Discovered in 1754, aluminum carries the atomic number 13 in the periodic table of chemical elements. It is light in weight, silvery in color, resistant to corrosion, and a good conductor of electricity. It is the most abundant of all metals, but it is difficult to extract. It is available in hundreds of materials. The most common ore of aluminum is bauxite, named for the town of Baux in southern France where there are huge deposits of the mineral, enough to last for 200 years at the current rate of use. The most important deposit of bauxite in the U.S. is in Arkansas, which produces 96 percent of the ore mined in this country.
The manufacturing process involves purification of the ore to almost pure alumina (aluminum oxide). Crushed and baked ore is mixed with sodium hydroxide to dissolve impurities, leaving alumina, which is treated to electrolysis to produce pure aluminum. The electrolysis process requires huge amounts of electricity, so aluminum plants are usually located where there is abundant inexpensive electricity produced by waterpower, like Niagara Falls and Massena, New York.
Pure aluminum is never used because it is too soft. It is always combined with other metals to form light-weight alloys. Ninety-five parts aluminum with five parts magnesium is used for airplane and auto parts. Aluminum with a 5 percent mixture of silicon (or sometimes zinc or copper) makes it harder and stronger for casting. The U.S. is the largest producer of aluminum in the world. In 1945, the Aluminum Company of America (now called Alcoa) had 90 percent of the business.
Alcoa has corporate headquarters in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and New York City. Worldwide, the company employs 129,000 people in more than 350 locations in 42 countries. Alcoa serves all aspects of the aluminum industry: aerospace, automotive, packaging, commercial, consumer, transportation, industrial markets, and building and construction. It is a single source for design, engineering, production, and all other fabrication-related operations. The Aluminum Company of America officially changed its name to Alcoa, Inc. in 1999, although the acronym had been in use since 1910.
In 1886, Charles Martin Hall discovered a commercially viable electrolysis process for smelting aluminum. Two years later, Hall and a partner, Alfred E. Hunt, started Pittsburgh Reduction Company, a smelting plant, which grew into the Aluminum Company of America and Alcoa, Inc. By 1895, the company had built a plant at Niagara Falls, New York to be near the cheap source of electricity provided by Niagara Falls. In 1907, the company was incorporated and had numerous mines, alumina plants, hydroelectric facilities, aluminum smelters and fabricating facilities, and substantial research and development laboratories.
During the Second World War, the demand for aluminum surged and facilities in America were dramatically increased. The burgeoning aircraft and other transportation industries related to the war effort required massive amounts of this extraordinary and versatile metal. But when the war ended, all of this increased production capacity needed a growing aluminum market in order to continue plant operations.
The period from 1947 to 1957 was characterized by new uses for aluminum that increased the postwar market and by competitors who, during the war, became of equal size and as vertically integrated as Alcoa. Alcoa’s response to competition was research and development for new product applications.
Two Alcoa scientists, Arno H. Avela and Aloisio F. Nobrega, wrote an essay, titled The Alcoa Technical Center Reengineering Project: Background and Change Frameworks, describing the activities at Alcoa during those postwar years. It reads, in part:
“Competition was not, however, cutthroat. . . . The main consequence of the post-war competition was the reinforcement of short-term research and development for new product applications. Fundamental science gave way to applications engineering. One example of the new pragmatic approach to innovation in Alcoa was the new aluminum market it developed in monumental architecture, office buildings, and apartment housing. The market was booming (as a result of limited construction during war years), and Alcoa broadened its product and technology base and expanded its metallurgical expertise to the fabrication of other light metals like titanium and magnesium. In the early 1950s, under a new, less science-oriented research leadership, the work of the Alcoa laboratories became more attuned to the pace of production engineering and the demands of marketing.”
