What makes the American house a home

The National Building Museum explores what makes an American house a home, as part of a new long-term exhibition that opened April 28.

Designed by award-winning New York-based firm Ralph Appelbaum Associates – which worked on the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center and the Newseum – House & Home takes viewers through seven individual, but related galleries with themes including living at home, building a house and buying a home.

Media Credit: Photo Courtesy of the National Building Museum
Fallingwater, Mill Run, Penn. Architect: Frank Lloyd Wright. Built: 1935. Model by Studios Eichbaum + Arnold, 2010.

Through the galleries, a theme develops of the house as more than simply a structure, refuge or place to sleep. From what it is built out of, to what it holds within the walls, the exhibit examines the people, memories and objects that make a home.

Fourteen models display iconic American homes, including George Washington’s Mount Vernon to Fallingwater, a home designed by the renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright and built over a waterfall in Pennsylvania. The models were custom-made for the exhibition to illustrate the evolution of American home building and the idea of a typical and traditional house.

Media Credit: Photo Courtesy of the National Building Museum
Mount Vernon, Alexandria, Va. Built by George Washington, mid-1700s. Model by Studios Eichbaum + Arnold, 2011.

“You’ll notice that we’ve incorporated the use of different scales. This creates an immersive experience and allows us to occupy these spaces in the same way as our own homes,” guest curator Donald Albrecht said.

A model of award-winning architect Frank Gehry’s corrugated metal Santa Monica home, built in 1978 as an example of avant-garde deconstructivism, was replicated into a model about the size of a playing card, dwarfed by the neighboring John Hancock Center in Chicago – an exhibit so large it could not sit in the space. The actual structure is a 60-story tower and even recreated at one eighth of its size, it’s top had to be cut-off to make it inside.

Media Credit: Photo Courtesy of the National Building Museum
Monticello, Charlottesville, Va. Built by Thomas Jefferson, 1769-1826. Model by Studios Eichbaum + Arnold, 2008.

Six 8-foot walls adorned with a “please touch” sign were part of the exhibit, made of building materials used to design homes throughout history, including adobe bricks and a glass curtain wall. The display was intended to illustrate on a multi-sensory level how the edifice of a structure can affect the general feeling of a space on more than a purely aesthetic level.

Moving past structure, brick and concrete, the exhibition focuses on the romantic side to homemaking with a showcase of the elements that turn a house from a material structure into a livable home – in the form of 196 different objects chosen by curator Sarah Leavitt. Objects include a Tiffany lamp and related items of luxury.

“One thing that we tried to do when we chose these artifacts was to choose things from a wide range of sources and regions and time periods,” she said. “We tried to mix objects that you would expect to see in every home and some other more unusual objects. There’s a slinky, a vibrator and a Howdy Doody puppet.”

A panoramic audio-visual presentation concludes the exhibit, projecting six films onto giant screens to show families interacting in their homes, eating, relaxing, working, sleeping and playing.

“These films look at the element of action,” Albrecht said. “How do we actually live in the house, how do we move through the house, how we experience the house through the course of the day?”

This post was updated on April 30, 2012 to reflect the following:
The Hatchet incorrectly reported that a feature of the exhibit was a heavy-duty puppet. In fact, it is a Howdy Doody puppet.

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