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9. The General Panel Corporation

Published onApr 23, 2021
9. The General Panel Corporation

General Panel Corporation, New York

Wachsmann labored incessantly and uncomfortably in the unfamiliar heat of a New York summer, to complete his work: to prepare all the details and to make a model. He was now almost completely out of funds, and becoming increasingly desperate. Despite the intense pressure to finalize the project and find a backer, he was, at the same time, trying to revise and improve the system. The metal connector, which had undergone several transformations from the original Y-shaped element to the patented wedge connector, was once more under Wachsmann’s scrutiny, and a new concept began slowly to emerge.1 He knew he should be attending to more urgent matters, but the fire of perfectionism which burned in him was unquenchable, being extinguished neither by financial care nor by pressing immediate concerns.

At the very nadir of his fortunes, in September 1942, in a chance storybook encounter pregnant with improbability, he made the acquaintance of Jack Marqusee, of the Wall Street firm of investment bankers, Charles Allen and Co., and succeeded in interesting him in the potentialities of the Packaged House system. Through Marqusee’s intervention he was able to put his proposals to Charles Allen and Co., and in a tour de force of persuasiveness, his enthusiasm and faith in the system overcoming the barriers of an interpreter,2 he convinced the chairman and the board to back his and Gropius’ scheme. Within days the fate of Packaged House system underwent a radical transformation. A corporation “to manufacture, purchase, import and otherwise acquire, export, sell or otherwise dispose of, design, handle, traffic and deal in, erect, construct and assemble prefabricated houses, panels, partitions and the like” was registered in New York on 12 September 1942, under the title of the General Panel Corporation, with Roy Plaut (of Plaut and Schweitzer), Jack Marqusee, and Halsey D. Josephson as first directors and stockholders.3 Wachsmann found himself on the payroll, with a handsome salary, and the possessor of a check for $10,0004 for the construction of a demonstration house, which, it was hoped, would be completed within three months.

Five months later, on 23 February 1943, the house was shown to an invited group at the Somerville, Massachusetts, premises of the U.S. Plywood Corporation.5 Gropius set up the demonstration and invited a large and influential gathering of government officials from Washington, representing the FPHA (whose Technical Department had already approved the system) and the military, together with interested architects, engineers, and contractors. This gathering was duly impressed when the demonstration house was erected, and then taken down again, all in one day. This house, which had been handcrafted in Boston, was planned in accordance with the space standards and requirements of the NHA’s type TDU-1, a temporary dwelling unit for which Wachsmann had been preparing drawings in New York since January 1943. Also completed at this time were the drawings for a prefabricated barracks building, using General Panel standard components.6 Gropius and Wachsmann were thrilled at the progress being made, and there was talk of going immediately into production. Application was made by the voting shareholders, now eight in number, to increase the maximum number of the directors of the corporation and to increase the number of shares issued.7

Now came the time to bring the work of General Panel to the attention of the public, and a massive public relations campaign was undertaken, probably by Walter Gropius Who had all the right connections. In April there were long and copiously illustrated articles in the architectural press: by Willo von Moltke (a former student of Gropius’ at Harvard) in the Architectural Record,8 and by Herman Herrey in Pencil Points,9 This was followed in June by a review article on prefabrication in the Architectural Forum,10 which made generous reference to the General Panel house. This extensive coverage spread to the lay papers and journals, Christian Science Monitor, Colliers, Business Week, Saturday Evening Post,11 in articles and advertisements.