One of those new applications for aluminum undertaken by Alcoa in the early 1950s was a bold move to find innovative uses for aluminum in the housing industry, with emphasis on homes for middle-class American families. Advertising and marketing departments at Alcoa came up with a name for this new kind of house, “Alcoa Care-Free Home”. They instructed their 65 sales offices to sell the concept nationwide and find local builders to erect the prefabricated structures. To announce the company’s project, Alcoa wrote:
“To make the Care-free Home a reality, Alcoa chose an architect internationally recognized for his achievements in residential design. He is Charles M. Goodman, A.I.A., prominent contributor to the efforts of the National Association of Home Builders and the creator of plans utilized for more than 38,000 postwar American homes.”
“Aluminum Company of America placed at Mr. Goodman’s disposal the world’s greatest fund of aluminum knowledge. All the resources accumulated in 30 years of research and development in architectural applications of this light, durable, maintenance-free metal were his to employ. Many of these products were pioneered in the exacting fields of commercial and industrial applications. Others are completely new uses of aluminum’s exciting advantages. All are available today for your Care-Free Home from fabricators using Alcoa aluminum.
In the 1950s, 24 Alcoa Care-Free Homes were built in 16 states: Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, (2), Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and Washington.
The cost of building Care-Free Homes turned out to be more expensive than anticipated; the residential market was not ready for an innovative style that departed markedly from traditional styles, and local house builders were not willing to abandon their traditional methods. So the experiment was dropped.
The Women’s Congress on Housing
In 1956, before Goodman began his design of the Alcoa house, the U.S. Housing and Home Finance Agency (superseded by the Department of Housing and Urban Development) held a Women’s Congress on Housing. The Congress was a focus group of 103 middle-class homemakers from around the country. The women were asked for their input on a number of questions concerning their ideal home. Included were requests for comments on how much space a house should have, how many bedrooms would be adequate, bathroom needs, what kitchen appliances they needed, and even down to the ideal height for countertops. These were published as a guide to architects and builders in designing and building residential architecture. Using the published guidelines, Charles Goodman introduced an open floor plan and a family-friendly design that emphasized structural and decorative aluminum combined with woods, such as cypress and walnut.
According to Alcoa, the resulting Care-Free Home contains more than 7,500 pounds of aluminum––from roof, chimney, siding, doors, windows, partition walls, cabinetry, to decorative trim. Even the electrical receptacles and switches are aluminum. Many of Goodman’s innovative features––such as open floor plans, sliding glass doors with aluminum frames, and low-maintenance aluminum materials––have become standard in today’s house-building industry.
Ranch style, which Goodman selected to represent the Alcoa house, is a one-story, sprawling house, which was inspired by Spanish Colonial prototypes from America’s southwest. It was originated in the mid-1930s by a group of California architects. As America came to depend more on automobiles, lots in suburban areas, away from cities and workplaces, were inexpensive and permitted compact houses to sprawl on much larger lots. So the rambling one-story form of the Ranch house maximizes the width of the façade, which is further extended by built-in garages. The style dominated American domestic building from the early 1950s through the 1960s, losing popularity by 1975.
Ranch-style houses also borrow features from Craftsman and Prairie modernism of the early 20th century. Asymmetrical shapes dominate the Ranch style. The low-pitched roofs with wide eave overhangs have three common forms––the hipped version being the most common, the cross-gabled second, and least common being the side-gabled examples. Goodman’s Alcoa house employs the side-gabled version, thereby providing the distinctive glass walls at both ends of the house.
Ribbon windows are common in Ranch houses, as are framed picture windows, but Charles Goodman eschewed them both. He preferred narrow, vertical floor-to-ceiling windows on the front and rear façades, with total glass walls on the end elevations.
On Ranch houses, there are hardly any front and side porches, so typical on traditional residences. Instead, Ranch houses often have patios off the back. Goodman achieves private outdoor living areas by a courtyard between the house and the carport, as well as by a broad terrace on the left side of the house.
This Alcoa Care-Free Home is arguably the most significant example of Ranch-style architecture in the town of Brighton.
