Igloos in Falls Church

Architect Wallace Neff's experimental postwar "bubble houses" weren't built to last.

Reprinted with permission of the DC Public Library, Star Collection, © Washington Post

Wallace Neff probably felt a bit out of place in Northern Virginia in 1941. The dashing Californian had built a reputation as architect to the stars—designing lavish estates for the likes of Judy Garland, Charlie Chaplin and Groucho Marx—when the U.S. government asked him to build federal housing in Falls Church for wartime defense workers.

His solution was affordable by Hollywood standards, but no less avant-garde. Rather than copy the staid Colonial Revival houses he found throughout Virginia, Neff designed a futuristic series of concrete, bubble-shaped houses that became known as the Igloo Village.

The domed structures manifested a model that Neff had been tinkering with for nearly a decade, extolling their “streamlined beauty and efficiency,” according to No Nails, No Lumber: The Bubble Houses of Wallace Neff, by Jeffrey Head. With the nationwide war effort demanding limits on the use of lumber and metal, his design seemed like a winning solution. Not only were the homes low in cost, they could be built in just two days.

Each structure started out like a giant papier-mâché project. First, a large rubber balloon (manufactured by the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co.) was inflated and tied down to a circular concrete slab. Then gunite, a form of concrete, was sprayed on top of the balloon. Once the gunite set, the balloon was deflated and removed, and the house was insulated and reinforced with wire mesh and more concrete.

The houses came in both single, igloo-like units (about 480 square feet each) and “double bubbles,” which were also called “bra houses” for obvious reasons.

Twelve of Neff’s bubble houses—two singles and 10 doubles—were built in the Horseshoe Hill area of Falls Church, near the intersection of Lee Highway and West Street. The village immediately drew curious gawkers and newspaper coverage, but residents soon complained about moisture problems, crumbling plaster and the difficulty of decorating curved walls.

“One woman living there in 1947 said she loved the place, even though her infant son probably ate a little more crumbled plaster than was good for him,” says Jennifer Sale Crane, an architectural historian and past president of the Arlington Historical Society. “Having lived through the Depression and the war, the Greatest Generation had a profound appreciation for the simple privilege of a roof over their heads.”

Although Neff also introduced bubble houses in California, Arizona, Mexico and other locations, the concept never gained widespread appeal. By the early 1960s, the bubble had burst, and the Igloo Village was demolished to make way for a new apartment complex—presumably one with corners.

Categories: Local History