KGOU

How Curious: A Disappearing Russian House?

May 15, 2018

A tiny "Russian Dream House" appears in an Oklahoma City neighborhood in 1963. And then it disappears. 

Dana Billingsley asked "How Curious:" What was this house? And where did it come from?

FULL EPISODE TRANSCRIPT:

Claire Donnelly: It's 1963. Dana Billingsley is seven years old. Her family has just moved into a brand new neighborhood in Oklahoma City called Springdale. And one day something unusual appears about a block away from her new house.

Dana Billingsley: It was just there one day, as I recall. It was this little frame house with weathered wood. It was really small, very sparse furnishings--Boy Scouts could have put it up in a day.

Donnelly: And this small house has a name.

Billingsley: "Russian Dream House." That was what it was called.

Donnelly: Then, after a couple of weeks, Dana says the so-called Russian dream house disappeared.

Billingsley: It seemed to me like it was there and it was gone.

Donnelly: Dana asked "How Curious:" What was this house? And where did it come from? This is "How Curious" from KGOU, exploring your questions about the state we call home. I'm Claire Donnelly. Seven-year-old Dana was pretty stumped by the little Russian dream home.

Billingsley: At the time I was like, "what is this about? Why is this here?".

Donnelly: She says she walked through the house, but there wasn't very much to see. It had three small rooms: a combination living room and bedroom, a bathroom and a kitchen. The whole thing measured 24 feet by 16 feet. It had a double bed, a bed/couch, two tables and four chairs. That's according to newspaper articles from the time. The heat came from a wood burning stove. And there were three electric light bulbs.

Billingsley: I didn't have a concept of propaganda. But I thought at the time, you know, "boy, it's really important for someone to show us the difference between a 'dream home' in Oklahoma City and a 'dream home' in Mother Russia.".

Donnelly: According to newspapers, the plans for the house came from a Soviet construction magazine.

Melissa Stockdale: It's called "Zhilischnoye Stroitel Stvo," which would mean like, "home building" or "home construction.".

Donnelly: This is Melissa Stockdale. She's a history professor at the University of Oklahoma and she specializes in Russian and Soviet history. OK, we'll come back to the house in a second. But first, let's talk about what was going on between the U.S. and the Soviet Union around the time the dream house appeared in Dana's neighborhood.

Stockdale says before 1956, the two countries didn't really have much to do with each other. Then Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev started to reach out toward the west.

Stockdale: In 1959, the United States and the Soviet Union signed a cultural exchange program, where we started sending like 35 American scholars to go study there each year, 35 Soviet scholars would come here. They would send the Bolshoi Ballet here, we would send exhibits of like, American refrigerators there. You know, so that you're showing off your culture but you're exchanging.

Donnelly: Just a few years later, came the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. That's when the U.S. discovered the Soviet Union was stockpiling missiles in Cuba. Here's an excerpt from a televised address by President John F. Kennedy.

President John F. Kennedy: It shall be the policy of this nation to regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the western hemisphere as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union.

Donnelly: This was the closest the two superpowers came to starting a nuclear war. Stockdale says after leaders negotiated an end to the crisis, there was an attitude shift.

Stockdale: In fact, our relationship became rather better because I think everyone was scared to pieces by how close we came to blowing the planet up. And everybody was saying "no, no, no, we don't want that to happen again. We have to have more dialogue, more exchanges.".

Donnelly: This is the context for the little Russian house--about one year after the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Stockdale: When we've really sort of backed off and caught our breath and are really trying hard to get along better.

Donnelly: So who built the so-called Russian dream home? It seems it was a home builder named Amos Bouse, also known as Bud. He developed the Springdale neighborhood. That's the neighborhood Dana moved into in 1963. Bouse's so-called "Russian dream home" was also on display at the Oklahoma State Fair in 1963. Oklahoma Gas and Electric Company--that's OG&E--supposedly helped sponsor the Russian house display. But an OG&E spokeswoman says she couldn't find any record of it.

Newspapers say the company won a blue ribbon for the house and for its exhibit of modern electrical appliances. Bouse passed away, so we're not sure if it was his idea or OG&E's. Some people I talked to say it's possible he built it to attract people to the Springdale neighborhood. Maybe he thought if he put the exhibit there, people who came to check it out would also see the brand new "Gold Medallion" homes he was building. And then maybe they would think about buying one of them.

Donnelly: Here's another picture of it. So this is what it says about it, "USSR dream house..."

Rachick Virabyan: (laughs) Oh god, it's like a barrack. This is propaganda. That's a pure propaganda.

Donnelly: This is OU Russian professor Rachick Virabyan.

Virabyan: Compare these two pictures. Now, if you see, you can see it's just a box. And here's the beautiful American house that you can move in, "Four bedroom home." (laughs)

Donnelly: Virabyan says Nikita Khrushchev, the Communist Party leader, made housing a priority. But he says people in Soviet cities weren't living in single family homes.

Virabyan: In 1963, we are talking about? They would build huge, huge houses with tiny, tiny apartments. And they were called "Khrushchevka."

Donnelly: "Khrushchevka," after Khrushchev.

Virabyan: These are all premade concrete blocks put together. And then you cram into this building families, basically. And because of the lack of the housing, or houses, people were just happy to get any house.

Donnelly: Remember, in the USSR, there was no such thing as private property or private land. So the government would build these Khrushchevka and assign them to people. The state wouldn't charge rent but residents did pay utilities. Here's Melissa Stockdale, the history professor, again.

Stockdale: You couldn't really just like, go out and build your own home in the Soviet Union in those days because everything was state-owned. You know, like, where would you get the materials?

Donnelly: Also, newspaper articles about the house say it would have cost someone in the Soviet Union 22,000 rubles, or roughly $19,000. But both Stockdale and Virabyan say that doesn't quite make sense.

Virabyan: They were making maybe 60 rubles a month. So they could never afford such amount of money to have in their hands, first of all. 22,000 rubles--it's unbelievable price.

Donnelly: Meaning Russian families probably weren't building houses like the Russian dream home, especially not if they lived in big cities.

Virabyan: Living in the countryside, like villages or something, you had probably more independence in the housing, you could build your own house.

Donnelly: But Virabyan says he doesn't know if houses like this existed in the USSR. He says most of the things written about the so-called dream home sound like propaganda. And Stockdale agrees.

Stockdale: It probably was a way of reassuring Oklahomans who went to the state fair that, "oh my goodness, we are so much better off than they are.".

Donnelly: I take this information back to our question asker, Dana Billingsley. We meet of a coffee shop in Oklahoma City. She says there are more layers to the story than she thought. And since we couldn't find some of the answers, she says now she has even more questions than before. But Dana says it's kind of comforting to know her instincts about the house as a 7 year old were probably correct.

Billingsley: It just always stayed with me. Like I said, the "Russian Dream House" and the feeling that I had at the time that "there's more to this.".

Donnelly: And nothing I found in my research pointed to where the house might have ended up. So, for now, the disappearing Russian dream house remains disappeared. 

 

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