During World War I thousands of Americans were sent to fight in Europe. For many, it was their first experience with other cultures. Returning home with a broader vision of the world, many veterans wanted to leave their rural towns and family farms. With heightened expectations, they began to move to large urban areas seeking opportunity—they wanted a different life from their parents with smaller families and to own homes. The American small house movement had begun.
In 1919 the American Institute of Architects (AIA) opened the nonprofit Small House Architect’s Service Bureau in Minneapolis. Its purpose was to educate the public about professional architects and help American builders fulfill the growing demand for small single-family homes. Working with architects across the country, the bureau promoted innovative ways to lower construction costs, redefined the ideal home-site, and created floor plans for the new life-styles of the ideal American family. To shelter this idealized family, AIA’s model small home had no more than six rooms in a variety of styles: bungalow and historic revival-styles including Tudor, Colonial and Spanish-Mission. Popular magazines and catalogs offered house plans for purchase. Architectural competitions were held from New York to California encouraging the development of innovative, new designs. (National Park Service. Historic Residential Suburbs, 2002)
In 1923 the newly formed Community Arts Association of Santa Barbara (California) held one of the earliest small house competitions. The Association, pioneers in the movement to develop better housing standards, inaugurated the contest "for the best design of a house to cost no more than $5,000." All designs were submitted anonymously. The published rules stated:
A dwelling house suitable for California, of not over five rooms, including living room, dining room, kitchen, two bedrooms and bath, (Living room and dining room may be combined but will nevertheless count as two rooms)…also a garage for one car which may or may not be separate from the house and placed anywhere upon the lot…The character of the house…will be left to the discrimination of the competitor. (Community Arts Association. Small House Designs, 1924) First prize was $500. Over 200 designs were entered in the competition. Paul Revere Williams’ submission was number seven.
In September 1923, the judges awarded Walter L. Moody 1st Prize. They acknowledged Williams' work with a “Special Mention” for its meritorious design. The judges’ critique of Williams' small house highlighted its “splendidly handled” exterior, “simple and economical” construction and the inclusion of an integrated landscaping scheme. The judges noted his creative placement of a fireplace on the outside terrace (image 2). This extension of living space into the outdoors illustrated Williams' early grasp of the region's climate and life style. The judges cautioned the young designer to include “closets for coats” and face the house north in future designs.
Eight years after the competition, Williams’ entry was included in a catalog of designs published by Theodore A. Koetzil, director of the Small House Plan Service. Koetzil selected this design for publication because “on studying the design today it is found still to hold its position in the first rank…the design is unquestionably good architecture of today.” (Los Angeles Times, December 6, 1931)