Remembering a Housing Hero

Houser: The Life and Work of Catherine Bauer by H. Peter Oberlander and Eva Newbrun. University of British Columbia Press, Vancouver, 1999. 320 pp. $85 cloth, $29.95 paper. (Paperback available in U.S. from University of Washington Press at $22.95.)


Catherine Bauer was a hero, both romantically and practically. In her romantic life, she remained true to herself, protecting the independence that allowed her to pursue her interests. In her professional life, she remained true to the cause of decent housing for all, irrespective of income.

Bauer was born in Elizabeth, New Jersey, on May 11, 1905. Her father was a county engineer and a pioneer in highway construction; her mother was a housewife whose father refused to send her to college unless she became a school teacher, which did not interest her. Continuing her education informally, Bauer’s mother “read everything the library had to offer in her preferred subject areas, including biology and botany.”

Bauer, going where her mother had not been able to, was accepted to Vassar. Her mentor there, English professor Margaret Pollard Smith, encouraged her to pursue her interest in architecture. She did, and transferred to Cornell, where she was surprised to discover that she was just as smart as her male classmates.

When Bauer fell in love with a young architecture student, a friend wrote, “Stay in love and get engaged and marry him even if it is a compromise, in the sense that you’d give up your work.” Ultimately, however, Bauer heeded the gentle admonition of her mentor, who suggested she remain strictly friends with young men until she had obtained a degree and some professional credentials. Bauer broke off her engagement, transferred back to Vassar, graduated with an English degree, and joined a friend and her family on their trip to Europe.

In Paris, Bauer’s interest in modern French domestic architecture took hold, and she began work on an article comparing it with current American standards. By the time Bauer returned to the States, she was driven by a burgeoning interest in modern design and architecture. When her article was published by The New York Times Magazine in 1928, she became a minor celebrity among “New York’s design intelligentsia.” The article led to a job at Harcourt Brace, where Bauer met Lewis Mumford. The two entered into an emotionally and intellectually complicated love affair (Mumford was married).

Mumford played the role of mentor as well as lover, however, introducing Bauer to some of the most prominent architects and planners of the day, including Walter Gropius and Ernst May. “As Catherine’s knowledge of architecture and planning deepened in the course of her travels,” note the authors, “Lewis increasingly turned to her for advice.” When Fortune magazine sponsored an essay competition about art in industry, Bauer encouraged Mumford to enter. When he was slow to respond, she entered the contest – and won.

Modern Housing

Bauer traveled throughout Europe. In Frankfurt, she visited R–merstadt, a housing development with 1,200 housing units on 116 acres of municipal land, separated from the inner city by a permanent greenbelt. There, Bauer saw the power of local control over housing development and the importance of good design. She began to embrace the concept that housing and planning could be “used strategically to achieve social change.”

Working as a research assistant for Clarence Stein of the Regional Planning Association of America helped build Bauer’s confidence to write a book of her own. That book, Modern Housing, described the European housing achievements she had seen, and applied Europe’s experience to the U.S. According to Bauer, “modern housing” needs to be planned, built slowly to reduce speculation, have minimum amenities, and be available to citizens of average income or lower.

One reviewer observed that by that definition, there was no modern housing in the U.S. The New York Times commented that “the kind of quarters in which people live is almost the first index of the nature of a civilization” and described Modern Housing as a criticism of civilization as well as of houses. The New Republic called for “a cheap reprint of Modern Housing so that it could become required reading for college courses on current affairs and for adult education groups, including trade unions and cooperative societies.”

Taking it to Washington

By the time Modern Housing was published, Bauer had accepted a position as executive secretary with the Labor Housing Conference (LHC). Meanwhile, the American housing situation was “in crisis, with tens of thousands of people losing their homes each month to foreclosure.” At this point, Bauer had had enough of contemplating problems. “We don’t need to know anything more about housing,” she wrote a friend. She began to lean toward activism, saying that “government subsidies for housing could only be obtained through explicit federal housing legislation.”

Through her travels across the nation, Bauer built a ground swell of support among American labor for passage of national housing legislation. Back in Washington, she helped to assure that what would become the U.S. Housing Act of 1937, as proposed by Senator Robert Wagner and Representative Henry B. Steagall, would serve the interests of workers and people in need of housing, despite behind-the-scenes maneuvering for a focus on slum clearance.

At one point Senator Wagner asked his legislative assistant to redraft an early version of the bill and to “consult Catherine in the process.” The assistant held a law degree from Harvard and had recently completed postgraduate work in economics at Columbia University. At their first meeting, he and Bauer “got along like dog and cat,” but they ultimately collaborated for passage of the act and “became lifelong friends.”

A Forgotten Treasure 

Houser is written as a general interest book. The subject matter is presented clearly, without the ubiquitous acronyms and odd terminology that seem to sprinkle the pages of the typical book on “housing.” But people with a particular interest in public housing, planning, labor, and New Deal politics will perhaps enjoy it most. The book is peppered with names, many of whom are still active professionally, reminding us of the newness of federally financed housing in America. For current-day housers, it also provides a useful education in the legislative process and the various parties who make a claim for a share of the pie when housing legislation is in the works.

In the foreword to Houser, Martin Meyerson, emeritus president and university professor at the University of Pennsylvania, writes “Catherine Bauer was a national treasure. But national treasures in our complex world tend to be forgotten as another generation comes to the fore.” He’s right. As a planner who spends much time in the company of current-day “housers,” I was amazed upon discovering this book – by chance – that I had not previously heard of Catherine Bauer. With this rich, fulfilling story, Oberlander and Newbrun have preserved a national treasure.

 

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