The House of the Future That Wasn't
MIT’s plastic house was a hit at Disneyland but never made the leap to mass production.
Between 1957 and 1967, millions of visitors toured the Monsanto House of the Future at Walt Disney’s new theme park in Anaheim, CA. The modular, plastic house looks to today’s eyes more like a space station than like the archetypal house of suburbia 1987, as it was billed. Tourists marveled at its futuristic furnishings: an intercom system, a microwave, and closets filled with colorful nylon and polyester clothing. But though the house seemed to be equal parts Disney magic and Monsanto know-how, the original concept was pure MIT.
The house was the marriage of converging needs. During the early 1950s, homebuilders could barely keep up with demand as families moved to the suburbs. At the same time, Monsanto Chemical was looking for new markets for its plastic products. Seeing a business opportunity, the company sponsored research at MIT to design a low-cost, prefabricated house that would be made almost entirely of plastic. The researchers suggested the rounded, Jetsons-worthy home—which delighted Monsanto.
MIT architecture faculty members Marvin Goody, MAR ‘51, and Richard Hamilton spent two years designing the 1,280-square-foot house. In 1956, Monsanto decided to build a full-scale prototype and Goody and Hamilton formed a private practice to take over the commercial planning of the house. Meanwhile, Walt Disney was searching for exhibits for Disneyland, which had opened in 1955. He heard about the futuristic house and offered Monsanto space to display the prototype.
The house consisted of a central square room with four wings. The center held the kitchen and the bathroom. “It was a sort of command center, where the housewife of the future could control the entire house,” says Gary Van Zante, a curator at the MIT Museum, which now owns the drawings of the house. The wings had one room each: a master bedroom, a children’s bedroom, a dining room, and a living room. Each wing was made of fiberglass modules placed one on top of the other to form the ceiling, floor, and a wall; the remaining two walls were windows. Robert Whittier ‘51, Monsanto’s project manager, recalls that when the modules arrived at Disneyland, the receiving clerks were puzzled. “They said, ‘What’s with all these boats that are arriving?’”
In 1957, some 60,000 people visited the house each week. “Everybody marveled at it, everybody loved it, and everybody wanted one,” remembers Whittier, whose desk was flooded with mail from the house’s admirers. But as enthusiastic as the response was, it wasn’t enough to create a viable market. “This is a pretty radical proposal for a very conservative housing market,” says Van Zante. But the house has not been forgotten. Van Zante is planning an exhibition about the house that should open at the MIT Museum in the fall of 2007.