Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Jackson's Total Electric Home

Most homes today are filled with electric appliances and many are totally electric. Companies providing natural gas, of course, promote the benefits of gas appliances. Whether gas or electric, though, most Americans are dependent on their gadgets and appliances and we expect our homes to include all the conveniences of life. Of course, this was not always the case. In fact, the idea of an all-electric house didn’t come along until the mid-1950s, when utility companies and manufacturers of electrical equipment joined forces to promote the concept of the modern family home. “Total electric living” was trumpeted in the press as a “happier, healthier life” for modern families, where electricity “does everything from heating and air conditioning through family entertainment and the encouragement of hobbies.”  To promote the increased use of electricity and electrical products, two of the nation’s leading appliance manufacturers sponsored multi-million dollar campaigns to encourage the construction of all-electric homes. General Electric led the way in 1956 with a nationwide “Live Better Electrically” promotion, followed by the Westinghouse Corporation in 1959, which committed to a $2.5 million campaign to promote the “total-electric house.” * As part of both promotional campaigns, the companies joined forces with architects and builders across the nation to design and construct model houses. Those which included electric heat and air conditioning, in addition to other household appliances, were designated as “Gold Medallion” houses.

Westinghouse’s promotional material included sixteen different floor plans for all-electric houses designed by five different architects. The plans sold for $10 each and were used for houses ranging from 900-2000 square feet. In addition to designing standard floor plans, each of the architects were hired to design model houses in different regions of the country. In the southeast region, the Westinghouse homes were designed by architect George Matsumoto. All totaled, Matsumoto (right) was responsible for four “Gold Medallion” houses in the region, with one each in Tampa, Atlanta, Little Rock and in Jackson, Mississippi. A native of San Francisco, Matsumoto studied architecture at the University of California at Berkley. During World War II, he, along with his family, was relocated to an internment camp for Japanese Americans. As a result, he was unable to finish his undergraduate work until 1943, earning a degree at Washington University in St. Louis. He completed graduate studies in 1945 at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan and then joined a firm in Chicago. After a year of private practice in Kansas City, he became an instructor at the University of Oklahoma and then in 1948 moved to North Carolina State University along with Henry Kamphoefner, the first dean of the School of Design at North Carolina State and a champion of Modernist architecture. During his time at North Carolina State, from 1948-1961, Matsumoto won for than thirty awards for his modern residential architecture, which typically featured flat roofs, unobstructed views for the length of the house, terrazzo floors, natural wood, mahogany cabinets, large windows, and small kitchens. Among his designs during this period was the Dewitt House (above) in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, built in 1960. The next year, he returned to UC Berkley, where he taught for another six years, after which he had a successful private practice. After moving to California, he stopped designing houses because, as he said, he did not want to “deal with the wives.” Now retired, George Matsumoto lives in Oakland. In 1996, he donated all his papers to North Carolina State. 

The house Matsumoto designed in Jackson was located at the corner of Northside Drive and Kimwood Drive in northeast Jackson. According to John G. Adams, who was the regional manager for Westinghouse’s Total Electric Home program, Jackson was selected as one of the target cities due to “the vitality of its home building market and the willingness of its people to accept the newest and best ideas in modern living.” He also cited Jackson’s diverse economy and the capital city’s leadership in banking, good retail climate and overall business environment. Commission in 1958, the contractor selected to build the house from Matsumoto’s design was J.C. Gibson, a native of Smith County. Gibson (left) got his start as a building contractor during World War II, when he worked on various construction projects at Camp Shelby. After the war, he moved to Jackson and in 1951 started his own construction firm. By 1960, when the Westinghouse Gold Medallion house was completed, Gibson had built more than 350 homes in the Jackson area, usually in partnership with McGehee Realty. 

Once completed, the Westinghouse Total Electric Home opened for public tours on Sunday, April 24, 1960. The 1,604 square foot house included two courtyard areas, called “Outdoor Living Centers,” three bedrooms, a living room, entertainment center and a rather small “food preparation center” situated in the middle of a large open area. Several of the local companies providing the products for the house encouraged the public to visit the house, including the Jackson Linoleum Company, which installed the vinyl floors, and Neely & Edwards, who installed the electrical system. Of course, one of the chief proponents of the house was the Mississippi Power & Light Company, who wanted to encourage more all-electric homes in the area (by 1960 they were already servicing more than 800 in west central Mississippi). Visitors to the house were especially encouraged to note the built-in appliances. “With facilities like this,” wrote John Adams of Westinghouse, “the housewife actually becomes a home manager who has a great number of electrical assistants.”

In 1967, the house was sold by its original owners and enlarged by the new owner to more than 4,000 square feet. Unfortunately, much of Matsumoto’s original design was lost in the renovation. Although the house is much larger than originally planned, the exterior (left) still retains characteristics of the original design. More importantly, the Westinghouse “Total Electric Home” in Jackson represents an era of optimism expressed through its modern design and its emphasis on creating a better living environment through technology, an aspect of modern life we now take for granted. 


* Interestingly, Westinghouse has another much earlier connection to Mississippi. In December 1864, Lt. Albert Westinghouse, the brother of inventor and industrialist George Westinghouse (and founder of the company) was killed in action at Leakesville, Mississippi. Westinghouse was an officer in the 2nd New York Cavalry. 




Photo and Image Sources:

(1) Total Electric Home illustration: http://thriftshopromantic.blogspot.com/
(2) Matsumoto: http://d.lib.ncsu.edu/collections/
(3) Dewitt House: http://www.ncmodernist.org/matsumoto.htm
(4) Original house illustration: From the April 24, 1960, Clarion-Ledger
(5) Gibson: From the April 24, 1960, Clarion-Ledger
(6) Floor Plan: From the April 24, 1960, Clarion-Ledger
(7) Current house photo: Image by the author