After the frenzy of 1942 came a time of consolidation, and by mid-1943 activity had slowed down considerably—or perhaps more accurately, the output of activity had become less visible.12 Gropius, who at no time drew a salary from General Panel, although both he and Wachsmann were vice-presidents, gradually became more detached from the affairs of the corporation. He visited New York from time to time, looked over the shoulders of the draftsmen with interest, and made informed and useful critical comment.13 But in the day to day development, he now stood on the sidelines, as it were. He still saw a useful role for himself in exploring the design potentials of the system, and at the end of the year his students undertook a studio project at Harvard to investigate the General Panel system’s inherent qualities of flexibility and variability.14 In this concern with the architectural exploitation of the system, Gropius was dealing with the challenge he had been postulating since 1910: How much variety can be generated by a system of standardized parts? This was the thrust of his students’ work and of a later set of drawings prepared under his own direction, labeled the “Flexible House.”15 It was upon this design theme of the “expansible house” that the Architectural Record commented: “For the many new families who will be impatient to set up their own new homes after the war, Gropius has drawn this as one suggestion for a minimum-cube, expansible house. It could be built in quick time via the prefabrication system devised by Wachsmann and Gropius for the General Panel Corp. . . .”16 In these projects Gropius continued to stress that linkage between prefabrication and the concept of flexibility, which had all along been one of his main theoretical postulates. Wachsmann, on the other hand, concentrated at this time on the technical development of the system, and the interpretation of standard building types in terms of its construction details and modular discipline.17 But he too, like Gropius, was not now giving his undivided attention to the Packaged House project. If in 1943 efforts on behalf of the Packaged House system seemed to diminish, then in 1944 progress toward the main goal—the actual manufacture of the house on a commercial basis—was even less. For this relative stagnation there were two principal causes: a lack of adequate capital for development and the deflection of Wachsmann’s interest into two alternate projects. To the question of finance we will return later, but we must first examine Wachsmann’s alternative interests at this time. The first was a project related to the General Panel Corporation but not to the Packaged House project. During 1943, while the Packaged House marked time, as it were, Wachsmann had been developing a modular panel office partition system, based on an ingenious J-shaped interlocking joint system. In December 1943, an application was made by Wachsmann for a patent for a “sectional wall structure system,”18 the rights to be assigned to the General Panel Corporation of New York. It must be noted here that Wachsmann and Gropius had entered into contracts with the General Panel Corporation to assign to the corporation all future patents on any related design, until certain specified dates.19 To the development of this partition system Wachsmann now devoted much time and energy; it was a new problem, and as such fascinated him. His efforts resulted in a most impressive folio of 150 drawings, imaginatively conceived, immaculately detailed, precisely drawn, the preparation of which took up to the end of April 1944.20

9.1 General Panel, New York, demonstration house, Somerville, Massachusetts, 1943

9.2 General Panel, New York, sectionalized house, type TDU-1, 1943

9.3 General Panel, New York, sectionalized barracks, 1943

In that month the Atlas Aircraft Products Corporation entered into two short-term contracts with General Panel, the one related to the development of that corporation’s inventions, the other pertaining to the management of General Panel.21 Both Charles Wohlstetter, president of Atlas, and his brother Albert Wohlstetter joined General Panel’s board of directors. This new factor in General Panel came about through a connection between Wachsmann and Atlas Aircraft Products in an altogether different venture. Atlas had undertaken the development of that other great invention of Wachsmann’s, the Mobilar tubular steel prefabricated hangar system.22 It will be recalled that the origins of Mobilar were prewar and, like those of the prototype of the Packaged House, lay in Wachsmann’s troubled but productive stay in France.23 But unlike the Packaged House, Mobilar was Wachsmann’s personal interest and did not fall into the scope of the General Panel Corporation. It was to the development of this system that he gave the greater part of his attention in the latter part of 1944 and the early months of 1945, completing a monumental folio of general and detailed drawings for the Atlas Aircraft Products Corporation by March 1945.24

