“Features worth crowin’ about.” So goes the proclamation of a November 1961 ad in The News Tribune promoting the newly constructed “House of Freedom.”
A cartoon rooster touts the attributes of the South Yakima Avenue single-story abode. “Look at these features that truly make this a ‘House of Freedom,’” the advertisement reads. “Freedom from household drudgery, freedom from poor lighting, freedom from drafts, narrow hallways, steep stairs — and best of all … Freedom from excessive house expense!”
Built in 1961, the two-bedroom home was co-sponsored by Tacoma firms Standard Plywood Sales Co. and the Douglas Fir Plywood Association — later rebranded as the American Plywood Association and known today as the APA: The Engineered Wood Association. The home was designed and built as a comfortable, low-cost housing option for retirement living, tipped especially toward the 65-plus demographic.
The home showcased senior-friendly amenities such as step-free entrances, nonslip flooring, elevated electrical outlets, bathroom grab bars and a dressing seat, pull-down light fixtures, a lowered kitchen sink for seated washing, and more. The structure itself also was built with older citizens in mind; the single-story open floor plan looked to optimize mobility.
According to a December 1960 article in The News Tribune, the project was conceived by Mary Cleverley, then assistant Public Housing Administration commissioner, during a conference on retirement living put on by the plywood association.
From there, Tacoma architect Bob Waring drew up designs with input from AARP to maximize accessibility features. Within two months, a first-of-its-kind model was built and put on display in Washington, D.C., just in time for yet another conference. This time, it was the January 1961 White House Conference on Aging, and it was attended by both the outgoing president, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and the president-elect, John F. Kennedy.
Of the display model, AARP founder Ethel Percy Andrus told Eisenhower that it would “provide a starting point for action by private industry and government agencies to solve the problem of adequate housing for our older citizens,” according to an article on the AARP website.
Tacoman and then-Douglas Fir Plywood Association Executive Vice President W.E. Difford also was present for Eisenhower’s introduction to the low-cost home. Looking at the model with the end of his presidency looming, Eisenhower reportedly asked Difford whether there would be enough room to store his presidential keepsakes, according to an article in The News Tribune following the conference.
“You know, I’m going to be retired pretty soon myself. I’m interested in keepsakes. They’re important in this job,” Eisenhower told Difford during their meeting, noting that he had more than 18,000 knickknacks as wildly diverse as a hand-knitted washcloth and a Tunisian white stallion.
Though it was unclear whether the president’s souvenirs would fit in the home, and despite some back-and-forth discussion about inflation, Eisenhower said he thought the home was “terrific” and that he really “enjoyed” the model, according to The News Tribune.
Following the model’s debut in Washington, D.C., the South Yakima Avenue home was quickly constructed and put on display for public tours. Between the home’s success at the conference and the Tacoma model, the attention helped the plywood association receive more than 5,000 requests for the home’s plans. Over the next several years, identical Houses of Freedom popped up across the nation.
The current owners of the Tacoma model, Kelly Jack and Alex Schloer, are a young couple far south of the 65-plus demographic for which the house originally was built and marketed. However, they said they’re both enamored with the midcentury home’s layout, comfort, and convenience.
Jack — who purchased the home in 2021 with longtime boyfriend Schloer (who — full disclosure — works as a designer for South Sound’s parent company, Premier Media Group) — said her favorite feature of the home is the pegboard cabinetry throughout.
“I now collect pegboard hooks and accessories when poking around at estate and garage sales. I can use them throughout the house: kitchen, living room, laundry room, bathroom — everywhere,” she said, noting that the pantry has the best use of these materials. “The walls and inside the door are all lined with pegboard, and the shelves and hooks can be moved around to wherever, since it’s just moving small shelves on pegs,” she added.
Schloer said he doesn’t really have a favorite part of the house, though he is partial to the exposed beams, built-in bar, stone fireplace, and built-in vacuum system.
“It’s comfortable, close to everything, has room for each of us to have our own office, and houses all our stuff,” he said.
From AARP floor plans and their own research, the couple said the house went through some major changes over the years before they took ownership. Specifically, an enclosed courtyard previously separating the two wings of the house was taken down to extend the living room, which Jack and Schloer agree works for them. Jack, however, wonders what it would be like to have the courtyard intact.
“It looks like the courtyard had a big slider and windows on either side, (which) sounds pretty cool,” Jack said. “I’m a plant person, so I love the idea of outdoors in the middle of the house … but I don’t mind the remodel with the extra space.”
In addition to the home’s status as the first “House of Freedom,” Washington listing agent Melo Hogan was surprised to find the home also had a special signifier that marked its status as a “Gold Medallion” home.
“I did some research on the story behind it and found that it was one of the first homes that was fully electric post- World War II, with (its General Electric) furnace, water heater, appliances, and built-in vacuum,” the Tacoma-based Windermere Abode broker said.
Other rare-for-the-era electric features included a dishwasher, washer and dryer, and baseboard heating.
As with all older homes, necessary improvements must be made from time to time, but as stewards of the historic dwelling, Jack and Schloer said they intend to keep its integrity intact.
“We want to keep the house as original as possible, but creature comforts and cost-saving measures are important,” said Schloer, who noted that the couple already has made the switch to more energy-efficient windows, upgraded the home’s galvanized pipes, and replaced the electrical panel. “Mostly though, it’s just been a lot of cleaning and rejuvenating of old fixtures, counters, tiles, and everything else — it’s amazing what some elbow grease can do.”