The Edifices of Empire: U.S. Imperial Structures, Materiality, and Resistance in the Twentieth Century

Endorsed by the OAH Committee on National Park Service Collaboration

Type: Paper Session

Tags: Material Culture and Architecture; Nationalism and Transnationalism; Urban and Suburban


During the twentieth century American power has carved landscapes at home and aboard, leaving both overt and less obvious traces for historians to interpret. This panel brings together scholars who focus on the built environment as an expression of American power in Cuba, Mexico, Hawaii, and Los Angeles, with an emphasis on early- to mid-twentieth century forms. As the papers in this panel suggest, this process and its results are not always as obvious or unidirectional as one might expect. To excavate this history the panel examines urban planning, architecture, and materials as well as representations of the built environment. Three overarching questions animate the conversation we hope to spark: How has American empire manifested in the built environment during the twentieth century? How has the flow of practices, materials, images, and designs related to the built environment shaped transnational relationships? What are some of the consequences of these relationships for constructions of race, diplomatic relations, popular resistance, and consolidations of economic power? To answer these questions, our panel draws from histories of the production of urban and suburban space, histories of empire, and the “material turn.” Together we seek new and more subtle ways to interpret and analyze the built environment as a critical component of American empire. To this end the panelists analyze a range of places and processes that deepen our understanding of more recent built environments as imperial forms. They include a conspicuous example of “high modernist” architecture found in the U.S. Embassy building and grounds in Cuba, a seemingly forthright expression and symbol of American power. Yet, over time, as Blair Woodard shows, the U.S. Embassy itself evolved as an important stage for a variety of political contests and in image and performance, before and well after the revolution. Sara Fingal focuses on the “suburban empire” of postwar border communities in Mexico. These California-style suburban housing developments, hotels, and planned enclaves crept across the border as U.S. companies and Mexican officials worked in concert to market these places to leisure-seeking Americans. Jeffrey Sanders shows how a similar dynamic played out in pre-statehood Hawaii, where California industrialists and real estate developers sold a package of racialized cultural images as part of their planned leisure communities. Sanders broadens the discussion to include the control of materials that developers were able to marshal in the process of developing these landscapes; materials that entangled far flung sites of industrial extraction in the US West with these developments in the Pacific World. Jessica Kim’s work similarly shows how imperial ambitions abroad can be read in the urban landscape at home. She shows how wealth and extraction of resources in particular helped to link downtown Los Angeles—in the accretion of materials and images—with the work of American oil titans and agriculture barons working in Mexico. In each case these papers show how the transnational movement of urban design, materials, capital, and power manifested in physical structures, planned communities, and everyday lives.

Papers Presented

Materials of Empire: Henry Kaiser and the Development of the Oahu Coast at the End of the Territorial Period

In 1954 California industrialist Henry Kaiser, and his partner, real estate developer Fritz Burns set about transforming the coastline of Oahu, Hawaii with two major developments: the Hawaiian Village Hotel and the Hawaii Kai housing subdivision. Famous for coordinating construction at Boulder and Grand Coulee Dams during the Depression, West Coast Shipbuilding during World War II, and postwar housing throughout California, by the 1950s Kaiser was uniquely positioned to remake the coast of Hawaii. This paper explores key aspects of this process of twentieth century settler colonization: material resources and the postwar suburban form. This paper brings together three areas that have been of intense interest among historians in the last decade: the material turn, Pacific World history, and the history of suburbia. It seeks to understand mid-century forms of settler colonialism as a set of material forms and practices—specifically planned housing/community typologies from California, as well as the resources of cement and aluminum—exported to the Pacific Island chain in the wake of World War Two and as part of the expansion of U.S. power in the Pacific World. This paper then seeks to explain the materiality of empire in the Pacific, but also linkages between processes, places, and people in the Western United States and Hawaii in material terms to better explain historical developments, displacements, and environmental changes that link disparate places and at vast distances.

Presented By
Jeffrey C. Sanders, Washington State University

Protesting on Diplomacy’s Doorstep: Visual Culture and the U.S. Embassy in Havana, 1951–2018

Embassies occupy a unique position in liminal space. At once outside of the country they represent and yet very much connected to those places at the same time. Because of this simultaneous spatiality, embassies can become the center of international disputes and disagreements as well as celebrations and ceremony. The tension between the United States and Cuba has often played out in images and actions that centered on the U.S. embassy in Havana. More than just a building containing the U.S. diplomatic mission, the embassy has functioned as a primary contact zone between the two nations, a space where the relationship has been made manifest in images, design, and public action for more than fifty years. Opened in 1952, the embassy’s modernist architecture and commanding location on Havana’s seawall highlighted an era of unquestioned U.S. dominance on the island. Following the 1959 revolution, the embassy became a contested landscape of repeated protest and negotiation. From the expulsion of diplomats and shuttering the building in 1961, to the interim phase as an interest section, and now restored to a full diplomatic mission, the embassy transformed into a stage (both literally and figuratively) for the ever-unfolding drama of U.S.-Cuban relations. Historic episodes such as the Mariel Boat Lift, the Elian Gonzalez dispute, billboard wars, punk rock shows, and rapprochement, have all played out in images and demonstrations in full view of the embassy doors.

