Building Home: Howard F. Ahmanson and the Politics of the American Dream

Building Home: Howard F. Ahmanson and the Politics of the American Dream

Building Home: Howard F. Ahmanson and the Politics of the American Dream

Building Home: Howard F. Ahmanson and the Politics of the American Dream


Building Home is an innovative biography that weaves together three engrossing stories. It is one part corporate and industrial history, using the evolution of mortgage finance as a way to understand larger dynamics in the nation's political economy. It is another part urban history, since the extraordinary success of the savings and loan business in Los Angeles reflects much of the cultural and economic history of Southern California. Finally, it is a personal story, a biography of one of the nation's most successful entrepreneurs of the managed economy --Howard Fieldstad Ahmanson. Eric John Abrahamson deftly connects these three strands as he chronicles Ahmanson's rise against the background of the postwar housing boom and the growth of L.A. during the same period.

As a sun-tanned yachtsman and a cigar-smoking financier, the Omaha-born Ahmanson was both unique and representative of many of the business leaders of his era. He did not control a vast infrastructure like a railroad or an electrical utility. Nor did he build his wealth by pulling the financial levers that made possible these great corporate endeavors. Instead, he made a fortune by enabling the middle-class American dream. With his great wealth, he contributed substantially to the expansion of the cultural institutions in L.A. As we struggle to understand the current mortgage-led financial crisis, Ahmanson's life offers powerful insights into an era when the widespread hope of homeownership was just beginning to take shape.


Like most Americans that Sunday afternoon, the three men at the Shoreham Hotel in Washington, D.C., were surprised and dismayed by the news. Crackling through the speakers and interrupting the music, the announcer proclaimed: “… Japanese planes have attacked the U.S. naval base in Hawaii …” Without much elaboration or detail, the station returned to its regular Sunday afternoon broadcast.

With cigarette smoke drifting among them, the suntanned and ruddyfaced California executives discussed what the news would mean to their businesses and their lives. They were on their way home from the annual convention of the U.S. Savings and Loan League in Coral Gables, Florida. At the convention, rumors had circulated that the federal government was planning to impose restrictions on the use of building materials in anticipation of war. Restrictions would slow construction and diminish the demand for home loans, the bread and butter of the savings and loan business. Already, the government was beginning to build its own housing in Los Angeles for war workers. Many of the men at the convention chafed at these rumors, which seemed to signal a resurgence of what some described as the Roosevelt administration’s command-and-control approach to the national economy.

As the men talked, their conversation reflected the national mood. Caught up in the development of their own businesses and personal lives, they blamed diplomats and politicians for failing to keep the peace. If the country had to be dragged into the conflict, they hoped it would be short-lived. a guest column written by an American admiral in that morning’s Washington Post had asserted that if war broke out, the United States and its allies would quickly blockade Japan and isolate the island nation. Others were not so confident. Japan’s alliance with Germany made the threat of prolonged war . . .

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