Suburbs and the American Dream — The Minnesota History Center puts “Suburbia” on display

Betty Back Mrs. Minnesota 1958
Mrs. Minnesota, Betty Bach, 1958. The Mrs. America contest was promoted as a search for the “best looking and best homemaker among America’s married women.” In 1958, Mrs. Alvin J. Bach of Columbia Heights won the Mrs. Minnesota title. She placed third in the Mrs. America contest. Minnesota Historical Society Collections

I wish I lived closer, because I would really like to see this exhibit, Suburbia, at the Minnesota History Center in St. Paul. The “American Dream” — it’s a complicated thing. And the suburbs — yes, a complicated part of the complicated American Dream. 

Photo viewing tip: Click the photos, and they should double in size on desktop screens — they are terrific!

From the press release:

Pink flamingos and a manicured lawn: the American Dream realized?
‘Suburbia’ exhibit at the Minnesota History Center

In 1950, approximately 70 percent of people in the Twin Cities metro lived in Minneapolis and St. Paul. By 2010, that figure had dropped to 20 percent. This dramatic shift from cities to suburbs took hold across the country and is seen by many historians as one of the most important events in U.S. history.

vintage win a house advertisement
Ecklund & Swedlund Advertisement, 1958. In 1958, Ecklund & Swedlund homebuilders launched a publicity stunt to bring attention to their Woodland Hills development: they built and raffled off a model home at Knollwood Plaza Shopping Center. Betty Bach, Mrs. Minnesota, served as hostess for the house. Courtesy Mark Swedlund.

What drew people to the suburbs in the first place? Did reality reflect the dream of suburban living? And what does suburbia look like today? Visitors can explore these concepts, plus take in the changing styles of home building and interior design, in the new exhibit, “Suburbia,” Oct. 10, 2015 to March 20, 2016, at the Minnesota History Center, St. Paul.

vintage school photo
Gwen Smith class photo, 1965-1966. With the construction of I-94 cutting through the Rondo neighborhood of St. Paul, many African-American families had to move. Roxie and Silas Smith decided to relocate to Maplewood, where their children were often the only African-American students in class. Courtesy Gwen Ellis.

Through firsthand accounts, immersive settings, multimedia interactives and vibrant displays, visitors can explore the lives of the people who moved to the suburbs, those who were excluded, and all the people in between.

“In 1959, the average age of marriage was 19,” said Ellen Miller, exhibit developer. “Today, millennials are delaying the age of marriage and opting to live in the urban core. By looking back at suburban America, we hope to spark conversations about how the ideal of the ‘American Dream’ is changing.”

This exhibit is presented in three immersive settings: Building Suburbia, Living in Suburbia, and Shopping in suburbia. Throughout the exhibit, guests are invited to look back and reflect on the successes and failures of Suburbia and what’s in store for the future.

Suburbia Intro
As you enter the exhibit, a large floor map of the Twin Cities showcases the area’s suburbs.

Parade of homes 1957
Model Home, Crystal, 1957. The return of servicemen after WWII helped fuel a housing shortage, which drove new developments. At the same time, new home-financing opportunities made the dream of suburban living come true for the middle class. Minnesota Historical Society Collections.

Building Suburbia
Walk through a house under construction to learn about the post war building boom and the hope of realizing the “American Dream.” Explore the changing economic and policy factors that helped increase rates of home ownership, the army of builders who filled the demands for new, modern housing, and the conditions that resulted in racial groups being left out of the dream. Learn about the Smith family who moved from Rondo to Maplewood where, despite encountering racial discrimination, they built their “dream home.”

Living in Suburbia
Enter a model ranch-style home [we sure hope there’s a pink bathroom!] where the baby boom generation grew up amid ideals of suburban domesticity and the nuclear family. See how the home reflected changes in family size, gender roles and sexual mores. Look back at how cocktails, cigarettes and cards were once fashionable, but now are considered vice. Meet Betty Bach, Mrs. Minnesota 1958, through TV clips, hear about the ideal housewife — and get her donut recipe!

Shopping center vintage
Southdale Shopping Center, 1956. “Meet your friends at the exotic Garden Court – dramatic center of Southdale. At your table at the sidewalk cafe, you’re only a few steps from the gaily decorated stores and shops along the colorful shopping lanes which open into the year-’round springtime atmosphere of the Garden Court.” Courtesy Edina Historical Society.

