Seattle Master Builders Association plays host to 10 Soviet Union housing officials on October 14, 1955.

  • By John Caldbick
  • Posted 10/13/2009
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 9185

On October 14, 1955, the Seattle Master Builders Association (SMBA) hosts 10 top Russian housing officials and a Soviet embassy interpreter who are on a 30-day,13-city U.S. tour sponsored by the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB). The visit follows the July 1955 Geneva summit talks and is seen as a step toward reducing tension between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. The National Association of Home Builders has invited the delegation to "view the American way of life in its true setting, the American home" (The Seattle Times). During their two-day stay in Seattle, the officials will be taken to see  local housing developments and will inspect factories that manufacture housing-related products.

The Russians Are Coming

The Soviet delegation arrived at Seattle-Tacoma Airport on the evening of October 13 and were greeted by representatives of the Seattle Master Builders Association, including F. R. McAbee, Stanley Long, and V. O. "Bud" Stringfellow. A newspaper account of their arrival noted that the Russians were "tired ... but smiling" after two weeks of inspection trips in cities all across the country (The Seattle Times). The Russian group was headed by I. K. Kozuilia, the Soviet Union's minister of city and urban construction and accompanied by Victor Zegal, an official of the Soviet embassy who acted as interpreter and sometime censor. Also along was Alexander V. Vlasov, president of the Soviet Academy of Architects, who near the end of the tour was recalled to Moscow, reportedly due to fears he was planning to defect.
 
In addition to Kozuilia, Vaslov, and the interpreter, the delegation included seven engineers, a researcher, and a sanitation specialist. The Seattle stop followed visits to several other U.S. cities, including New York, Washington D.C., Boston, Chicago, and Fort Wayne, Indiana, where the officials seemed particularly taken by a demonstration of low-cost, durable, prefabricated homes. The Soviet Union was still desperately short of decent housing, having seen nearly 1,700 cities and towns totally destroyed during World War II, and it was clear that the delegation was primarily interested in learning how to build decent homes quickly and economically. Following the Indiana visit, it was announced that the Russians intended to purchase a complete prefabricated house to be shipped home for further study. They had earlier purchased an entire kitchen in New York and plumbing fixtures in Chicago.

Culture Clash

The Soviets spent the night at Seattle's Benjamin Franklin Hotel (built by former SMBA president Gardner J. Gwinn in 1928) and on the following day were given tours of the Weyerhaeuser lumber mill in Everett and of several housing developments in North Seattle and east of Lake Washington. Among the Seattle builders who chaperoned the Russian delegation were Stringfellow, former Seattle Master Builders Association president (1948-1949) and regional first vice-president of the National Association of Home Builders, and Harold Larsen, also a former president of the local organization (1950) and the regional second vice-president of the national group.

Cultural differences were apparent at every turn. During the bus ride to Everett, the Russians seemed amazed by the volume of traffic on Aurora Avenue (Highway 99), and one asked whether the dozens of motels along the strip were government housing for the underprivileged. 
 
As the delegation's bus passed Green Lake, the Seattle organization's Larsen noted that the lake drew "thousands of geese and ducks ..." (Seattle Post-Intelligencer, October 15, 1955). One of the Soviet delegates asked if they were wild geese, and when told they were, wondered if this was where people came to get a "Christmas goose." The Russians seemed unsatisfied with Larsen's response that in America most people bought their Christmas goose at a market.

Throughout the tour the Soviets seemed totally uninterested in, even disdainful of, higher-priced housing. When told by host Harold Larsen that their bus was passing by some homes that "cost from $25,000 upward ..." a single comment came from the Russian delegation, which the interpreter reported as meaning "They don't care" (Seattle Post-Intelligencer, October 15, 1955).

Even snack food was not free of controversy. At a brief stop in Everett, bus driver Tom Toothaker bought a bag of fresh doughnuts and distributed them to the guests, who liked them very much and called them "pouchki."  Post-Intelligencer writer Doug Welch, noting that the Russians claimed that "pouchki" were a Russian invention, added slyly, "like the telephone ..." (Seattle Post-Intelligencer, October 15, 1955).

Look, Listen, Learn, and Get Lost

During a two-hour tour of the Weyerhaeuser mill in Everett, the Soviet delegation closely examined the entire process of turning raw logs into usable products. As the P-I described it:

"The party went up stairs, down stairs, along catwalks, under conveyors, over conveyors, through saw mill, planing mill, millwork factory, creosoting plant and storage yards. They saw machines that went garump, garump, machines that went thump, bang, thump, and machines that went higgelty, higgelty whee. Nothing escaped the attention of the visitors. They shouted questions over the roar of the chaos about them and wrote down the answers that were screamed back at them"  (Seattle Post-Intelligencer, October 15, 1955, p. 5).

A minor emergency came near the end of the Weyerhaeuser tour when it was noticed that two of the Soviet delegates were missing from the factory cafeteria during lunch. The P-I story described what happened next:

"The other Russians seemed unusually quiet at lunch. The Weyerhaeuser management was disturbed. The last thing they wanted was an international incident. There was also the possibility that the two Russians had fallen into the chipper and were being made into paper.

