Prefabrication

The original 200 Colonial Hills homes on North, South and East Selby, and Kenbrook were prefabricated by American Houses, Inc., 570 Lexington Ave., New York City, and delivered to the construction site on the New York Central Railroad (known then as the "Big Four Railroad") beginning in February, 1942.

American Houses, Inc., was an early player in the prefabricated housing business. It was founded in 1932 by Robert B. McLaughlin Jr., a prominent proponent of low cost housing. It was assumed by many in industry in the 1920's that prefabrication would overtake the housing industry just as assembly line manufacturing dominated the automobile. These dreams died with the Lustron House after World War II, but through the 30's and 40's many companies were established in an attempt to become the General Motors of housing.

I know that the houses were designed by a local architect, Todd Tibbals. I do not know many details about which AHI plant built them, or exactly how they were delivered to the site. I assume that they were unloaded at Potter Lumber at the corner of 161 and Proprieter's Road. Potter Lumber had a rail siding connected to the New York Central tracks at that time.

While recently remodeling my garage, I made a drawing of the framing system they used - it is quite unusual compared to how a standard wood frame house is built.



Figure 1.
Example of modular framing. This is the outside garage wall of my house.



Figure 2.
The garage wall is constructed from four 36" wide wall modules and a 48" wide window module. The modules have a 5/8" wide stud on the right side, mortised into the top and bottom sill plates and set back from the edges of the sills, so that the module can connect to the next module. There is also a 3-1/2" x 1/2" board set into mortised cut-outs across the middle of the module, probably for stiffness in shipping. Like fine furniture, the framing of my house is filled with these complex, factory-machined mortise joints.

More history of AHI

American Houses was the first manufacturer to produce prefabricated steel homes; twenty coal miner's homes for Jeddo-Highland Coal Co. in 1932 in Hazleton, Pennsylvania.

In 1935 they teamed up with General Electric to produce American Motohomes modular homes equipped with GE appliances. From Time Magazine, April 1, 1935:


After six years of experiment and expansion, American Houses, Inc. was ready to put its prefabricated house into limited production April 1, when a $5,000 unit wrapped in Cellophane and tied with a red ribbon will go on display at John Wanamaker's store. The company was promising its first customers delivery by June 1. National Houses, Inc., a competitor, announced that it hoped to have 10,000 prefabricated houses to sell during the next twelvemonth. Though it will be months, perhaps years, before U. S. travelers begin to see prefabricated houses springing up in any numbers along the roadsides, the design and equipment of such houses was by last week sufficiently complete to give the public some idea of what its grandchildren may live in.

American Houses, Inc. describes its product as "a machine in which to live." The four-room unit on display cost $3,800 complete, including erection within 100 miles of New York. Shipped by truck from the company's distributing depot, the parts are put together in two weeks under the expert eye of a company superintendent. A local building crew sinks a shallow concrete foundation (there is no cellar), erects a steel frame. Then the walls, consisting of 4-ft.-by-10-ft. panels, are bolted together with long strips of aluminum which give a modernistic effect to the exterior. The panels, 2¼in. thick, consist of two layers of mixed cement and asbestos. Between the layers is an insulating substance which looks like burnt cork and is termite-proof, fireproof. The outside of the house is a light grey, needs no paint. Extra rooms can be added from time to time by "unbuttoning" one outside wall.


Later that year, however, things weren't going so well. From Time Magazine, October 11, 1935:


In its extensive campaign to improve U. S. housing, and incidentally sell more electric equipment, General Electric Co. extensively backed prefabricated houses known as American Motohomes, produced by American Houses, Inc.

They were well planned, built of asbestos and cement panels, were portable and equipped with every modern gadget, including airconditioning. And they have sold well. But the trouble was that after nearly a year General Electric discovered that Motohomes did not solve the problem they were after. Designed for mass production, they are not being mass produced, are too expensive for the man earning between $2,000 and $3,000 a year.


By 1946, Time Magazine reported that American Houses, Inc., still had seven plants and a capacity of 7,000 houses per year priced between $2,700 and $20,000. But by the early 50's, the only record of AHI regard legal actions and lawsuits.

Two powerful forces opposed the prefabricated housing industry; trades unions took a dim view of losing their role in housing construction, and banks never warmed up to holding mortgage notes for houses built for lower income workers.