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Book Review: Leisurama Now

Leisurama CoverDoesn’t everyone yearn for a special little place that they can get away to, especially this time of year? With Leisurama Now: The Beach House for Everyone, writer/designer Paul Sahre explores a short-lived product of early ’60s consumer optimism which ties into that basic need — the affordable middle-class summer beach house.

Specifically, this book chronicles a tract of 250 homes built under the promise-filled name of Leisurama. For a minimal down payment, ordinary New Yorkers could buy their very own beach bungalow which came fully furnished right down to the toothbrushes in the bathroom, located a short drive away on Montauk, Long Island. This was a big deal at the time — promotional models of the basic “Convertible” Leisurama model were built on the 9th floor of Macy’s and at the 1964 New York World’s Fair — and many a starry-eyed young family wanting a no-fuss summer getaway ate it up. Unfortunately, the costly program proved unprofitable and so the program was discontinued after a few years.

Sahre has catalogued and organized everything about this modest outcropping of homes with an admirable anal retentiveness. In the chapter titled “Inventory,” black and white photos of Leisurama’s original furniture, melmac dinnerware, flatware, lighting fixtures and even heating vent grates are obsessively annotated. Another section collects images of the Leisurama homes as they currently stand. Although this part takes up too many pages and the photos aren’t all that exceptional, it is interesting to see how various owners over the years have individualized the spare, modern original designs into something more homey (not to mention often overgrown with shrubbery). Starting with the kitschy clear plastic jacket, this book is full of quirky design touches. I’d even recommend the book more for designers than for architecture buffs or retro-living fans — although those would enjoy it, too.

If anything, the book is less about the properties themselves than about fundamentally what people want from a home and the expectations that are tied within those needs. A neat chapter on architect Andrew Geller contains a remarkable early rendering of a typical Leisurama model in which the design was much more daring and original than the boxy final product. The “illustion vs. reality” subtext continues in a revealing chapter interviewing a couple who have held onto their Leisurama home since 1965. Not only does it deal with the hassles of constructing the home in the ’60s, it also outlines how the neighborhood has changed since then — with many owners converting the homes into year-round residences currently worth many times more than their original investments. The neighborhood in and around Montauk may be radically different today (for an example, check out the galling photos on page 222 of a charming old Leisurama razed and replaced with a horrid contemporary McBeach House), but the basic need for a place to call “home” remains timeless.

Leisurama Now: The Beach House for Everyone was recently published by Princeton Architectural Press. Buy at Amazon.com here.

Leisurama Spread 1

Leisurama Spread 2

2 Thoughts on “Book Review: Leisurama Now

  1. Terry Anderson on June 13, 2008 at 3:05 pm said:

    Hey Matt, Cool post. Apparently there is a documentary in the works on the subject: http://www.leisurama.info/ there are a few clips on the site,

  2. Sahre mentions that doc in the acknowledgments. I’ll have to look for it on PBS, Apparently the book and film were made independently, although the filmmaker did help out with research on the book.

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