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THE FUTURE : Smart-Tech Homes on Way

September 22, 1990|CLARK SHARON | Clark Sharon is a regular contributor to Home Design

The Home of the Future was, sadly, to become the Home of the Past on a pleasant spring day in 1967 when a wrecking crew prepared to level one of Disneyland's landmark exhibits.

The Monsanto Chemical Co.'s vision of the future, an all-plastic residential showcase filled with high-tech gadgetry, was about to pass into history to make way for a new and improved Tomorrowland.

As a small group of park employees looked on, a massive iron wrecking ball began its assault on one of the home's four floating wings. What happened next can only be described as a testament to the durability of plastic.

"That wrecking ball just sort of bounced off the house like a giant rubber ball," recalled witness Ray Schwartz.

Van France, founder of Disneyland's employee training program and recipient of a rare park honor--a commemorative window on Main Street--said the Home of the Future put up a stubborn fight. "I was amazed that a bulldozer could knock down a regular house in a couple of hours, while this seemed to take days."

It did take about six days, according to Schwartz.

"Everyone thought it would be a quick job," said the former Disneyland maintenance supervisor. "Maybe a day or so at most. But it took much longer than anticipated. That Fiberglas was a tough bugger to break."

But persistence and brute force finally prevailed. The gleaming white shell was smashed and the last plastic shards of Fiberglas, Lustrex and Ultron trucked away.

But the memory of the future lingered.

It was a future of hits, near misses and the occasional wild shot, much like the radical shape of the home itself. While the traditional home was basically a wood-framed box set in the ground, this floating cross of suspended plastic seemed to hover, seemingly ready to fly off into the 21st Century.

When the Home of the Future opened in June, 1957, it was presented as "the forerunner of the dwelling of the typical American family of four 10 years from now."

Instead, at the end of those 10 years, the Home of the Future itself was a pile of rubble. And, to this day, houses are still built as wood-framed boxes set in the ground.

But the plastic furnishings of the home, the plastic chairs and countertops, together with the acrylic carpets and upholstery, foretold a future that has evolved with a vengeance. In the 1950s, plastics were the wonder materials of in-home living. Today they are a fundamental.

Other predictions advanced by Monsanto's team of futurists were to find their way into the American home: Microwave cooking, telephones with pre-set and push-button dialing, speaker phones and central climate control.

The home had a built-in entertainment center complete with stereo, tape recorder and something called an "observascope," actually a giant color television that doubled as a movie screen (a forerunner of the age of video).

And then there were the misses: stoves and appliances that disappeared into kitchen walls and countertops at a push of a button, atomic food preservation (whatever that was), ultrasonic dish-washing and a picture telephone.

But in the 1950s, Monsanto's plastic home was a bold new world, albeit one with synthetic underpinnings. It was also a practical advertisement for the chemical company's products.

For many of the 18 million or so people who toured its plastic and electronic wonders during its Disneyland run, it became something of an old friend. Which is a lousy thing for a Home of the Future to become.

"There were a lot of us who hated to see it go," Schwartz said. "It was all fancied up for the future. It's just that the future, in a lot of ways, had caught up to it."

Which is what the future does, and why predicting the future home will always be a growth industry.

"The trouble with our times is that the future is not what it used to be."--Paul Valery, French poet

Indeed it is not. Certainly not in the home.

Futurists once routinely predicted that homes would one day float in the air, or perhaps nestle underground, where they would serve as fully automated, high-tech human habitats.

It was simpler to predict the future home in simpler times. All the dreamy in-home wizardry was just a technological stone's throw from the imagination.

The future home was going to be full of gadgets and was going to adapt itself into new and stunning shapes.

Gregory Benford, an award-winning science-fiction writer who lives in Laguna Beach and is a professor of physics at UC Irvine, visited the Disneyland dwelling in 1963. "It was interesting, but I didn't think then that houses (of the future) would look like French Impressionist paintings, and I still don't."

Benford predicts that the home of the future 20 or 30 years from now will still look like today's tract dwellings. "But they'll be smarter," he said.

As Benford foresees it, an aging population will mean an in-home future built on rollers and open spaces. "That way furniture and appliances can be moved more easily as people grow older."

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