9.4 Harvard Graduate School of Design, prefabs using General Panel components, 1943

9.5 Walter Gropius, expansible house using General Panel components, 1944

9.6 Wachsmann and Gropius, General Panel office partition system, detail of jointing, 1943–44

9.7 Konrad Wachsmann Mobilar hangar system, 1939–45

9.8 Wachsmann et al., building structure (U.S. Patent application), 1945

The only creative effort directly linked to General Panel in the latter part of 1944 was Wachsmann’s refinement and perfection of his new metal connector. It will be recalled that in 1942, even as he and Gropius were filing a patent application for his wedge connector, Wachsmann had been preoccupied with a new system of jointing. Now in 1944, as the original patent was approved,25 he was busy finalizing the design of its replacement. From August 1944 to January 1945, in the drawing offices of Atlas Aircraft Products and of General Panel in New York, the working drawings of the new connector were finally prepared for the machine-tool makers.26 Wachsmann was drawn, almost compulsively, to this problem, and this metal coupling is by far the most elegant and ingenious of the whole series. The advantage of this revised method is stated clearly in the patent application of August 1945:27 “This invention aims to improve the wedge connector . . . in such a manner that all these connected elements can be installed in the panels, or other building units, at the factory, thus simplifying the assembling operation at the site of the building and reducing the labor of assembly.” Moreover the old system necessitated a cover strip, matched to the siding, to mask the connections; the new one did away with this, making it possible to use a virtually jointless flush wall, employing plywood.28

From War to Peace: The Search for Backing

The war in Europe ended in May 1945, in Asia in September. The Packaged House, conceived as a response to the crisis of war at the time of Pearl Harbor, had by the war’s end still not gone into production. Amazingly, despite the enthusiasm with which it was initiated and pursued, despite the ingenuity of its design, despite the energy of Wachsmann and the reputation of Gropius, despite professional acclaim and governmental approval, despite its initial Wall Street backing, despite its subsequent linkage with experienced industrial management, despite all this it had missed the entire phase of wartime demand. America had engaged all its efforts in the war, peace had now come, and the best a prospectus of the corporation could say, at the beginning of 1946, was: “No houses have as yet been manufactured and sold although experimental houses have been manufactured.”29 Four years of intensive effort, and not one house built for sale—and this during wartime, with its incredible demand for instant housing, when the location of wartime industry involved a population shift of some 8 to 10 million workers,30 this at a time when the climate of urgency was highly supportive of creative initiative, particularly in the industrial field. This failure of General Panel to achieve production must also be seen against the success of the prefabrication industry as a whole in these favorable times, when, with over 70 firms active (many with a production rate of 1,000 units or more per month), a total of over 200,000 prefabricated units had been manufactured during the war, more than half financed by public funds under the Lanham Act.31 By aiming at technical perfection, a sound financial structure, an assured distribution system, proper production facilities,32 and public approval, the directors of the General Panel Corporation, from 1942 to 1946, had no doubt sought a sound basis for the future but at the cost of present advantage. Their energies moreover were dissipated in the pursuit of other schemes, the partition project and the Mobilar hangar, and they were thus deflected from the main target. The brutal fact remains: in terms of exploiting the unique opportunities of the wartime market, the General Panel Corporation had, as it were, missed the bus.

In September 1945 as the war officially ended, a contract was entered into whereby the American Wire Fabrics Corporation, a subsidiary of Colorado Fuel and Iron Corporation, acquired “the exclusive right to manufacture and sell throughout the United States and its territories, dependencies and possessions, prefabricated buildings, panels, connectors and office partitions,” made under the patented systems of General Panel. For this privilege American Wire contracted to pay a considerable sum in royalties during 1946 and 1947, and in addition guaranteed by 1947 “to manufacture and sell a minimum of 1,000 prefabricated houses a year.”33 Colorado Fuel and Iron had previously had interests in prefabrication, having sponsored a steel-frame system in the late 1920s.34 Now they were becoming involved, through their subsidiary, in an entirely wooden system, but it was probably the metal connector that attracted them. And they envisaged additional income from the manufacture of this critical small item which would presumably be needed in large numbers.35

