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Disneyland Article
The Legacy Of Monsanto House Of The Future
David A. Bossert
I was not born when Disneyland first opened in 1955, or even during what was billed as its second opening in 1959. The fact is, I didn’t visit Disneyland until its 25th anniversary in 1980. By then, many early attractions were already gone: the Phantom Boats, Rainbow Caverns Mine Train, the Flying Saucers, Space Station X-1, Rocket to the Moon, and so many others. The one bygone attraction that stands out most to me is the Monsanto House of the Future.

The House of the Future was an attraction that dreams are made of, where you could envision the future—a fantastical world of tomorrow. That future now looks more like the retro-future, a throwback to the age of optimism sprinkled with the wonder of plastics and an unbridled enthusiasm for the fantasy of a perfect tomorrow.

Ralph Hansen, the head of the Monsanto Plastics Division Market Development Department, is credited with conceiving the House of the Future project. It was a way to put the Monsanto Company at the leading edge of new construction materials and techniques. In 1953, the Monsanto Plastics Division initiated and sponsored a plastics-in-building research project at the MIT School of Architecture. Marvin Goody and Dick Hamilton were on the faculty and were the lead architects. The design team set out to develop a new house that was livable and, at the same time, "would be unencumbered by preconceived notions of a house built of traditional materials." For Monsanto, this was all about research and experimentation in plastics materials and fabrication techniques. They had no plans to make or sell this house nor could they speculate whether the house would ever be commercially available. But by January 1956, Disney and Monsanto had agreed to add the House of the Future to Disneyland.

Imagineer John Hench was put in charge of the project for Disney and tasked with selecting the site at the entrance to Tomorrowland. There were two requirements for the house: "all its utilities had to be located in a concrete room that served as the foundation and the main support for the house…and it needed a source of water for its cooling system," said Hench. The site required that the house be placed at an awkward angle so that the entrance was in full view. They were able to soften that placement with some creative landscaping, including the addition of a pond to be used as a water source for the home’s cooling system.

The only part of the House of the Future that touched the ground was the 16-square-foot concrete center core foundation. The central core housed the kitchen and two bathrooms, with the water heater, air-conditioning unit, and all the associated plumbing underneath in the foundation. It also was the main support for the four cantilevered wings that made up the living space of the house. It gave the appearance of the house floating, like a cloud, above ground.

MIT architects Goody and Hamilton placed the Atoms for Living Kitchen at the center of the House of the Future. With its space-age appliances, some that disappeared at the touch of a button, it was the first room guests saw as they entered. It was also the room with the most dramatic departure from what the public was used to seeing in a home. Randall D. Faurot, an industrial and vehicle designer, was responsible for the final design of the kitchen. His design included three different types of food storage systems: "a freezer compartment, a normal refrigeration compartment, and a third ‘cool zone’ kept foods that had been subjected to atomic irradiation safe for many months." The "electric range" that rose up from the melamine laminate countertop at the push of a button was actually an early version of a microwave oven, which are ubiquitous in today’s homes.

The wing that housed the children’s bedroom was designed to accommodate multiple functions for a family with two children. It afforded privacy at night or whenever needed, and during the day a movable partition could easily be opened for a larger play area. The sliding wall was versatile for transforming the room. In the 1960 remodel—one of several remodels done during the ten years the attraction was at Disneyland—the movable wall divider was replaced with a permanent wall that accommodated desks on each side.

The two prefabricated bathroom units, designed by Henry Dreyfuss, also had a number of interesting fixtures and some cutting-edge luxuries as added features. The tub, shower, and sinks used thermostatic valves to mix the hot and cold water to a preset temperature. The cabinets had built-in plastic electric toothbrushes on retracting cords. There were radiant heat panels to give the space added warmth "to otherwise non-heat-absorbent plastic walls."

Arguably, one of the most fascinating spaces in the entire House of the Future was the Living Room of the Future. One of the most interesting pieces in the living room was the sofa with flip-flop bolsters. It allowed for multiple configurations of the backrest so that only half or the entire backrest could face one direction or the other. The seating slab and bolster backrest were made of vinyl foam covered with Acrilan upholstery fabric and sat on a platform that made the sofa appear to hover. The credenza, which was made of melamine plastic laminates, housed the Philco Corporation’s stereophonic sound system. The cabinets also had injection molded styrene plastic drawers.

On Wednesday, June 12, 1957, the Monsanto House of the Future officially opened to the public with typical Disneyland fanfare. The guest traffic didn’t disappoint. By the week of August 12 to 18, 1957, more than half a million visitors passed through the attraction. By September 1, that number had swelled to 681,994. By 1967, the house had been seen by more than 20 million Disneyland guests.

The House of the Future, to some degree, was a symbol of progress and the optimism of a postwar America. By the time the House of the Future attraction was closed on December 1, 1967, some of the space-age or futuristic devices first showcased in the house in 1957 were beginning to become mainstream. Still, many of the ideas like the ultrasonic dishwasher, gamma-irradiated food storage, movable bathroom sinks, and the use of structural plastics in home building haven’t gained the traction anticipated for wide adaptation. Some of these concepts proved too expensive, while others were impractical. Maybe as megadroughts and water shortages become common, an ultrasonic dishwasher might make a comeback with improved technology and efficiency.

There were several innovations that did gain traction to some degree. Most new home construction uses prefabricated fiberglass tub and shower enclosures. Countertops of Formica and other plastic laminates have become common not just as a counter surfaces, but also as the outer layer for furniture made out of inexpensive particle board. Some form of plastic is also often used in plumbing, insulation, sealants, safety glass, and finishes throughout homes today.

The House of the Future did what it set out to do; it was a prototype home that showed the possibilities of using plastics in the home-building industry. As one article put it, "the House of the Future had answered a lot of questions nobody asked."

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