Posts Tagged ‘Fritz Burns’

Henry J. Kaiser, postwar housing visionary

posted on January 15, 2016

Lincoln Cushing
Heritage writer


Kaiser Community Homes, Santa Clara, San Jose (Calif.), circa 1947.

Kaiser Community Homes, Santa Clara-San Jose (Calif), circa 1947.

In previous blogs we have looked at Kaiser Community Homes, Henry J. Kaiser’s partnership with Southern California housing developer Fritz Burns. Here we let Kaiser express, in his own words, his vision behind this bold project.

The 1944 speech was published in the beautiful handmade book Twenty-Six Addresses Delivered during the War Years, but it’s important to know that he was already thinking about this a year after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. And in a previously unpublished 1945 speech in San Francisco, a city currently experiencing a housing crisis of a different sort, he announced the formation of KCH. It’s impressive that a major developer would express such concern for aesthetics, social benefit, and affordability.

There was even the idea of linking KCH home ownership to discounted membership in the Permanente Foundation Health Plan. This was proposed in an unpublished 1946 Kaiser report about expanding hospitals in the Los Angeles area, but it was never implemented:

Occupants of the Kaiser Community Homes are another potential membership source. On this basis the Health Plan would be sold along with the house. This could be optional or mandatory and sales or collection costs of the Health Plan (approximately 15%) would be eliminated, thus making the payments more attractive to the buyer.

Unfortunately, despite an ambitious start (5,319 homes in the Los Angeles area alone), KCH didn’t achieve the momentum that Kaiser had hoped for. The housing shortage turned out to be less than anticipated, prefabricated construction was less efficient than hoped for, and by 1948 West Coast based KCH was surpassed by the Levitt brothers, East Coast competitor developers whose Levittowns became the postwar planned community standard.

Below are three iterations of Henry J. Kaiser’s views on postwar housing.


Kaiser community home drop cap, from “Twenty-Six Addresses”

“Kaiser is back – Post-War Plan Will Not Harm War Effort,”
San Francisco Chronicle, December 11, 1942

“We’ve got millions of new homes to build after the war. What kind of homes? What will they look like? How will they be built? We’ve got to sit down and figure that out – and start doing it right now.”

He described one type of housing “of particular interest to us” – a prefabricated steel house, three rooms, fully furnished and equipped with all sanitary and disposal facilities. It can be erected by eight men in one day and would cost $1,500 completely furnished. It can be moved readily to new locations and set up again with ease.

ELP 1945-03-09-4-lg

“You like pre-fabbed cars – why not houses?” illustration by Emmy Lou Packard, Fore ‘n’ Aft 3/9/1945.

“Building the future: An address before the Conference of the National Committee on Housing, Chicago, Illinois,” March 9, 1944 (excerpts)

Prefabricated houses might provide as little as five per cent of the total during the first five years of peace. But prefabricated units are a different story. In the Ladies Home Journal for January of this year, Richard Pratt, the architectural editor, gives us a stirring preview of the possibilities: a bathroom “completely prebuilt and equipped, would come ready to be fitted into its preplanned space and be fully connected within an hour.” Such a room, cast almost in one piece out of plastic, is no idle dream. From what we know about economies of mass production, it is reasonable to suppose that the cost would be one-half, or even less, that of present installations…The prefabricated unit will enjoy an immense popularity, and the economies will be substantial.

Furthermore, there shall be no repetition of that drab similarity which characterized the unhappy period when our forebears built block after block of shelters which had no more individuality than dread monotony. Today our architects, city planners, and builders are not only ready, but eager, to build for beauty, as well as utility.

Profits, as important as they are in an independent economy, must be secondary to that degree of social vision which will provide a vast volume of employment for the huge army of men who are skilled in the building arts. Such vision would grasp those things, which are in the realm of possibility, and even presume to recognize the good in human nature, rather than to emphasize its selfishness.

Modern American advertising, with its genius for eliciting responses to direct consumer appeals, could separate fact from fancy. But let us in such advertising be scrupulously honest with the American people…Many people in their eagerness to have new homes seem to forget that the cost of the dwelling does not include the cost of land and utilities; nor does it include taxes and upkeep. Perhaps if we hammered such points home, we could save a lot of foreclosures, in which everyone loses.

Kaiser Community Homes assembly line, Los Angeles, circa 1946.

Kaiser Community Homes assembly line operated by Fritz Burns, Manchester Blvd, Los Angeles, circa 1946.

Remarks at press conference announcing the formation of Kaiser Community Homes, San Francisco City Hall, May 9, 1945 (excerpts; a short published account also carried in the Oakland Tribune, May 9, 1945 “Kaiser to launch huge home building program”)

We have called this Press Conference today to announce the organization of a national home and community building enterprise. In this enterprise the Kaiser organization has formed a partnership with Fritz B. Burns and Associates, builders of homes in Los Angeles. The name of this new enterprise is the Kaiser Community Homes Corporation.

Kaiser Community Homes will build homes, grouped together in complete communities – including health, recreation, school, and commercial centers – for the families of America everywhere in America. Into the field of homebuilding, it will introduce industrial methods, comparable to those developed in other lines of production. Resultant savings will be reinvested in the homes to enhance its value and service to its owners. On this sound economic basis, Kaiser Community Homes Corporation expects to create a new home market among the majority of U.S. families who do not now own their own homes.

This national home-building enterprise will get under way at once. It will be spearheaded by the immediate construction of 10,000 homes grouped in several communities at West Coast centers of population. Sites for these initial operations already have been purchased by Kaiser Community Homes Corp. In order to command the efficiencies implicit in large-scale operations, the organization will build communities of 200 homes upward, with the average projected at 500 homes.

We have had to think about a lot of things during the last five years, but postwar employment has been for me the lode-star which drew us all toward this day when we could turn our thoughts from war to peace. In announcing Kaiser Community Homes today we are ready to make our first contribution toward that goal.


Also see:  Magnetic Los Angeles: Planning the Twentieth-Century Metropolis by Greg Hise, 1999.

Short link to this article:


Tags: , , , ,

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.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,