This infusion of new hope and of new capital came at a critical time. One of the main reasons for the slow progress of the project, after its initial flying start, was indeed the perpetual shortage of funds. The development of the system was proving to be a most costly business,36 for which the initial investment of the Allen company and the private stockholders was entirely inadequate. The experimental house, demonstrated first in Somerville, then erected in New York, had cost $67,643; the experimental partitions, $50,852; the patent rights, over $15,000.37 There had been much frantic searching, during 1944 and 1945, for new sources of capital. In this search, Jose (Pepi) Weissberger, a businessman with international connections and a close friend of Walter Gropius’, had been indefatigable, trying to establish new markets and to attract new sources of capital: the Banco de la Propiedad in Mexico, Lord Donegall in London, Goodyear and the George A. Fuller Co. in the United States.38 Now with the new agreement there seemed at last to be a firm financial basis to the whole venture, an arrangement that had the additional advantage of lifting the functions of manufacture and distribution from the already overburdened shoulders of Wachsmann, who was by this time the president of General Panel in New York.39 Design and documentation, carried out with a compulsive attention to detail, fully occupied his time. He had established a relatively large drawing office in New York, under the direction of the Assistant Technical Director Curtis Fremond, and with Rudy Wolf as chief draftsman.40 A set of three volumes of General Panel standard details had been prepared: connector and connection; wall, partition; windows, doors.41 Booklets were prepared for possible export to Sweden and Canada.42

What was now needed, if this design effort was to be translated into action, was a massive further public investment. At the beginning of 1946 the corporation applied to increase its shares to a par value of $395,000, of which $300,000 was to be a newly issued preferred stock and $95,000 common stock (with voting rights); of the latter figure $80,000 represented the shares issued up till then to all shareholders.43 This stock was offered to the public in an impressive prospectus; a fivefold increase in capital was thus sought, whose purpose was “to assure the Corporation of sufficient capital to enable it to conduct further research and to develop new inventions and patents in the prefabricated housing field and to develop markets for its products both in this country and abroad.”44

With these new financial arrangements General Panel, having missed the war, was apparently now ready for the challenges of the postwar era. Indeed, it seemed that they, together with other prefabricators, were about to be given a second chance. The war ended, the soldiers returned, workers in redundant war industries relocated themselves: suddenly, once again, housing became a burning public issue, with demand high and supply short. In the face of what was evidently once more an emergency housing situation of crisis dimensions, the new president of the United States, Harry Truman, on 26 January 1946, “issued an executive order establishing the office of Housing Expediter charged with the task of preparing plans and programs and recommending legislation for the provision of housing for veterans. He named to this post Wilson W. Wyatt . . . .”45 Wyatt moved to confront the housing crisis with great speed. By February he was able to put forward his Veteran’s Emergency Housing Program, which not only strengthened the policy on price controls and rentals but actively stimulated the production of new materials, gave priorities to veterans’ housing, and postponed all deferrable and nonessential buildings. As part of this program, “he proposed a large expansion in factory fabrication of houses through allocations of surplus war plants and materials and through guaranteeing the market for the product.” His target, that originally proclaimed by the Senate Subcommittee on Housing and Urban Development in August 1945, was an initial production of 1.2 million dwellings for 1946, with increases the following year.46

A spirit of optimism once again pervaded General Panel. Two test houses were erected in Queens, near the La Guardia airport.47 Gropius joined Wachsmann to inspect the procedures and was greatly pleased with the result. A careful photographic record was made of all stages of erection and of the final products, and an impressive color film made of the whole procedure. Houses for the system were designed by Wachsmann, Gropius, Richard Neutra, and others,48 and the architectural press was advised of plans to go into immediate production, with “a starting volume of at least 3,000 houses a year,” and of intentions “to build factories on the West Coast, in Colorado and in New York.”49 After four years of preparation, the center of gravity would now shift westward from New York to California, and the phase of active production, or so it seemed, would now begin. In order to achieve this, however, a new corporate structure was needed.

In mid-1945, other negotiations were taking place, which were to be of considerable importance to General Panel. Gropius, who was not always kept in the picture, and resented it, wrote somewhat testily to Wachsmann: “Meanwhile I am pretty much out of touch as to what has happened to the Corporation, whether a deal with Mr. Swenson is in the making or what trend our recent discussions have taken.”50 George E. Swenson, to whom Gropius was here referring, had, in 1936, invented a patent sandwich panel comprising outer skins of asbestos sheeting and a core of two or three fiberboard sheets, made by the Celotex Corporation. Persuaded that there was a future in this new building component (Cemesto, as it was called), Celotex decided to back it; after an uncertain start that future looked brighter when the John B. Pierce Foundation used it as a substitute for plywood in its experimental horizontal construction system for prefabricated houses. This system of construction, we may note in passing, had been of some interest to Walter Gropius at the time the Packaged House was being evolved.51 It had passed from an experimental system to reality in 1941 when a very large housing scheme designed by Skidmore, Owings and Merrill for the Glenn L. Martin Corp. was constructed in Baltimore, utilizing the Cemesto boards in the Pierce system.52 By 1943, responding to the challenge and the opportunity of defense housing, Celotex was producing, in two factories, sufficient panels for 1,500 houses a month.53

