The Monsanto House of the Future Story
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.