Between 1933 and 1943, Americans spent $4 to $6 billion on commercial modernization, enough "to provide a new storefront for each of the 1.5 million retail establishments then operating in the United States" (Esperdy, 222). Financial institutions, merchants, and property owners "lent and spent" to improve their retail establishments, investing in signs of promise that prosperity was returning to main streets across the nation (3). In Modernizing Main Street, Gabrielle Esperdy analyzes the sponsorship of private storefront modernization, "a materially significant and highly symbolic portion of all New Deal building activity" (6––7). Her central focus is the little-remembered Modernization Credit Plan (MCP), part of Title I of the National Housing Act, a program the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) devised to stimulate recovery by encouraging privately issued "low-interest federally-insured loans to repair and improve business properties" (5). The MCP made modernized storefronts affordable for struggling retailers. It aggressively marketed credit to ordinary proprietors and installed commercial modernization as federal public policy. Because the MCP did not provide direct public intervention into commercial property improvement, the federal government's sponsorship of main street modernization has been largely invisible to scholars and to the general public until now. Esperdy's study joins historian David Freund's scholarship in revealing the extent to which federal policy shaped the mid-twentieth-century American landscape, even as it deliberately concealed its role in private market transactions.1
Esperdy describes her book as a "synthetic study that ties together . . . social, political, economic, and architectural dimensions" of the modernized storefront, and she achieves this goal in fine form (5). Her approach underscores for architectural historians the message that a more thorough understanding of the built environment is to be gained from interdisciplinary work that combines research on political economy with architectural and cultural scholarship. Modernizing Main Street throws a lot of detail at the reader, but the result more than repays one's patience. Esperdy interweaves five important arguments, beginning with the role the federal government played in promoting storefront modernization to reverse the commercial decline associated with the Great Depression. A second line of inquiry focuses on the modern commercial vernacular that these public/private efforts produced. Restyled storefronts introduced European modernist design into the everyday landscape of downtowns in large cities and small towns. The MCP, with its slogan "Better Housing for American Business," elevated storefront modernization from a sideline to a central component of the building industry.
How the FHA marketed its programs and partnered with manufacturers, builders, designers, and bankers to implement them provides the third and richest line of inquiry in Esperdy's account. Chapter two presents the Better Housing Program (BHP), the aggressive nationwide campaign the FHA orchestrated from national, state, and local offices to promote modernization and loans to main street merchants. While giving this sophisticated federal sales effort the public appearance of a free-market opportunity, the FHA's Public Relations Division deployed every technique in the book to reach customers: bulletins, brochures, buttons, billboards, newspaper editorials, magazine features, newsreels, radio spots, and local kickoff events, complete with parades. By 1936, over 8,000 local campaigns were underway, with those who stood to benefit from storefront modernization deputized as field workers to canvass commercial property holders and close the deals. Chapter three illustrates the extent of industrial cooperation in these efforts. At the federal government's urging, companies like Pittsburgh Plate Glass, Libbey Owens Ford, and more than 4,600 other manufacturers actively cooperated with the BHP to expand opportunities for their businesses. Many developed and advertised the products that restyled modernized facades: curved glass, Vitrolite, storefront illumination, glass blocks, and lighted signage. Esperdy consulted a marvelous array of primary sources to reveal the intertwined governmental, corporate, and local civic dimensions of this storefront modernization campaign.
In chapter four Esperdy looks at the economy of architectural improvement, arguing that during the 1930s, building modernization adopted a consumer-goods model. The campaign entailed carefully conceived marketing rhetoric and propaganda, procedural policies and a fiscal structure modeled on consumer credit practices, formal architectural expression that involved restyling buildings for visual appeal and to increase sales, and distribution methods influenced by door-to-door sales techniques (149). Storefront modernization replaced "form follows function" with "form follows merchandise" (166), and brought planned obsolescence and increased commoditization to commercial architecture. This is an intriguing and potentially important argument, which invites contextualizing and commentary from architectural historians studying other building types. My research on planned, exclusive suburbs suggests that domestic architecture and consumer culture may have coalesced before the 1930s, although not as a nationally coordinated strategy.2
According to the FHA, storefront modernization converted "a building into an efficient salesman," but also displayed "national spirit . . . and a commitment to broad recovery" (151). What commercial modernization meant is a fifth theme that Esperdy emphasizes, but while she provides abundant evidence of the producers' points of view, she is on thin ground when summarizing what a sleekly repackaged storefront meant to consumers. She argues that "modernized storefronts served as a visual harbinger of imminent prosperity to inspire public confidence, stimulate consumption, and provide a focus for the redirection of civic self-representation" (9). But Esperdy offers little hard data that modernization increased retailers' profits and none to verify how customers received store restyling or what values they associated with these changes. And which retailers and consumers is she talking about? Scholars of the FHA's housing loan policies document a clear pattern of racial discrimination among those who received guaranteed loans.3 What were the demographics of retailers who benefited from the MCP, and were these loans dispensed in an inequitable manner?
Esperdy does not adequately scrutinize her claim that the modernized commercial vernacular of main streets authentically reflected "the habits and customs that characterized American identity through the 1930s," but this shortcoming barely reduces my admiration for her book overall (219). Modernizing Main Street offers a brilliantly researched study of the sponsorship of modern architecture during the New Deal and expands scholars' understanding of why and how (if not to what effect) modern design, everyday commercial architecture, and consumer culture intersected.
See David Freund, "Marketing the Free Market: State Intervention and the Politics of Prosperity in Metropolitan America," in The New Suburban History, ed. Kevin M. Kruse and Thomas J. Sugrue (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006), 1––32. Esperdy's study of main street commercial modernization complements Freund's work, which focuses primarily on suburban housing.
One can see the influence of a consumer goods model in the design and furnishing of new suburban houses in planned, exclusive suburbs in the U.S. at the turn of the twentieth century. This manifested itself in the aggressive marketing of houses in shelter magazines and local newspapers, client consciousness of trends and fashions in architectural styles, competition among neighbors to show off the latest technology in appliances and gadgets, and architects coaxing their clients to splurge in response to the need for new furnishings for their new suburban houses. See, for example, Mary Corbin Sies, "George W. Maher's Planning and Architecture in Kenilworth, Illinois: An Inquiry into the Ideology of Arts & Crafts Design," in Bert Denker, ed., The Substance of Style: New Perspectives on the American Arts and Crafts Movement (New York: Winterthur Museum, 1996), 415––45, and Sies, "'God's Very Kingdom on the Earth': The Design Program for the American Suburban Home, 1877––1917," in Modern Architecture in America: Visions and Revisions, ed. Richard Guy Wilson and Sidney K. Robinson (Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1991), 2––31.
See, for example, Kenneth T. Jackson, Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), 190––218; Freund, "Marketing the Free Market"; Arnold R. Hirsch, Making the Second Ghetto: Race and Housing in Chicago, 1940––1960 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1983).