9.9 Walter Gropius and Konrad Wachsmann, inspecting test house, General Panel, Queens, N.Y., 1946

9.10 Wachsmann and Gropius, General Panel test house, Queens, N.Y., 1946. Top: under erection; above: completed house.

9.11 J. B. Pierce Foundation, with Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill, housing for Glenn L. Martin Corp., 1941

9.12 Gidoni, Bromberg, Gropius, Neutra, designs for houses using General Panel components. 1947

At the time of the negotiations with General Panel, Swenson was assistant to Bror Dahlberg, the President of Celotex. Dahlberg, an industrialist of international stature, was a formidable advocate of solving the postwar housing problem through the mass-marketing of prefabricated houses.54 Although Celotex had a direct financial interest in the widespread use of new methods and new materials, Dahlberg’s faith in prefabrication went beyond the immediate vested interests of his corporation. His son, Carl B. Dahlberg, apparently shared these interests, and was connected with two associated companies, the Drycemble Corporation of Houston, Texas, and Modulok Incorporated of Baltimore, Maryland.55

The Celotex Corporation had apparently long had an interest in the Packaged House. In 1943 it had illustrated the design by Gropius of a prefabricated house using the General Panel system in one of its “Celotex Miracle Home” advertisements and had reported it in its own house journal, Celotex News.56 Now in 1945, Swenson of Celotex and the Board of General Panel were quietly exploring the possiblity of a business relationship.57 Celotex had a major short-term interest: to move General Panel into the productive phase and to have the main hand in the distribution of its products. A longer-term objective was doubtless to find a place for Celotex-produced materials in the General Panel system.58 These objectives were not incompatible with the interests of General Panel, and by the middle of 1946, after a year of discussions, some important tangible results emerged. Largely on the initiative of the Dahlbergs, who were probably the major shareholders, a new corporation was set up: the General Panel Corporation of California.59 This was registered as a “Delaware corporation” in June 1946, with Carl B. Dahlberg, son of Bror Dahlberg, as president, and Albert Wohlstetter, brother of Charles Wohlstetter of Atlas Aircraft Products, as vice-president in charge of production. Other officers included the treasurer, Nathan H. Wendell, who was vice-president of the National Association of Housing Manufacturers (one of two organizations representing the interests of prefab manufacturers), and the technical director, Schuyler Southwell, sometimes referred to as chief architect. The Southwells, Arnold and Schuyler, had been associated with the Drycemble and Modulok companies, which were no longer in production. Wachsmann’s position in the new corporation at this early stage is not clear, and the evidence is contradictory; he probably only became a director, and vice-president, in 1948.60 Gropius had no official role in General Panel of California, although he remained a vice-president of General Panel, New York. The relationship between the two corporations is of critical importance to the ensuing history of General Panel. The New York firm, with Wachsmann at its head, was a design-and-development-oriented engineering corporation, which owned the Packaged House and General Panel partition system patents. The newly established California corporation was a manufacturing firm, which was to make the Packaged House under license, paying the New York firm a fee of 2½ percent of net sales. Gropius and Wachsmann, the designers of the system, were to receive royalties from the New York corporation. Celotex’s role, as defined in a contract being negotiated with General Panel of California, was to market the products of that company in the western states. Although the parties to these arrangements were separate and independent entities, there was yet a degree of functional and administrative overlapping. The New York company owned a 10 percent share in the California company; at various times directors (Wachsmann, Wohlstetter) served on both boards of directors; George Swenson, maintaining liaison with Celotex, eventually joined General Panel’s New York board.