Shopping in Suburbia
Be transported to Southdale Shopping Center when it opened in 1956 as a revolutionary model that was copied around the nation. Designed by Victor Gruen, learn how the architecture of the enclosed mall and massive sea of parking, radically changed consumer practices, preferences and expectations across the nation. Climb inside a 1956 Chevrolet Townsman station wagon and explore how suburban growth catered to drivers with expanded freeways, parking lots, shopping centers, drive-in restaurants and movie theaters.

Suburbia Today
Consider how the suburbs have changed today. With millennials marrying and establishing families, will they stay in the urban core, or follow the trend of previous generations and opt for the greener pastures of the suburbs?

Mega thanks to reader Sharon for tipping us to this fascinating-sounding exhibit.

Link love:

  1. Sixteventies says:

    As a 20-something, I must say it is sad that most of my generation is flocking to the urban parts of the country, to “explore” and look “polished.” They like the celebrity feel of things it seems. I’ve enjoyed suburbia since I was in junior high and don’t plan on living anywhere else. I wish this exhibit was closer to where I lived!

  2. GlenEllyn says:

    I’m very interested in visiting this exhibit and luckily, I still live close enough to go.

    I spent my middle and late childhood in the Twin Cities area, and yes, our family shopped at Southdale. As a matter of fact, we lived in Woodland Hills (mentioned in one of the picture captions), a subdivision in the western/southwestern Minneapolis suburb of Minnetonka, for about four years. Ecklund & Swedlund homebuilders were very well known back then (mid-1960s). Lovely area, appropriately named, but rather pricey these days.

    On another note, there is a new book out by architectural historian Larry Millett called “Minnesota Modern.” It is described as “the definitive book on the midcentury era in Minnesota, including residential, public and commercial designs.” (credit to Amy Goetzman, MinnPost, 11/13/15). You can read about it here:


    It sounds like an interesting read for mid-century fans.

  3. Virginia says:

    I don’t think anyone has to worry about young people permanently abandoning suburbia for the city — from my perch, suburbia is alive and well! It’s just ridiculously expensive, at least where I live, so people who already own homes are hanging onto them right now. But our two newest neighbors are a young couple who previously lived in a San Francisco studio, and a family with a preschooler. Having raised our own kids on this street, it’s nice to see younger folks moving in.

  4. SebsPortland says:

    As someone who was raised in Philadelphia proper, & went to college in Manhattan, I find it offensive when people insult city education & dwelling. City kids are more independent, more liberal, more multi-cultural than suburbanites, & more likely to befriend people of other ethnicities or races. I’m 35 — so I am a few years older than a millennial — but I don’t see many people my age rushing to the suburbs. In fact none of the friends I was raised with left when they had kids. They maintain small but lovely homes in Philly, Brooklyn, Queens, Miami, & Portland.

  5. Rick says:

    I went to this last week (visiting MN). Retro cool! Got quite a few pics. They even had the GE wall hung refrigerator; on the wall as part of the display. Goes on til the 10th of March 2016.

    1. Rick says:

      need to add; there’s also a permanent exhibit on the same floor as ‘Suburbia’ called Minnesota’s Greatest Generation. Of interest to those here, there is a ‘revolving ’50s looking’ kitchen attached to a living room with an aluminum tree & presents (opened) of the era.

  6. Jacki says:

    My folks bought a house in what was then called Cedar Grove MN (now Eagan) back in 1957. It was a newer suburb of Minneapolis back then and it was near the airport where Dad worked. I have pictures of the house when it stood on a barren corner lot. The neighborhood is now full of big trees and cute mid century homes. We moved to AZ in 1965. I would love to see this exhibit.

  7. linoleummy says:

    This really sounds like a great exhibit, you Minnesotans are lucky to be close enough to see it & thank you for telling us more about it. Lots of interesting and eye-opening comments here too.

  8. JKM says:

    School issues had a large part to do with suburban growth, too. We lived in Dallas and school desegregation started things brewing (yes, it was wrong but there was a different mindset then) but wasn’t a huge issue, depending on the part of town in which one lived. When the school district decided busing students around town was the solution to racially balancing schools, the surrounding little towns exploded overnight into booming suburbs. My sister and I were toddlers in 1963 when our parents saw what was coming and, with everyone they knew, fled to the suburbs where they could buy brand-new $10 per square foot air conditioned homes financed with VA or FHA loans in new, planned developments with homes ranging from $12,000 to $25,000 with excellent schools we would eventually walk to and new shopping centers at which mom could shop. As an adult, I see how insulated we were from “real world” issues but that’s not such a bad thing for children.

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