Rarity of the house
In launching the aluminum-house project in 1957, Alcoa planned to build 50 Care-Free Homes across the country, sufficient, they thought, to create a groundswell of demand for aluminum materials in the homebuilding industry. As it turned out, however, Alcoa persuaded just 24 builders to erect Care-Free Homes.
An Alcoa Care-Free Home was built in Denver, New Canaan (CT), Miami, Wheaton (IL), Evansville (IL), Lafayette (IN), Boston, Detroit, Flint (MI), Grand Rapids (MI), Minneapolis, Rochester (NY), Cleveland, Columbus (OH), Dayton (OH), Toledo (OH), Portland (OR), Maryville (TN), Fort Worth (TX), Alexandria (VA), Richmond, Seattle, and two in Pittsburgh.
The floor plan is identical in all of the houses, although many of them were built on concrete slabs and have no basement. In the houses with a basement, the area in the utility room has been converted into stairs down to the utilities area. At least one Alcoa house has a fireplace in the family room. Otherwise, all of the houses appear to be identical.
About the builder/contractor
Builder, Frank P. DeBlase, was a prominent Rochester, New York, residential contractor and house designer. He was born in Rome, Italy, and immigrated to the United States with his parents in the 1920s when he was 11 years old. He attended the School of the Holy Childhood.
He became well known for building custom, high-quality residences, primarily in the area of Brighton, a contiguous suburb of Rochester. He often prepared his own construction drawings or worked with prominent Rochester architects. DeBlase was president of Rochester Home Builders Association, and associated with many Rochester organizations, such as the Al Sigl Center, the Locust Club (Rochester police organization), and the Rochester Firemen’s Association.
Besides his career as a homebuilder, DeBlase was a prolific artist. His paintings in oil and watercolor were primarily landscapes. Other subject material included architectural structures, and he painted some portraits.
In 1957, Alcoa selected Frank DeBlase to build a Care-Free Home in Rochester. In the agreement, DeBlase bought the land, prepared it for construction, built a basement and foundation for the house, purchased all of the prefabricated elements from Alcoa, and erected the structure. When DeBlase completed the project, he intended to sell the house at a profit.
His son, Gary DeBlase, was 16 years old in 1957 when his father and the construction crew built the Alcoa Care-Free Home. Gary said:
“I worked with my father in the summer of 1957, building the Alcoa house. My work was primarily on the basement, foundation, and the preparation of the site. A lot of fill earth had to be brought in to make the lot level over the long expanse of the house.
“I remember the flatbed trucks coming in with all the aluminum panels and stuff. There was beautiful, clear, hard cypress wood for the ceiling and walls. Everything was numbered and labeled. All the appliances were GE. There was a wall-hung GE
“I had to leave for prep school in Philadelphia before the house was completed that fall. After the house was finished, my dad tried to sell it. He invited the community to tour the house, charging everyone a dollar to see it. Hundreds of people came to look at it. He gave the money he collected to the Al Sigl Center.
“The house was supposed to be a template for the future, but nobody wanted to buy it. It was too expensive, and I don’t think the market was ready for all the radical ideas. So my parents moved into the house themselves. In fact, my father died in the house about 25 years ago when he was 82.
“I lived in the house, too, on my vacations from prep school and during four years of college. One thing I noticed was that in winter, there was never any snow in the carport. Subsequent owners added garage doors, but they didn’t need to do that to keep snow out. Everything about that house was very carefully thought out.
“There was a tenuous relationship between my dad and Alcoa. I think the costs went far above the estimates that Alcoa had given. I was just a kid, so I don’t remember exactly, but I think there was some kind of financial settlement between Alcoa and my father.
“Harriet Thomas was the interior designer who furnished the house.”
At that time, Harriet Thomas was the principal interior decorator in Rochester, and the most important and costly decorating commissions in this area were accomplished by her. Her showroom in the Hiram Sibley Building at the corner of East Avenue and Alexander Street held a lavish display of the finest furniture and antiques available.