In the development field, this overlapping created a situation of potential confusion and friction. New York was to provide design and research services to California, for a fee, but California intended setting up its own technical research office under Southwell, with about four architects and engineers and ten assistants. One may be reasonably sure that Wachsmann was not happy with this division of authority: he certainly had grave misgivings about the direction the negotiations had taken.61 Walter Gropius too had reasons for disquiet. He had long advocated—to AEG in 1910, to Hirsch Copper in 1931—that the manufacturing of prefabricated houses be separated from their marketing and finance, but he had always seen the closest link between design and manufacture. The new corporate structure of General Panel was not in accordance with this model. On the contrary, capital investment, manufacture, and sales were closely linked in the California venture, where the Celotex connection had a strong guiding hand; the designers in New York, led by Wachsmann, were in danger of being isolated, perhaps bypassed.

Climax in California: The Rush to Production

In accordance with Wyatt’s policy of allocating surplus war plants to the manufacturers of houses, General Panel of California acquired from the War Assets Administration the former Lockheed Aircraft Corporation’s engine factory at Burbank, California. This property, about 234,000 sq ft in extent, was purchased for $769,306, of which only 20 percent had to be put down, the remainder being covered by a mortgage from the War Assets Administration.62 Even this limited downpayment was enough to deplete severely General Panel Corporation’s initial capital of $400,000, and additional funds were sought. By the end of 1946 a construction loan was obtained from the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, General Panel being one of the only three manufacturers of prefabricated houses to receive this aid.63 At the same time a guaranteed market contract from the government was sought to cover an initial production of 8,500 houses. The process of eliciting such a guarantee was long and protracted. Charles Wohlstetter had suggested it to Wachsmann, even before the new corporation was formally registered.64 In September, because of the delays in finalizing the formal guarantee, Dahlberg requested from the NHA a letter of intent to enter into a guaranteed market contract, covering 8,500 General Panel Model B-16 Units (low-cost four-roomed houses) at a RFC purchase price of $2,612.60 each.65 His proposed schedule, at that time, was for 1,000 houses in the first quarter of 1947, followed by 2,500 houses each subsequent quarter.66 In December 1946 this letter of intent was received, after the NHA’s housing expediter had certified “that the house as now designed with the minor changes made to comply with the suggestions of this office and the FHA constitutes a structure which is sound, durable and livable.”67

Government support in the form of these loans and guarantees had been achieved by General Panel just in time. In the congressional elections of November 1946, the Republicans gained control of both houses of Congress. Truman, sensing the conservative mood of the country, began to trim his more liberal measures. When Wyatt put forward his new housing program, it was substantially rejected by the administration, and he had little alternative but to tender his resignation. Then, on 11 January 1947, Truman terminated the short-lived Veterans Emergency Housing Program.68 Although the RFC loan program and the NHA market guarantees did not immediately come under the axe, it seemed likely to knowledgable observers that “these special helps to prefabers will also soon follow priorities and price controls into the federal wastebasket.”69

At this critical point in national housing policies, General Panel of California was in the process of equipping its Burbank factory with the most sophisticated, complex, and expensive production plant. Together with some remodeling of the Lockheed factory, design of the plant layout had been going on intensively throughout the second half of 1946.70 Most of the work was conceived, designed, and detailed by Wachsmann and his New York office,71 although there was some participation by Southwell’s department in Burbank, particularly in the correlation of physical layout with staff organization. “It is difficult to depict the tremendously detailed forethought which had obviously been put into [the] setting up of this organization . . . this has obviously taken a tremendous amount of research experience and highly intelligent thinking,” reported an observer undertaking a survey of the prefabrication industry on behalf of the Bemis Foundation. He had made a field trip to the factory, where he had been shown, by Southwell, the highly detailed staff and plant organization charts, the plant layouts showing not only machinery but the exact position of each worker at his production station, and the time studies and estimates of quantities of materials.72

