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On Exhibit: home sweet mobile homes 

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"While you might say of some people in America today that they are their jobs, with the people that I met in mobile homes, they are their homes," Frimmel Smith says, describing the subjects of her documentary project on mobile homes and their owners. "Kingston Blemiss, a stockbroker in Mississippi, has the most beautiful white double-wide house flying the American flag--he looks like Mr. Solid Citizen. I first noticed the home of David Reed in Colorado because it had seven antique cars out in front. He has 21 antique clocks on the wall inside and auto mechanic's equipment in the second bedroom." Charles and Mary Keim live just outside Chicago in a mobile home decorated inside and out with "antiques" others have discarded; a photograph shows a lawn jockey and pink flamingos. Addie Pearson, a onetime Chicagoan who's now retired in one of the poorest towns in Mississippi, lives elegantly in a home that has a Victorian living room and a big sunken bathtub. Her home sits on her father's land next to his house, which he built himself after he quit sharecropping for life in town as a housepainter.

Smith's project, an exhibit called "Wheel People," got its start several years ago when she had dinner with Dianne Pilgrim, director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of Design. Pilgrim was talking about a planned exhibit of "uniquely American designs," and the first thought to pop into Smith's head was mobile homes. Pilgrim thought it was a great idea and suggested a book. But Smith wanted to put together a traveling exhibit. When the grants came through (including one from Chicago's Graham Foundation), Smith spent two years identifying sites to be photographed, traveling 15,000 miles via Amtrak and rented cars. The resulting exhibit includes about 20 panel-mounted digital prints that combine photographs of homes and their owners with texts that quote them. Smith, a journalist, among other things, had Andrew Radigan take the photos, though she often decided on their content and composition.

An Illinois native now living in Switzerland, Smith says that stereotyping by the media is a "pet peeve." In the course of her research, all the commonly held ideas about mobile homes being "occupied by poor people" whose "parks are noisy places full of barking dogs and overflowing trash cans" fell away. And she began to wonder why mobile homes got so much bad press. "When a tornado hit Nashville, a whole commercial area with many brick buildings was leveled, and what did they show on TV as the opening image? One mobile home that was toppled."

There are various reasons for the homes' popularity. In prior decades, Smith says, "there was no rural plumbification" to accompany rural electrification, so "most of rural America had outdoor plumbing, and mobile homes were the easiest way to get modern plumbing--and a modern kitchen. And the easiest way to accommodate the extended family was to pull up a mobile home." In the 1930s they were used for laborers on various public-works projects, and later for Manhattan Project workers. GIs were housed in them during World War II. Then a million soldiers came home and spilled into them because of a housing shortage.

Smith noticed certain regional differences. In Mississippi, which has few zoning laws, mobile homes could be interspersed with houses. In the south owners often attached screened porches to their mobile homes, and in states such as Maine they built "snow load additions"--steeply pitched roofs over the entryways. In Indiana Smith encountered "Uncle Bob," whose trailer was "completely rimmed in hay bales" for insulation instead of the metal skirting usually used to hide the wheels.

"Wheel People" has drawn the attention of noted architect and writer Robert Venturi, who will deliver a lecture with Smith on Tuesday. He's long been inspired by "the everyday architecture of now," celebrated in a book he coauthored in 1972, Learning From Las Vegas. But "the stance that is most common now," he says, "emphasizes the hoity-toity heroic, especially in architecture, where there is disdain for American vernacular. But the vocabulary of traditional modern architecture is based on the vernacular of the earlier industrial architecture of America, the discovery by central Europeans"--Venturi mentions Walter Gropius and Mies van der Rohe--"that American grain elevators and factories are beautiful. People forget that there is a long history of great art that is not heroic. I adore Beethoven, and very often within a heroic symphony the scherzo is based on peasant tunes.

"The early modernists thought a lot about prefabricated housing. It never really worked, but in mobile homes we have it in a way that is working." Venturi recalls a study he did with Denise Scott Brown in the early 70s of two Levittowns, postwar suburban developments of affordable identical homes. Like mobile home owners, the residents customized their dwellings: "There was applique on the front lawn, garage, windows. That brings up another issue that modernist architects don't like--ornament."

For the lecture Smith will present a slide show that includes some homes not in the exhibit, discuss regional differences, and elaborate on three of her observations. First, mobile home owners are "very, very frugal. They don't like spending money--they use golf carts for local transportation, they recycle everything." Second, most "moved to a mobile home as an economical way of obtaining peace and quiet, ownership of a detached home, the freedom to have this little piece of property." Third, the majority "still harbor a dream of mobility. They've added all this stuff that's going to make it impossible to move, but they still think they may be moving on someday." Addie Pearson said that among the things she loves about her home is that "if you want, you can take it to the highway and chase your cares."

"Wheel People" opens at the Chicago Architecture Foundation Lecture Hall Gallery, 224 S. Michigan, October 27 and runs through January 31. Admission is free; call 312-922-3432, ext. 239, for more. Venturi and Smith will lecture on October 26 at 5:30 in the ballroom of the School of the Art Institute, 112 S. Michigan. Admission is $20 and reservations are required; call 312-922-3432, ext. 909. The foundation is also offering a tour of Elkhart, Indiana, "the mobile home capital of the midwest." It's on October 29, and it costs $50; for reservations, call 312-922-3432, ext. 911. --Fred Camper

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