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Schrank Follows Her Interest In Public Art, Urban Culture

Published: February 1, 2011

With a research fellowship and a sabbatical in 2008-09, History’s Sarah Schrank followed her interest in public art and urban culture with the discovery of the architecture of nudism.

Schrank, the author of Art and the City: Civic Imagination and Cultural Authority in Los Angeles and book review editor of the Southern California Quarterly, began her study during a fall 2008 Haynes Foundation Fellowship at the Huntington Library. There, she researched a book project on late 19th and early 20th century alternative body practices and healthful architecture in Southern California. This work was then followed by four weeks at Miami’s center for the study of art and design, The Wolfsonian.

“Out of my sabbatical research in South Florida emerged a phenomenon that I’d never seen before; suburban nudism,” said Schrank, a member of the university since 2002. “I’d never imagined it or previously found records of it. My interest in urban culture suddenly ran into my interest in the history of United States health practices to discover a rather remarkable cross-section of 1950s culture.”

On her way to preparing an article on the topic for the Journal of Urban History, Schrank discovered people with progressive ideas about health, nature and freedom who were imagining a new way of life in the early 20th century. Then these ideas began to change. “People who belonged to nudist colonies in the teens, ‘20s and ‘30s began to turn inward after World War II,” she explained. “They adjusted their houses in American suburbia to continue their nudist practices unbeknownst to the outside gaze. Learning this, I began to track the history of nudist architecture in the United States.”

Naked Americans anxious to avoid notice in the conformist 1950s began to imagine how they could shape their houses to accommodate their covert lifestyles. “In order to do that, they had to rearrange the internal architecture of their houses so that they couldn’t be seen from the outside,” she explained. “That involved things like mock picture windows and hallways built at angles so that someone standing at the front door couldn’t see through the house. But it couldn’t just be walled off because it would look too peculiar, too unwelcoming. Suburban nudists designed backyards where they could suntan nude without bunkering themselves in. It was the middle of the 1950s. The last thing they wanted was a neighborhood wondering what they were doing. Subcultures like domestic nudism force us to reconsider just how conservative the 1950s suburbs really were and to consider the relationship between subcultures and the American mainstream.”

The mainstream seemed the right place for many of her subjects. “It dawned on me while I looked at all these records that, if you just put clothes on these people, they would fit perfectly into every popular representation of what a 1950s family ought to be,” she said. “There was the nice house with two cars parked outside and two kids inside. All this fit perfectly into the post-war domestic ideology of married, procreative normality. The question then emerges: was this a progressive culture or one easily appropriated by mainstream social norms and consumer capitalism?”

Schrank found a treasure trove of nudist materials at The Wolfsonian. “Some years back, an elderly Florida nudist donated his extensive archive to the museum. It is a collection of memos involving the politics of nudist groups to collectible ephemera,” she said. “At times, there were thousands and thousands of members. It was a secret world. There was no way to know who was a nudist. But there was a moment in 1950s America when a record was made of people communicating about nudism, describing nudism, photographing nudism and building their houses around nudism.”

She was surprised at the breadth of social participation. There were elite and working-class nudists. “Plumbers and mechanics participated in this culture. So did teachers and judges,” she said. “You can’t tell a nudist by class. And you can’t even tell by politics. You might expect nudists generally to lean to the left politically but that was not always so. What my research revealed was that home-owning nudists tended to be families, and suburban families at that. They were fairly young, in their 30s and 40s. They were overwhelmingly white, middle class and heterosexual.”

Sarah Schrank
Photo Courtesy of Sarah Schrank
Sarah Schrank

The movement for “health houses” which could accommodate nudism had its origins in Los Angeles.

“Some nudists were in California for the weather, which gave the Golden State a disproportionate number of nudists,” she said. “Nevertheless, many lived in the Midwest and a lot established colonies in upstate New York. It’s really not a California story at all. It is a national story.”

In the 1920s, elite architects like Richard Neutra (1892-1970) one of modernism’s most important figures, and Rudolph Michael Schindler (1887-1953) were commissioned by Philip Lovell, a Los Angeles-based health guru who wrote a column for the Los Angeles Times for 30 years, to design a couple of homes including the Lovell Health House and the Lovell Beach House. “Homes like these were spectacular,” she said. “But this was the kind of thing that only the wealthiest person could have. What the suburban nudist needed was a cheap, pre-fabricated house.”

They found what they wanted in places like Tampa, Fla. “Tampa still has nudist subdivisions,” she said.” If you get in touch with the right real estate agents, they’ll take you. I wonder if potential buyers have to be nude to tour the home? Probably not.”

Months of research into homes for the naked sensitized Schrank to the subject.

“It’s common now to look at the living spaces surrounding me and think, could this be a nudist house?” she laughed. “Usually, the answer is no. In biking around Long Beach I’ve begun to notice things like rooftop patios. They would be perfect nude sunbathing spots. But my own building is known for all of its windows.”

Schrank received her Baccalaureate de Francais at the Lycee Marcelin Berthelot in France, her B.A. from Canada’s McGill University and her Ph.D. from UC San Diego in 2002. She delivered a paper on the architecture of nudism in Las Vegas in November 2010 at the Urban History Association’s annual conference and has a fellowship from The Wolfsonian to fund her return to Miami this summer.

Schrank was pleased by her sabbatical year. “Beginning in September 2008, I spent over six months in the Huntington Library,” she recalled. “I looked in their special collections for vegetarian cookbooks from the turn of the century. I examined late 19th century medical journals and the records of socialist communes. I tracked California New Age practices all the way back to the 1870s. I found old journals published by the Women’s Christian Temperance Union that encouraged women to bake only with organic flour and to study the stars for astrological signs. To then follow this work with a month of research at the Wolfsonian made the year incredibly productive.”

Schrank encourages other faculty members to apply for sabbaticals when they are eligible. “And always apply for outside funding,” she said. “You never know where your research will take you.”