This was in February 1947, and though there had been reports the previous month that the installation of the production line had commenced,73 there was obviously still much to be done. “All equipment is promised for sure,” the man from the Bemis Foundation was assured, and General Panel were “expecting to be in production by the time predicted,” that is, by 15 April 1947 when it was planned to commence with a production of 5 houses a day for the first 30 days, then 10 per day, stepping up to 40 per day by August.74 By the April deadline, however, it was apparent that production was still at least a couple of months away. Those machines already ordered included key items whose delivery dates had not been met, and urgent discussions were being held to try and get delivery by mid-June, even at the expense of prohibitive overtime charges.75 General Panel, in April and May, was still working on its own drawings of machinery whose manufacture had thus not even started. Wachsmann, in fact, reveled in the designing of the new plant and its production machinery. The problems of the Packaged House as originally conceived were by now long solved, and his creative spirit restless, he cast about for new challenges to his ingenuity. He was moreover no longer even sure about the validity of his original design as the best possible and, to his business partners’ horror, would gladly have scratched the entire scheme and started all over.76 By mid-June the supply and installation of the main press had not yet been finalized, and the impressive plant layout plan, “far beyond anything one has ever seen in this field,” was still incomplete for lack of final details.77

Inevitably, production was once more deferred by a further month, with three alternative programs of production;78 but for even the most modest of these options, a pilot program of five houses a day, starting 15 July, problems with the supply of materials were envisaged. Eventually, in July 1947, more than five years after the Packaged House was designed, but only a year after the establishment of the California company, production “on a limited basis”79 commenced in a plant fully equipped to turn out 10,000 houses in a year, working on a single shift. The tale of successive delays detailed above can only but emphasize how considerable was this achievement. Within a year, in a burst of creative energy to which all the team contributed, but in which the driving inspiration was undoubtedly Wachsmann’s, the layout of the productive process at Burbank was conceived in principle and designed in detail, and a highly sophisticated, controversial, in many respects innovative automated factory, with all its complex machines, was designed, negotiated for, manufactured, and installed to the point of the commencement of production. The creativity of this year paralleled that of the first year of the project, when the Packaged House was designed, perfected, and voluminously documented. But between the initial outpouring of design, and the final rush to production, there remains the inexplicable lacuna of two or three years, the lost years of New York when the General Panel project floundered without real progress and without clear direction.

General Panel, in July 1947, was at last set to go ahead, with the most splendid of technical installations, to produce the industrialized house. The planned production system envisaged a highly automated straight-line manufacture of standardized parts. In Wachsmann’s design concept of these parts, the final system of manufacture was always adumbrated: product and production system were to be an organic whole, totally integrated. “The standardizing of our basic product makes them highly adapted to modern machine needs. We have equipped our plant with specially designed machinery of a highspeed, multiple-operation character; radio frequency installations which cure glue bonds in a matter of seconds; and advanced quality control devices which assure steady and reliable quality in the product of every work station. These processes are repetitive and highly adapted to straight-line production, since the universal joint means that all panels, whether for floors, walls, partitions, ceilings or roofs, are structurally similar from the standpoint of production.”80

9.13 General Panel, California, layout plan of factory, Burbank, 1947

9.14 General Panel, California, factory, Burbank, milling area, 1947

From the mills,81 the redwood timber, with moisture content carefully controlled, was carried by conveyors to a series of self-fed, belt- or hopper-fed machines: first the high-speed moulders, then the double-tenoning, coping, and multiple-mortising machines. All the components, the panel frames, the structural elements, the filler strips, were then taken to have their cadmium-plated die-cast steel connectors inserted. Frames went through glue spreaders and were then placed in the steel jigs; insulation where required was inserted; Douglas fir plywood sheets arrived by conveyor, to be tack-welded to the frames using specially designed high-frequency gluing equipment, the entire stressed skin panel then being bonded in an electronic press.82 Finally, every element was sprayed with a pigmented prime and second coat, to await the final coat of paint on the site.83 Stockpiles of panels, structural elements, and filler strips were stacked, sometimes in “house lots,” ready to be loaded on to trucks and “shipped from the factory complete with insulation, sash, doors, glazing, hardware, trap-doors, vents, special openings, concealed wiring, connectors”84 ready for final erection on the site. In this factory, despite the high degree of mechanization, it was planned to employ some 500 workers.85

