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The Monsanto House of the Future Story

Rating: 4 votes, 5.00 average.
by , 02-09-2011 at 07:17 PM


There is an ancient Chinese Proverb that states, “Tell me and I'll forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I'll understand.” Legendary Imagineer John Hench said, “Walt believed that the experience was most important. People could always read about ideas or see photographs of new concepts. They would find it more compelling if they went through it themselves. Once people experienced something first-hand they could go home to their own communities and make changes.” According to Hench, Walt said, “That experiences were the only thing that you really own. They were yours."




Monsanto wanted to expand its presence in the home construction industry. By 1953, they contracted with a team from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). The group included architects Richard Hamilton and Marvin Goody from the Department of Architecture and engineer Albert G.H. Dietz from Plastic Research Laboratory at the Department of Building Engineering and Construction. Monsanto’s Plastics Division sponsored the project.

The goal was to design a house that would explore the maximum use of plastics as a material for home construction. The goal was to demonstrate, “Plastics used boldly creatively as building materials.” The challenge was to not simply replace wooden components with plastic ones but to find new and innovative ways to exploit the material unique characteristics, structural, and aesthetic qualities.

In 1954, Douglas Haskell of the American Institute of Architects asked, “In architecture, will atomic processes create a new ‘plastic’ order?” He thought the future meant that homes would not be massed produced like automobiles but would come from scientific laboratories.

The house was a modular, polyester structure reinforced with fibrous glass. The materials and methodology were similar to those developed by Charles Eames for his molded plastic chairs of the 1950s.


The iconic Eames molded chairs

The design was a white cruciform with four gracefully curved fiberglass wings cantilevered from a 256-square-foot central core. The central core also housed the air temperature control units. Each wing was eight feet tall, sixteen feet wide, and sixteen feet long. Overall, the house was 1,280-square feet and had three bedrooms, two baths, a living room, a dining room, a family room, and a kitchen.

The Imagineers chose a cruciform because it, “assures full daylight for every room, reduces inter-room noise, and provides added privacy for various family activities.” The design allowed for easy expansion. John Hench said, “The bottom was a “compression member” and the top had a “tension ring” that the modules hooked on to and hung from. You could hang more pairs of them as needed.” John Hench added, “There was virtually no bad location for building it…in a rocky location or on a hillside, the 16’ by 16’ pedestal would have been easy to work with.” You could even rotate it on the pedestal to change the views. Monsanto described the house as “strangely graceful.”


Disneyland opened the front door of the Monsanto House of the Future to guests on June 12, 1957. The attraction was free and it was located at a prime spot off the Plaza Hub, adjacent to the Circarama Theater. This location would ensure a huge audience. At night, when the home would glow with all of the light on, it added a special magic to the area. The attraction remained opened until 1967. It was estimated that more than 20 million guests walked through the house.

Disney proudly proclaimed, “Hardly a natural material appears anywhere in the House.” Virtually every surface was synthetic. By the early 1960s, fifteen percent of plastic production was dedicated to home building.



In 1953, MIT produced a report called Plastics in Housing to explore expanded uses of the material. The objective was “to develop plastics as a sound engineering materials and help the construction industry utilize new designs and materials to achieve production line methods and facilities.” The demonstration house was a “dramatic attack” on how to increase the acceptance of plastics as a construction material.

The tour started in the dining and family room. All of the furniture was ultra-modern and made of plastic materials. The hope was the home would stimulate your imagination.


For many, the highlight had to be the kitchen. The Kelvinator Division of American Motors Corporation designed the “step saver” kitchen. It was dubbed the “Atoms for Living Kitchen.” Many of the appliances either dropped from cabinets or popped up from the counter. A pop up dishwasher used ultrasonic waves to clean and would also be the storage unit for all of your plastic dishes. Instead of one large refrigerator freezer unit, this house featured three cooling units called “cold zones” that lowered from ceiling cabinets. One zone for regular refrigeration, one for frozen, and one for irradiated foods. Even the storage shelves lowered from the ceiling unit just by pushing a button. Rising from the counter was a microwave oven.

Sylvania Electric Products Company provided adjustable lighting behind polarized plastic ceiling tiles lights the room. Bell Telephone installed the push-button speakerphone with “preset” dialing.

The climate control system would allow for different temperatures in different zones within the house. There were even buttons where you could push the scent of roses or the ocean into any room.


The children’s room was divided in two by a sliding panel, one for the boy and one for the girl. Plastics allowed for “tough durable materials that are easily washable.” Both children shared a bathroom. The bathroom featured a movable sink that rose and fell at the push of a button.

Your next stop is the master bedroom and bathroom. For the lady, she has a vanity with a push button speakerphone. The master bath is modeled in two pieces. Along with the built-in electric razor and toothbrush is another hands-free push button phone mounted on the wall. Except, this phone also contains a closed circuit television so you can see who is at the front door. The ceiling lighting was adjustable and had panelescent panels, which act as a nightlight. There was even a sound system in the shower.

