Author of the acclaimed Modern Housing (1934), a renowned "Houser" and urban planner, during the mid-1930s Catherine Bauer (May 11, 1905–November 22, 1964) served as the activist executive secretary of the Labor Housing Conference. She was the driving force behind passage of the 1937 Wagner-Steagall Housing Act, which established public housing in America.
Born in 1905 in Elizabeth, New Jersey, Bauer traveled extensively in Europe after graduating from Vassar in 1926, writing articles for Vogue, Ladies Home Journal, and the New York Times. Her fascination with Europe's modern housing drew her abroad again in 1930 and 1932, the second time with author-intellectual Lewis Mumford (then her lover), whom she met while working at the publishing company Harcourt-Brace and who enlisted her in the Regional Planning Association of America (RPAA). Bauer's 1934 book Modern Housing extolled Europe's experiment with government-aided shelter, much of which, like Romerstadt in Frankfurt, Germany, and Vienna's Karl Marx Hoff, featured the streamlined, functionalist Bauhaus architecture of the period. The United States, exhorted Bauer, must, like Europe, make housing a right and a "public utility."
Mass evictions and mortgage foreclosures during the early Great Depression vindicated Bauer's fears about the inadequacy of American housing. Although President Herbert Hoover's 1931 Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC) and President Franklin D. Roosevelt's 1933 Public Works Administration (PWA) Housing Division both included monies for low-income housing, Bauer believed that impetus for a real modern housing program must come from workers themselves. Her model became Philadelphia's 184-unit Carl Mackley Homes, a hosiery-worker-sponsored RFC project completed in 1935 by the PWA. With Bauhaus design, it epitomized her ideal of "modern housing," although few hosiery workers could afford the rents.
In 1934 Bauer took the executive secretary post of the Labor Housing Conference and toured the United States promoting a permanent, state-aided low-cost housing program modeled on Mackley. But Bauer's plan, embodied in the 1935 Robert Wagner-Henry Ellenbogen bill, failed. The public housing legislation that emerged—and Bauer supported—lacked the working-class stamp of the 1935 bill. Introduced by Wagner but cosponsored instead by Alabama's hard-line conservative congressman Henry Steagall, it emphasized slum clearance for the very poor, not the working class. Bauer campaigned vigorously for Wagner-Steagall, and it was passed in 1937. The projects built by the new United States Housing Authority (USHA) evinced much of "modern housing," but stripped of frills, they bore a stark, institutional appearance. Bauer briefly (1938–1939) administered the USHA's Division of Research and Information, which as a New Deal insider she had founded to be the research and public relations arm of the new federal housing agency.
After World War II she married the architect William Wurster and took a professorship at the University of California at Berkeley. She became active in regional planning and an incisive critic of 1950s public housing policy. Bauer died in 1964 while hiking the rugged hills near her home north of San Francisco.
Bauer, Catherine. Modern Housing. 1934.
Oberlander, Peter H., and Eva Newbrun. Houser: The Life and Work of Catherine Bauer. 1999.
Radford, Gail. Modern Housing for America: Policy Struggles in the New Deal Era. 1996.
John F. Bauman