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“House & Home” at National Building Museum

A new exhibition explores the American residential landscape through the years.

Photograph by Maynard L. Parker; the Huntington Library, San Marino, California.

“We all live somewhere.”

These are the words that greet you upon entering the National Building Museum’s most ambitious project to date, opening this weekend: a long-term exhibition investigating the American residential landscape, both inside and out. The exhibition’s seven thematic rooms examine the role of the American house—where we live—as both habitat and haven, or, as the title suggests, as “House & Home.”

“What better way to get people to understand the built environment than by starting with the home, peeling back the layers to truly see how America lives?” says curator Sarah Leavitt. “It’s something we can all identify with.”

Entering the main gallery, you literally walk into the first of these peeled-back layers: how the house is built. Wall-and-roof sections that beg to be touched—rough adobe, colonial timber, modern “green” lumber—allow you to step inside America’s housing history. These hands-on sections are paired with a similarly chronological series of models of iconic American homes, celebrating the work of such architects as Thomas Jefferson, Charles Platt, Frank Lloyd Wright, Philip Johnson, and Frank Gehry. It’s fascinating to see how one structure inspired another—and how some things have come full circle.

Photograph by William Henry Jackson; the National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution.

The attention then shifts from exterior to interior—from “house” to “home.” Two hundred objects—fondue sets, baseball gloves, medicine cabinets, and the like—spanning generations and geographics are arranged according to the role they fulfill in the American home. “We tried to pull from a wide range of time periods and people, just like the objects that live in your home,” says Leavitt. Peering at the mix of old and new, nostalgic and familiar, you feel like you could be rooting around in a family member’s basement. (This reviewer found herself smiling at an aluminum Christmas tree, a stack of Tupperware snack cups, a beanbag, and a Barcalounger.)

Photograph by Allan Sprecher.

Other highlights include a series of specially commissioned films—gorgeously shot, startlingly intimate—that take you inside the homes of six coast-to-coast Americans, showing the diverse shapes the US family can take. History buffs and economists will appreciate an in-depth timeline of American history as seen through the housing market, from the dispersal of royal land after the Revolutionary War to the crash of 2008. The last gallery takes the idea of house and home and turns it outward to the community, exploring the relationship of our homes to our neighborhoods, our cities, and society at large.

The exhibition opens tomorrow and will continue indefinitely, but we suggest you go now: Since the exhibition itself is freshly built, it still smells like new wood and fresh paint, adding yet another sensory dimension of homey goodness.

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