Finally, there is a spacious living room featuring a giant, non-operational, wall-mounted television screen and built-in stereo system. John Hench designed the “Alpha” chair, the first contoured chair that adjusts automatically and a phone and music system with built in speakers. Facing Sleeping Beauty Castle was ceiling to floor thermal pane picture windows featuring decorative laminated safety glass.


In an unexpected way to prove the durability of plastic, there is a legend that Disney had to go through an extraordinary effort to remove the attraction. The original plan was a one-day demolition. When the wrecking ball just bounced off the side, a new plan was drafted. For two weeks, they resorted to hacksaws to take the house apart piece by piece, according to John Hench.

For Walt Disney's proposed city, EPCOT, illustrations showed low-density single-family residential architecture that was more traditional. Instead of a neighborhood of space-age modular homes, the drawings suggest forward-looking Mid-Century ranch-style homes that might resemble the very popular homes by Joseph Eichler, a very popular Californian home builder.

Eichler hired some of the best residential architects such as A. Quincy Jones FAIA. His homes became known as “California Modern” and featured glass walls, post-and-beam construction, and open floorplans. The exteriors featured low-sloping A-framed roofs with simple, clean facades. Many of the homes had skylights and floor to ceiling glass windows. Some even had enclosed private courtyards. The houses were airy in comparison to the suburban homes being built at the time.

It was suggested that each home would generate some of its own electricity. Solid waste would be gathered and deposited in an automated vacuum collection system, which are pneumatic tubes that send the trash to a central collection point. Aerojet-General was responsible for the design of this system when the Magic Kingdom opened in 1971.


EDITORS NOTE: The Monsanto House of the Future is an enduring memory. Millions of people associate that attraction with the optimistic future evangelized by Walt Disney. Of course, in retrospect, an all plastic house doesn't seem like a warm and inviting place to live. But for the modernists of the mid 1950's the house was a revelation. Is the Tomorrowland of today missing the sort of future-tech that the House of the Future represented in its time? Is the never ending chase for the future an impossibility that Tomorrowland is incapable of capturing with any consistency? Would a "House of Tomorrow" be possible (or even desirable) in today's Disneyland . . . What say you?




If you enjoyed today's article, then you will LOVE the new book written By Sam Gennawey, Walt and the Promise of Progress City.




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Updated 02-29-2012 at 09:52 PM by Dustysage (Updated)

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  1. Bruce Bergman's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Mousecat
    I had this idea that Disney could reproduce a bunch of these units, set them up somewhere at WDW, and rent them out like Treehouse Villas. I would stay in one.

    Sam
    SamLand's Disney Adventures
    The HOF would be easy to put into low-volume mass production - any good Manufactured Housing company could crank these out 50 or 250 at a time. The tricky part would be getting a nearby fiberglass company that could handle the large molds for the outer shells, or hire the talent and make them yourself.

    The rest is just like building a modular house, making all the utilities stub out in the Core for final connections. Kind of like the modular rooms for the Contemporary Hotel at WDW. Put them on pilings, and you could build over swampland, or a flood-plain where being 10' above grade is a good thing once a year.

    --<< Bruce >>--
  2. Spirit King's Avatar
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    Nothing is funnier than the old view of the future.
  3. Mousecat's Avatar
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    I hear you. One of my favorite rereads is Yesterday's Tomorrows by Joseph Corn and Brian Horrigan. Thanks for visiting.

    Sam
    SamLand's Disney Adventures
  4. skybluefusion's Avatar
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    Thank you SamLand! Your articles are so fascinating.

    It makes me laugh when I read things such as bragging that there was NO natural material. Nowadays people are begging for ALL natural once again. I wish I could have been inside this crazy idea of what the future home would be like. Some of the things came to be common in day to day life(hands free phone, central heating/air, some of the expanded use of plastics such as in furniture and dishware etc, microwaves etc) but other things were never to be.
  5. br'erbear's Avatar
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    Thanks for the great article. As an MIT student in the Dept. of Architecture and Planning I really enjoyed learning about the MIT-WDI connection.
  6. Not My Real Name's Avatar
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    In the Buzz Lightyear cartoon series, Buzz lived in the HOF.
  7. Mousecat's Avatar
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    I would also argue that Bob Parr's family from the Incredibles lived in an Eichler neighborhood.

    Sam
    SamLand's Disney Adventures
  8. MrTour's Avatar
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    Great article, Sam...sent me right back to Yesterland!

    What was great about the House of the Future was that it represented the theme of Tomorrowland. It was not a toy or a movie... It was purely science and imagination. In its day, we were at the threshold to the future, and it fed into our curiosity.

