June 1, 2021
One early sign of the anticipated post-pandemic rebound is the increase in construction activity around the country, from a proliferation of small home improvements and an increase in new housing starts to the resumption of stalled subdivision projects and much-needed progress on ambitious public infrastructure initiatives.
In many regions, this increased work is helping to jump-start the economy while addressing long-standing housing needs — but not without some challenges, including shortages of lumber, steel, and skilled labor.
Closer to home for many readers, more development also means more zoning review, more construction oversight, and more overburdened local boards and officials.
In honor of all this new construction activity, I'm dedicating this month's column to media that celebrates home building. Of course, many classics are set in wonderful houses, from Citizen Kane's thinly veiled version of Hearst Castle to the Park family's modern-cool architectural gem in Parasite. Similarly, a number of movies feature architects (Gary Cooper in The Fountainhead; Steve Martin in Housesitter) or construction workers (The Lego Movie; Total Recall) as central characters.
But there's a special group of films and TV shows where renovating or building a house itself takes center stage, sharing with viewers all the joys (and, more frequently, the comic mishaps) of the experience at a fraction of the cost. Here are a few of my favorites:
The country is just getting back to work after a devastating global pandemic, young couples are getting married, and everyone wants to get back to work building houses again.
Nope, this isn't the early 2020s, but the early 1920s, when the great Buster Keaton's first film production followed the story of a generic "Groom" (Keaton) and "Bride" (Sybil Seely) given a new house as a wedding present. The one catch: They'll need to assemble it themselves, from a kit. (According to Keaton's wife, the premise was apparently inspired by a cheery advertising film from Ford Motor Company called Home Made, promoting ready-made housing, a "DIY"-craze from an earlier era.)
The instructions are pretty clear — just start with the box labeled "number one" and keep going until you're done — but when the numbers are secretly changed by a jealous rival, things get pretty zany. The ending provides one of the most famous examples of Keaton's approach to screen comedy, as well as a reminder of another aspect of the history of home building: back then, they would sometimes move entire houses across town. Stream the silent film for free at archive.org or on YouTube.
Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House
Rather than pay outrageous prices for a contractor to renovate their cramped New York City apartment, Cary Grant and Myrna Loy decide to leave the city behind and follow their dream of restoring an old historic farmhouse in Connecticut. But the "city slickers" are actually the bumpkins where rural property and real estate deals are concerned, and the locals saw these suckers coming a country-mile away.
As inspectors and contractors descend, the problems mount and the scope increases — and the budget spirals dizzyingly out of control. Our readers will recognize the all-too-common challenges that plague every construction project, but be sure to also note that, as with our own work today, even when a project creates a lot of headaches, struggling through the adversity may forge strong relationships.
The film was a huge success, in part because it was based on a popular book of the same title by Eric Hodgins, but it also benefited from an unusual and ambitious promotional campaign, which included the construction of over 70 actual "dream houses" scattered across the county. You can still visit some, or even buy this one, which was recently restored in Omaha. Years later, the story was loosely remade for future generations — twice! — as The Money Pit (1986, with Tom Hanks and Shelley Long) and then again in 2007, with Are We Done Yet?, starring Ice Cube.
From a historical perspective, it's fascinating to see the city-versus-suburbs debate play out during the early post-war housing boom. The film also provides on opportunity to reflect on the changing attitudes around work, home life, commuting, real estate, architects, lawyers, and what was considered "cramped living" by Hollywood standards — even in the city, the family had enough space for a live-in maid named Gussie (Louse Beavers). That said, do prepare for racist dynamics involving the Blandings, Gussie, and an ad-campaign for a "WHAM"-brand ham — but this, too, is a part of our history (and present) worth discussing. Stream Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House on Amazon Prime, Apple TV, and other platforms that offer video rentals on demand.
More recently, the dream of building a house of one's own provided the motivation behind a more serious — and very empathetic — drama directed by Phyllida Lloyd. Set in Dublin against the backdrop of a failing social safety net, the film follows the plight of a woman who flees an abusive husband, only to find herself alone with her two young daughters, homeless, exhausted, and very vulnerable.
Determined to create a safe home for her family and frustrated by a complex, uncaring, and poorly-managed housing and welfare systems, she resolves to build her own tiny house in the yard of a friend. In addition to learning quite a lot about the ins and outs of permitting and construction (including what can — and probably will — go wrong), she creates her own communal support network, while also discovering reserves of strength and resilience deep inside herself. Stream Herself on Amazon Prime.
Home Town Takeover
In closing, I'd like to give a brief shout-out to the new season of HGTV's Home Town. This summer, lovable hosts Erin and Ben Napier are raising the ante, moving from stand-alone fixer-upper projects to a full-scale makeover for the entire town of Wetumpka, Alabama. (The site was selected following a nation-wide open competition last year.)
Over the course of six episodes, Home Town Takeover makes it clear that these friendly home remodelers have become full-on town planners, undertaking a series of related projects to upgrade houses, stores, a restaurant, a public park, and an entire street, drawing the connections between housing, urban planning, downtown revitalization, and community development.