Executives went through the whole operation in search of them. Happily they were found outside the kilns. They had remained too long in the pulp plant and had then wandered casually off in what they thought might be the right direction.

They received a coolish reception from their fellow delegates. There was a distinct impression that two sets of hand would be slapped when they got back to the hotel" (Seattle Post-Intelligencer, October 15, 1955, p. 5).

One Hand Slapping

While it is not known if the two errant Russians from the Weyerhaeuser tour were disciplined for wandering off, Alexander Vlasov, one of the highest-ranking members of the Soviet delegation,  fell out of favor in a very public way while on American soil.

The Soviet government, in an ill-timed diatribe issued while its delegation was still in the U.S., had lambasted Soviet architecture and dissolved the academy of which Vlasov was head. He and his fellow architects were charged with neglecting "the need to create conveniences for the population" and of building

"utterly unjustified tower superstructures, decorative colonnades and porticoes ... as a result of which, state resources have been overspent to an amount with which more than one million square meters of living floor space could have been built ... " (Time, November 21, 1955).

According to the magazine, the Soviet statement singled out Vlasov, charging that he  "not only failed to conduct a proper struggle against this extravagance, but [was] guilty of superfluities in designs he drew up" (Time, November 21, 1955).

The published reports apparently raised fears that Vlasov, an architect greatly honored by the late dictator Joseph Stalin (1878-1953), might defect, and he was promptly ordered back to the Soviet Union. Time magazine described his departure:

"Next day, boarding the Queen Elizabeth on his way home, Vlasov, smiling nervously, cracked: 'As you see, I'm alive, and I'm in good humor.' Added Russia's chief specialist in Stalinist baroque as he sailed off into the unknown: 'It will all be straightened out in Moscow'"  (Time, November 21, 1955).

It was later reported that upon arrival in Paris, Vlasov

"was hustled by Soviet Embassy employees through a throng of White Russians anxious to 'liberate' him, taken to a local police stations, then driven to the Embassy ... . The conservative Le Figaro (November 17) complained that he looked more like a man being 'carried than accompanied ... .'"  (The Dancer Defects, 537).

No Comparison

Vlasov's troubles came later in the tour, however, and the remainder of the delegation's stay in Seattle was uneventful. But Seattle reporters soon learned that the Soviets were highly disciplined and would not be drawn into discussing any of the shortcomings of Mother Russia.

As chief spokesman for the delegation, Kozuilia told the press that he was impressed with the high quality of U.S. home construction, but all attempts to elicit comparisons between Soviet and U.S. housing were notably unsuccessful. When asked directly to make such a comparison, he responded  through the interpreter that he would be unable to do so until he had completed the trip. When asked whether Russian housewives had electrical appliances and other labor-saving devices, Kozuilia answered only that Russia was a big country, and that such comparisons were difficult to make. Zegal, the embassy official and interpreter, announced that the interview was over when Kozuilia was asked to describe the impressions the U.S. visit had made on his fellow Soviet delegates (The Seattle Times).

The delegation's reluctance to discuss housing in the Soviet Union was not limited to their Seattle visit. An article in Time magazine noted:

"To persistent questions about the state of their own housing at home, they gave only vague answers, and understandably so. Forced industrialization has nearly trebled Soviet urban population since 1926. But disorganization and war destruction have crippled housing so badly that Soviet courts and newspapers are jammed with complaints. According to a recent survey by Radio Liberation, the Soviet city dweller now has only 42.7 sq. ft. of living space v. 61.4 sq. ft. in 1926 (minimum provided by New York's Low Rent Public Housing: 198 sq. ft.). An average Soviet family of four must share its utilities (one water faucet, three electric outlets, no gas) with eight other people"  (Time, October 17, 1955).

But, all-in-all, the Seattle visit was considered a successful exercise in personal diplomacy, and a valuable learning experience for the Russian delegation. On the evening of October 15 the Soviets were entertained at a farewell dinner sponsored by the Seattle Master Builders. The following morning the group visited a new Kaiser Gypsum plant in Seattle before departing for San Francisco at noon. Additional stops were planned for Los Angeles, Houston, New Orleans, and Cleveland.


Sources: Russ Holt, "Russ Housing Delegation Arrives Here," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, October 14, 1955, p. 1; Douglass Welch, "Soviet Housing Experts: $25,000 Homes Fail To Impress Russians," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, October 15, 1955, pp. 1, 5; "Russ See Housing Here," The Seattle Times, October 14, 1955, p. 14; "Seeking Shelter," Time, October 17, 1955, Time magazine website accessed October 9, 2009 (http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,807752-2,00.html); "Architect of Disaster," Time, November 21, 1955, Time magazine website accessed October 9, 2009 (http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,866629,00.html); David Caute, The Dancer Defects: The Struggle for Cultural Supremacy During the Cold War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 536-537; "National Housing Center to be Shown Russians," St. Petersburg Times, October 2, 1955, p. 10-F; HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Gwinn, Gardner J. 1888-1959" (by John Caldbick) http://www.historylink.org/ (accessed October 10, 2009).

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