression, in an era of marked income inequality, many high-rises reproduced the extreme grandeur of the town house mansion. After World War II, by contrast, even buildings at the pinnacle of the market rarely included apartments with more than two bedrooms. Advancements in air conditioning, meanwhile, allowed for introduction of the double-loaded corridor and elimination of the courtyard, leaving most apartments with only a single exposure without sacrificing much in the way of comfort. Slabs all but replaced point blocks. And, with the notable exception of infill sites in a few older city-center districts, the attached palazzo-type gave way to the freestanding tower, allowing for a variety of more sculptural forms, as at Warner Boone’s Canterbury Place in Honolulu and Sert, Jackon and Gourley’s brutalist Peabody Terrace complex in Cambridge.

In the final decades of the twentieth century and early decades of the twenty-first, the club-type, town house, and high-rise continued to thrive in both cities and suburbs, with ever greater attention to privacy, convenience, and amenity. To serve these competing masters, complexes of every type tended to grow, both in terms number of units and size and bulk of buildings. If garden apartments gave way to club complexes in the 1960s, they evolved, in turn, into denser mid-rise—if still wood-frame—types by the 1990s. Landscaped grounds were limited to compact courtyards, often with a pool, with an ever-shifting array of new amenities, from screening rooms to dog-washing stations to wine cellars. Parking shifted from surface lots toward multistory arrangements. Where land was cheap this meant an adjacent deck or a one- or two-story concrete podium below the apartments. In more expensive locations, cars moved into interior decks around which apartments wrapped, in a type called the Texas Donut, or to underground garages. In high-rises parking moved, too: mostly to massive podium decks rising as high as eight stories.

The greatest change in multifamily housing in this era, however, was less about efficiency, scale, or style than politics. Beginning in the 1980s, high-profile buildings like the corporate Trump Tower (1979–1983, Der Scutt) and Museum Tower (1979–1985, Pelli Clark Pelli) in New York and Arquitectonica’s playfully postmodern Atlantis in Miami, promised an increasingly global rich, in an increasingly unstable world, a safe place to park their money. Developers learned to court them with increasingly sophisticated advertising campaigns in multiple languages. An emphasis on design pedigree—and a flood of “starchitect”-designed buildings—soon followed, especially after the sales success of Richard Meier’s crystalline 173 and 176 Perry Street (1999–2002) in New York, which demonstrated the allure not just of thoughtful architecture but of the figure of the avant-garde architect. More recently, these trends produced an entirely novel form: the “supertall,” or semiotic, tower, exemplified by Christian de Portzamparc’s sleek One57 (2010–2014) and Rafael Viñoly’s stoic 432 Park Avenue (2012–2015), whose chief attributes are not shelter but their conspicuous silhouettes.


Bauer, Catherine. Modern Housing. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1934.

Bobeczko, Laura, and Richard Longstreth. “Housing Reform Meets the Marketplace: Washington and the Federal Housing Administration’s Contribution to Apartment Building Design, 1935-40.” In Housing Washington: Two Centuries of Residential Development and Planning in the National Capital Area, edited by Richard Longstreth, 159-80. Chicago: The Center for American Places at Columbia College Chicago, 2010.

Chase, John, and John Beach. “The Stucco Box.” 1983. In John Chase, Glitter Stucco & Dumpster Diving: Reflections on Building Production in the Vernacular City, 3-37. New York: Verso, 2000.

Cromley, Elizabeth Collins. Alone Together: A History of New York’s Early Apartments. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1990.

Doan, Mason. American Housing Production: A Concise History, 1880-2000. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1998.

Lasner, Matthew Gordon. “Architect as Developer and the Postwar U.S. Apartment, 1945-1960.” Buildings & Landscapes 21, no. 1 (Spring 2014): 27-55.

Lasner, Matthew Gordon. “The Complex: Suburban Architectures of Difference and the Postwar U.S. Apartment.” In Making Suburbia: New Histories of Everyday America, edited by John Archer, Paul J. P. Sandul, and Katherine Solomonson, 343-63. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015.

Lasner, Matthew Gordon. High Life: Condo Living in the Suburban Century. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012.

Lasner, Matthew Gordon. “Own-your-owns, Co-ops, Town Houses: Hybrid Housing Types and the New Urban Form in Postwar Southern California.” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 68, no. 3 (Sept. 2009): 378-403.

Lasner, Matthew Gordon. “Segregation by Design: Race, Architecture, and the Enclosure of the Atlanta Apartment.” Journal of Urban History, online first, May 2017.

Lasner, Matthew Gordon. “‘Swingsites for Singles’: New Housing for New Households in Mid-century America.” Places Journal, October 2014.

Elihu Rubin. “Viewpoint: New in Town: The California Garden Apartment in the 1960s.” Buildings & Landscapes 21, no. 1 (spring 2014): 1-26.

Sandoval-Strausz, A. K. “Homes for a World of Strangers: Hospitality and the Origins of Multiple Dwellings in Urban America.” Journal of Urban History 33, no. 6 (Sept. 2007): 933-64.

The Skyscraper Museum. “Sky High: The Logic of Luxury.” Online exhibition. 2013.

Writing Credits

Matthew Gordon Lasner

If SAH Archipedia has been useful to you, please consider supporting it.

SAH Archipedia tells the story of the United States through its buildings, landscapes, and cities. This freely available resource empowers the public with authoritative knowledge that deepens their understanding and appreciation of the built environment. But the Society of Architectural Historians, which created SAH Archipedia with University of Virginia Press, needs your support to maintain the high-caliber research, writing, photography, cartography, editing, design, and programming that make SAH Archipedia a trusted online resource available to all who value the history of place, heritage tourism, and learning.