The main product of this production line was the basic universal panel of the system: 8 ft high and 3’4” wide, wood framed and stressed skinned, with doors or windows where required, which was both structure and enclosure. This modular panel, which gave the scheme its flexibility, was an elegant but wasteful element, with a high degree of structural redundancy in the timber frame, and of a size which necessitated special 40” sheets of plywood instead of the standard 48”.86 The floor, roof, and ceiling panels were long, single-sided units, with triangular panelized gables and roof trusses. Later, to save costs in production, these were replaced by conventional 6” × 2” joists with glue-nail plywood on one side.87 The structural parts, such as columns and sills, were moulded from solid lumber of excellent quality, bought rough and milled down, an expensive procedure. Filler strips, comprising narrow battenlike members, served to make up one, two, or three panel combinations, where they substituted for the missing panels of the universal four-member connection.88 These were the component elements of the kit parts, out of which ideally any rectilinear design based on a 3’4” module could be achieved.

Conceptually, this is where the design process ended: the theory of the packaged house envisaged a universal set of components out of which an almost unlimited number of alternative designs could be generated. It was hoped originally to market these components, this kit of parts, rather than complete houses. The realities of the situation, however, the exigencies of building regulations, FHA requirements for approval, the need to obtain mortgage financing, and the method of distribution—not directly to the owner—forced General Panel away from this dream of universality into the more conventional strategy of producing a limited range of standard houses. As we have seen, the initial production of General Panel was based on one house type only, the low-cost four-roomed model B-16. From the outset of the Packaged House project, despite the universality of the concept, the translation of the system into specific building types had been examined, sometimes in the greatest detail. We have already referred to several of these, commencing with the initial experimental house in Somerville, Massachusetts, based on the NHA’s type TDU-1. In 1942, under Gropius, designs for standard house types A (a two-family house) and B (a continuous row house) were prepared; Wachsmann later developed the row house in much further detail. In 1943 we have the proposals for the temporary dwelling unit and the field barracks. The following year Wachsmann designed and documented a two-bedroom cottage, while Gropius designed the flexible “growing and shrinking house” using General Panel modular elements. We have also noted various houses designed for the system by other architects, such as Neutra.89

9.15 General Panel, California, components being shipped by truck from factory, c. 1947

9.16 General Panel, California, sets of panels and other components, c. 1947

9.17 General Panel, page from advertising brochure, n.d.

9.18 General Panel, California, standard house type B 306, n.d.

By 1947, when the factory was ready to start production, a wide range of possible house types had been considered; some had even been illlustrated in the advertising brochures issued to the public.90 Shapiro, an architect who did much designing and drafting for Wachsmann, presumably on a free-lance basis, had proposed preparing a folio of existing house types in June 1947;91 whether this was done is not known, but there is in existence a set of loose-leaf pamphlets, illustrating 13 different General Panel models of one- to four-bedroom houses.92

While the house types were being prepared, and the factory equipped for mass production, a dealer network was being set up by the Celotex Corporation, in terms of its agreement with General Panel. In principle, an eclectic policy was adopted.93 Franchise holders, who could be combinations of builders with other interested parties, such as real estate developers, would have exclusive rights within the franchise area. Prerequisites for a dealership were few but pragmatic: a capital of at least $50,000; a forklift truck with a gin pole rig; an undertaking to buy a new demonstration model each year; and finally, the drive of a promotion-minded salesman. They would receive training about the principles of the system and its advantages, and the construction manager would be trained in erection techniques by General Panel—despite the simplicity of the connector system, it was no “do-it-yourself” procedure.94 In addition to these dealerbuilder organizations, all generally small-scale operators, it was hoped to sell directly to the large speculative builders and real estate developers and of course to government agencies. To all outward appearances, it seemed that the dream of the factory-made house was, for Gropius and Wachsmann, at last about to be realized.


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