    A new House of the Future would be great (for a NEW TOMORROWLAND), but there would have to be a thematic spin to it. Otherwise, a trip through the House of the Future might feel like an ordinary visit to IKEA. Let the new House of the Future be a ranch house to a large plantation on Mars or some other exotic locale yet to be explored! WDI could stand to once again feed into our curiosity!
  9. Erik Olson's Avatar
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    The spirit of designing visionary concepts for our collective future should be at the center of (and drive) everything Tomorrowland does. House of the Future and Living with the Land are two such attractions. TL certainly needs to be balanced with some E ticket energy, but these exploratory, interactive attractions provide a nice break from thrill rides. If character and movie theming is central to today's parks, perhaps these characters, situations and ecosystems could provide an entertaining interface through which House of the Future type attractions are presented.

    Including them brands them as unmistakably Disney, while allowing museum-like and product showcase installations to drive their message home (think Spaceship Earth versus Carousel of Progress).

    Neat article and thanks for the link to that fantastic House of the Future site.
  10. ed43bauhaus's Avatar
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    I've read more than a few chatroom debates about the what the focus of Tomorrowland should be: synergistic with current pop movies, or more generally oriented to the tech-future. Kevin Yee wrote an excellent article on the subject a few years ago.
    When I was a kid, Tomorrowland was my absolute favorite. I was 11 years old when the House of the Future was dismantled, and I certainly remember it well. But so many other elements made Tomorrowland appealing to me, especially after 1967. I loved the speaker phone booths at the exit to the CircleVision theater, and always begged my mom to call someone, anyone. The Adventure thru Inner Space was killer. Riding up the "gantry" to the Rocket Jets really got the heart rate elevated. One D Ticket had to be used for the Flight to the Moon. And the Carousel of Progress and the Progress City model......visited too many times to count. I may be an architect today because of that damn model.
    None of those memories were themed to a movie. The submarines were just good old American Navy nuclear attack subs. That being said, it's clear that a current Tomorrowland can never again attempt to capture the real tech-future: it would be out of date before the plaster dried. Apple is releasing the iPad3 in March; a couple of years ago, nobody even knew what a pad was.
    I'm a supporter of a "tech-past" concept: the future was cool in 1958, let's keep it there for now. The movie themed attractions are here to stay, America has spoken. But how about a white, gleaming world with plenty of motion, and a couple of attractions that embrace future technology in a mind blowing way you can't get at home.....or on your phone.
  11. Princess Victoria's Avatar
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    Great article, Sam. Thank you for sharing.

    I believe that this sort of charming attraction, which is a showcase of how our lives are actually improved in the future by a modern way of living, is what Tomorrowland today is sorely lacking. I feel Disney has taken the easy way out with so many franchises in Tomorrowland. If they truly wanted to keep it an optimistic place that really felt futuristic, they would find creative ways to build upon this sort of concept. And it wouldn't necessarily have to be a home. I believe now, more than ever, that Tomorrowland feels stuck in sci-fi franchise mode, with little sign of it changing direction. It's attractions like the House of the Future, Adventure Thru Inner Space, or Mission to Mars that offer a real and unique experience that gives you a sense of optimism and a feeling of excitement for the future.
  12. MickeyMaxx's Avatar
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    Always among the top two attractions that I miss the most at Disneyland. As a child, I was sure the House of the Future was the sort of dwelling I would be living in as an adult. Sadly, that didn't happen. Perhaps for cost reasons, maybe entrenched industry pressures, whatever. Thing is, it strikes me as no less revolutionary more than half a century later. Sure, the interior decor would have to go, along with much of the kitchen innovation. The floorplan was clever and efficient, but lacked charm and despite windows, windows everywhere, was more compartmentalized than it needed to be. I honestly think the house that looked like it flew in from Mars, could fly today, as an affordable alternative, with far superior durability when compared to the stick-built homes which most of us live in.
  13. Ortizmo2000's Avatar
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    Excellent article. Although I never got to see this attraction (born in '70) I've always held a fascination for it and am the proud owner of a Olsewski miniature of the HotF.
  14. OriginalMousekteer's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Fishbulb
    WOW! This was such a treat! I had always wondered what the House of the Future looked like inside and what it was all about. It was basically one big commercial. Come to think of it I suppose the whole park is too, but I digress.

    Thanks for the great, in-depth article.
    Well, Tomorrowland has always been the biggest commercial of all. I recommend the DVD about the 1964 New York World's Fair narrated by Judd Hirsch. In it, he advances the idea that by 1964 the fair was already obsolete. The vision of "a great big beautiful tomorrow" was already being challenged by the idea that technology alone could not solve everything, including the incipient environmental movement. Disneyland's new Tomorrowland in 1967 drew heavily on that ideal and reflected many of the design details of "Jetsons modernism". Growing up in that era, I was entranced by the romantic futurism. Like the character of Red in That '70s Show, "I was promised a hovercar and I want my hovercar!"

    The Monsanto House of the Future is clearly part of the '50s futurism that the 1964 Fair belatedly drew upon. It's part of my childhood mythology, and no matter how false I know it to be, I miss it all the same. And I still want to live in that house, and have my jetpack, and my damn hovercar!!! (And the lids flipping up on the PeopleMover are still the coolest things EVAH!)
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