Profile of a smaller post-World War II builder

The efforts of Levitt & Sons are well known but here is a quick overview of a smaller “merchant builder” from the Boston area:

The Campanelli Brothers of Braintree, Massachusetts, were one of these typical merchant builders. When Michael, Joseph, Nicholas, and Alfred Campanelli created a construction company in the late 1940s, they were young and inexperienced. Their parents, Francesco Campanelli and Lisa Marie Colondono Campanelli, arrived in the U.S. in 1915 from a tiny and ancient mountain village in the Italian Apennines; they settled in an immigrant neighborhood in the small city of Brockton. The boys were used to hard work, quitting school after their father died to help support the family by working at the Quincy shipyards near Weymouth. Joseph also worked on some house construction sites before World War II. The three younger brothers served short stints in the Navy during the war.

After they came home, the brothers used an army surplus truck to move gravel to big construction sites, including Logan Airport. Soon they began pouring concrete footings for new buildings. As their assets increased, they built two new houses in Brockton, one for their mother and one for their sister Ann, whose husband, Salvatore De Marco, now joined the brothers’ team. They branched out to small developments near Braintree, Massachusetts, and Warwick, Rhode Island. Success there led them to develop more ambitious subdivisions in Natick, Framingham, Peabody, and other areas near Boston. In the process, they assembled a sizable group of foremen and loyal subcontractors, many drawn from their old neighborhood and earlier shipbuilding work. Their firm rapidly grew into the leading home building enterprise in the Boston area, and later built extensively in Florida and Illinois as well.

The typical Campanelli house was attractive because, as one buyer explained it, it was “a new kind of house” for “a new time.” It discarded the old-fashioned, larger, more monumental look. It had a low-pitched roof, like contemporary ranch houses in California, but still kept shutters or an occasional bow window for a faintly “colonial” flavor. Campanelli houses usually had two or three bedrooms, a living room, a kitchen large enough to eat in, and a garage. The three-bedroom version was about 1,000 square feet of living space. In the mid-’50s, the firm extended the kitchens to form a “living kitchen” or a kind of a “family room.”

The last brother died just a few years ago and the company the brothers started did a lot of work:

Campanelli Companies built more than 30,000 single-family homes in eight states during the post-war period.

Here is the company – Campanelli – today and how they describe themselves:

Campanelli is a vertically integrated commercial real estate, construction, development and acquisitions company with over six decades of successful experience having developed, built and acquired over 20 million square feet of property. Campanelli has a trustworthy, successful and experienced team that maximizes value, consistently executes on target objectives and provides operational excellence for your company.

I would love to see a study that compares the (1) home styles (2) buyers (3) interactions with local governments and (4) organizational operations of a number of post-World War II builders. Campanelli started small and became a commercial property developer. Though there are differences, it kind of reminds me of the Harold Moser story in Naperville where a former newspaper owner turned lumber store operator started by building a few homes and then ended up constructing a sizable amount of the large city’s homes.

Additionally, are such family business stories like this still possible today or did the combination of unusual housing needs plus innovations in building create a uniquely open market?

A McMansion has been part of the American Dream for a while

Teen Vogue suggests the historic American Dream involves a McMansion:

The mythic American Dream, defined by the wordsmiths at Merriam-Webster, is an “American social ideal that stresses egalitarianism and especially material prosperity.” We all know what that social ideal has looked like historically: a 9-5 job, two cars, two kids, and one McMansion complete with a white picket fence. It’s what your parents, grandparents, and probably even great-great-grandparents aspired to (though they probably didn’t use the term McMansion in the’50s — McDonalds was still at novelty back then).

But according a new poll conducted by Harvard’s Institute of Politics, 48% of millennials believe the American idyll is dead. More than 2,000 young Americans between 18 and 29 years old were interviewed about the government, the military, the future of the country, and the collective outlook on the future is…not great!

The caveat in the first paragraph may be important: people in the 1950s didn’t use the term McMansion as it didn’t really become widely used until the late 1990s (and yes, the Mc- prefix also wouldn’t have made much sense). But, did those post-war suburbanites really aspire to a McMansion, often defined as an overly large, poorly built home sitting on a small lot within the sprawling suburbs? Not really. Many of those early suburban single-family homes were quite modest in size. The Levittown homes were around 1,000 square feet and could even be purchased with unfinished second levels. In comparison, today’s new homes are roughly 2.5 times the size of the average new homes of the early 1950s. Many post-war suburban homes were mass produced but they weren’t considered garish or ostentatious. Were these new suburban homes better than many of the other housing options after World War II? Yes and there was indeed a real housing shortage. But, it is a real stretch to claim the American Dream always included a Mediterranean inspired 3,000 square foot home tightly packed into a small lot in a gated neighborhood.

The important new styles in American homes in the last few decades: shed, split-level, millennium mansions

The recently updated A Field Guide to American Houses includes descriptions of three new home styles from recent decades:

Q: Is it harder to put new homes into defined categories? In other words, how do you determine what is a defined style and what isn’t?

A: When I first started the revision, I was almost overwhelmed by what seemed to be the fractured nature of new home design and wondered how I would ever figure out what I believed the defined categories were…

Q: We think of Italianate, Queen Anne or Craftsman, for example, as being classic, etched-in-stone styles. Do you think one day we’ll think in the same way of split-level, shed or millennium mansions, three of your new categories?

A: Yes, I do. Shed was a favorite style of architects in the ’60s and ’70s. It was taught in prominent architecture schools such as MIT and Yale and won a number of architecture awards, … and even appeared in house-pattern books for builders. Millennium mansions, on the other hand, dominated builders’ subdivisions in the 1990s and 2000s much in the way that ranch houses dominated builders’ subdivisions of the 1950s and ’60s.

Split-level was a brand new house shape, rather than style, and was most often used in the ranch, styled ranch or contemporary styles. It can be compared to American four-square, also a house shape, popular from about 1900 to 1920 that could be found in several different styles.

Whether critics like these new home styles or not, there were a lot of each of these three styles built. American homes aren’t quickly demolished so these homes are here to stay. This could lead to a few options:

1. A number of these homes could be significantly altered as homeowners add on, change the exterior and interior, redecorate, change the yards, and live full lives with lots of memories in these homes. I’m reminded of the homes of the Levittowns: while critics said they were “little boxes,” after several decades they had been altered quite a bit and the streetscapes included a variety of homes to look at. See the historical work Expanding the American Dream by Barbara Kelly.

2. Down the road, such styles will be revered and will eventually lead to preservation efforts. “We need to save that gaudy McMansion from the mid-1990s” – someone in 2030 might say.

3. Down the road, critics will still blast McMansions and these other new styles as unimaginative and wasteful. But, there may still be plenty of these homes.

4. Some new design will render these trends irrelevant or passe. McAlester looks forward in this interview to green homes but these homes doesn’t necessarily have to have a similar architectural design.