Henry J. Kaiser’s assembly-line building fills need for postwar homes

posted on October 21, 2013
Henry J. Kaiser greets the George family at the Kaiser Community Homes all-aluminum house on Osborne Street in Panorama City. Bancroft Library photo

Henry J. Kaiser greets the George family at the Kaiser Community Homes all-aluminum house on Osborne Street in Panorama City.
Bancroft Library photo

by Ginny McPartland, Heritage writer

Secret to mass production: Build ‘chassis’ for houses just as Detroit does for automobiles

A post-World War II opportunity to build thousands of small, affordable homes for returning servicemen and their families excited Henry J. Kaiser. Mass producing homes to meet an urgent demand fit right into Kaiser’s vision of the “fifth freedom” he referred to in wartime speeches.

President Roosevelt had enumerated for the American people the “Four Freedoms” at stake in the war: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from fear and freedom from want. To this list, Kaiser added “freedom of abundance.”

“Everyone who is willing to work and save has the right to be decently and comfortably housed,” Kaiser told the Conference of the National Committee on Housing in Chicago in 1944.

Kaiser had been involved in many housing projects during the war that required fast construction. Under Kaiser’s sponsorship and with federal financial aid, noted San Francisco Bay Area builder David Bohannon had built the 700-home community of Rollingwood for shipyard workers in Richmond, Calif., in just 693 hours.

Kaiser revolutionized ship construction by turning it into an assembly line and prefabrication industry. Workers trained in new techniques set production records in Kaiser’s wartime shipyards on the San Francisco Bay and the Columbia River in the Pacific Northwest.

By the time the war was over, Henry Kaiser was more than ready to start building homes as fast as possible. Financing was available through the GI Bill and the Federal Housing Authority, so people were ripe for homeownership.

New neighborhoods to rise in short order

Kaiser joined forces with builder Fritz Burns and devised a plan to develop two- and three-bedroom, roughly 1,000-square foot homes that were attractive, affordable and distinct from one another.  Preassembly of various home components made it possible to build about 40 homes a day, each constructed with about 40 manufactured panels.

Architects' rendering of Kaiser Housing development in 1948. Bancroft Library photo

Architects’ rendering of Kaiser Housing development in 1948. Bancroft Library photo

Kaiser Community Homes built a factory In Westchester in Southern California and began to manufacture and preassemble puzzle-like pieces to be trucked to the home sites. Within the factory, there were assembly lines for production of interior, exterior, floor and ceiling panels. In other areas, workers built kitchen cabinets, bathrooms, and assembled plumbing parts.

“Science Illustrated” magazine carried a description of the Kaiser house-building concept:

“As you look at a block of Kaiser Homes you can’t find two that look alike, and yet each house is the same in interior construction. This is the secret of Kaiser’s mass production plan; he builds ‘chassis’ for houses, as Detroit builds chassis for automobiles.

“The chassis consists of a rectangular core of five and a half rooms. This he turns out in a sprawling 15-acre factory. Garages, roofs, porches are also mass-produced, but they are put on the chassis in a variety of ways.

“One house may have the garage attached at the right front corner. One may have it at the left rear corner. Or a third may have it completely detached,” the February 1947 article reads.

Innovative construction methods tested

Related to his homebuilding enterprise, Kaiser considered retooling the Richmond shipyards as a manufacturing site for developing a preassembled “mechanical core or heart” for his homes, which would have included the kitchen, bath and utility rooms.

The Kaiser design planned for a monolithic unit: floor and wall panels, cabinets, countertops, lavatory, and prewired and plumbed equipment.

Developer Fritz Burns and Henry J. Kaiser set up a model home on Wiltshire Boulevard in Los Angeles to show their postwar home plans to the public.

Developer Fritz Burns and Henry J. Kaiser set up a model home on Wiltshire Boulevard in Los Angeles to show their postwar home plans to the public.

The Kaisercraft Coordinated Kitchen was to feature a stove, sink, cabinets, refrigerator, dishwasher and garbage disposal. Plans for the core unit were eventually scrapped due to the expense that would be added to the price of the homes, which were intended to be low cost.

Henry J. Kaiser probably made his biggest splash as a homebuilder in 1948 when he awarded his prototype “all-aluminum home,” the only one of its kind, to the winning contestant on the “People Are Funny” radio game show hosted by Art Linkletter.

The winner, Vivienne George, moved her family from a ramshackle house in Lebanon, Ore., to Panorama City, where they became the first residents of the Kaiser Community Homes, dubbed by Los Angeles regional planners as a “model suburb.” Vivienne was married to Ward George, a disabled WWII veteran, and the couple had two children.

A Kaiser Homes press release described the George family’s prize: “A beautifully furnished home with range, refrigerator, Kaiser hydraulic dishwasher and disposal unit and a two-car garage. In the garage stands a 1948 Kaiser sedan.” Previously, a model for potential buyers to tour, the all-aluminum home was moved from the corner of Chase and Van Nuys streets to Osborne Street for the Georges.

The 65-year-old Kaiser Homes “model community” in Panorama City still stands amid other development in the vicinity today. The area has fallen on hard times in recent years and a community effort is under way to reinvigorate the neighborhood and surrounding postwar subdivisions and businesses.

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