Presented By
Blair Woodard, University of Portland

“Refugees from U.S. Prices”: California’s Suburban Empire in Mexico, 1949–1990

In the mid to late twentieth century, California’s suburban empire spilled across the U.S.-Mexico border. In Tijuana, sprawling suburbs were designed to mimic California neighborhoods for Mexicans homebuyers. Further south in Cabo San Lucas, the construction of planned neighborhoods was advertised in English to appeal to Anglo American consumers from the United States. During the postwar period and into the early 1990s, American architects who designed communities from Los Angeles to San Diego crossed the borderlands to build suburban enclaves and hotels in Baja California. The transnational history of an American built environment in Mexico expands the power and influence of both the American dream of homeownership and Southern California’s suburban dream of year-round sunshine and leisure. This paper will investigate the history of California-style suburbs in Mexico by examining the roles that Americans and Mexicans played in constructing this landscape. In addition to exploring the perspective of the Mexican federal government’s policies that both encouraged and restricted the creation of these landscapes, this paper will also examine the architects who designed these suburbs. One of the most well-known and productive architects was Edward H. Fickett. Fickett was a founder of the mid-century California aesthetic. His forever changed California. He designed over 60,000 homes, apartment buildings, and parks throughout the state. In Mexico, he created hotels, resorts, individual houses for American clients, and a planned community called Cabo Del Sol. Moreover, this paper will examine how this new built environment was marketed to potential homeowners and transformed local communities.

Presented By
Sara Fingal, California State University, Fullerton

Los Angeles, Empire, and Urban Landscapes

Contemporary Los Angeles reveals 19th-century Mexican resources embedded in the city’s iconic sprawl. This wealth, extracted through imperial regimes in Mexico, became manifest in the landscape of Los Angeles between the 1880s and 1940s. The urban landscape of Los Angeles provides an ideal place for exploring themes of empire, urban growth, and the built environment. Urban historians and historians of empire have also begun to think about how imperialism has shaped the landscapes of cities. Los Angeles, long closely linked to Mexico, provides a case study of an American city deeply tied to American empire building and in turn, the impact of empire on urban forms. In this paper, I apply this reading of empire and imperial capitals to the context of Los Angeles. I look at three examples of how empire (and resistance to empire) are still legible on the Los Angeles landscape. First, I discuss the urban landscape and Harrison Gray Otis, publisher of the Los Angeles Times, enthusiastic investor in Mexico, and close friend of Mexican president Porfirio Díaz. I then turn to the Los Angeles landscape and oil titan Edward Doheny, at one point the largest oil producer in the world, and one of the first to drill for oil in Mexico. Finally, I look at a Los Angeles mural by Mexican revolutionary and artist David Alfaro Siqueiros, its whitewashing, and its eventual restoration. Through each of these examples, I consider how aspirations for empire and imperial investments shaped the built environment of Los Angeles.

Presented By
Jessica Michelle Kim, California State University, Northridge

Session Participants

Chair and Commentator: Lawrence Culver, Utah State University
Lawrence Culver is an associate professor in the Department of History at Utah State University. He received his PhD at UCLA, and his doctoral dissertation received the 2005 Rachel Carson Prize for best dissertation from the American Society for Environmental History. His first book is The Frontier of Leisure: Southern California and the Shaping of Modern America (Oxford 2010). The Frontier of Leisure traces how the resorts and leisure culture of Los Angeles and Southern California helped create this urban region, and influenced U.S. suburban development after 1945. It received the Spur Award for Nonfiction from the Western Writers of America. He has also published articles and essays, including “Seeing Climate through Culture” in Environmental History (April 2014), and “Confluences of Nature and Culture: Cities in Environmental History” in The Oxford Handbook of Environmental History (2014). He has held multiple fellowships at institutions including the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society at the University of Munich in Germany, the Huntington Library in San Marino, California, and the Newberry Library in Chicago. His current book project, “Manifest Disaster: Climate and the Making of America,” explores the role of climate and debates about climate in the history of the U.S. and North America. It examines how Americans have perceived – and often misperceived – climates and ecosystems, and connects the current debate over climate change and climate policy to a much longer history, from early exploration and settlement, to the expansionist ideology of Manifest Destiny, and the climatic myths and debates that spurred western and southwestern development in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Presenter: Sara Fingal, California State University, Fullerton
Sara Fingal is an assistant professor of American Studies at California State University, Fullerton. She received her MA and PhD in history from Brown University. Her work is concentrated on North American environmental history, U.S.-Mexico borderlands, Latinx communities and environment, and contested public spaces and land ownership in rural and urban settings. She has received research fellowships from the Huntington Library, the Historical Society of Southern California, and the American Association of University Women (AAUW). In 2018, she published “Your House es Mi Casa: American Homebuyers in the Baja California Borderlands, 1964-1989” in Western Historical Quarterly. Currently, her book manuscript is under review with the University of Washington Press entitled, Turning the Tide: The Politics of Land and Leisure on the California and Mexican Coastlines in the Age of Environmentalism. Her project analyzes conflicts over public access along the coastline of California from Northern California to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico in the 1960s and 1970s.

Presenter: Jessica Michelle Kim, California State University, Northridge
Jessica Kim is an associate professor of history at California State University, Northridge. She holds a PhD in history from the University of Southern California and specializes in the history of the U.S.-Mexico borderlands, the U.S. West, urban history, and public and digital history. Her book, Imperial Metropolis: Los Angeles, Mexico, and the Borderlands of American Empire, 1865-1941, will be published by the University of North Carolina Press in August 2019. Drawing from the insights of social and cultural historians as well as recent studies of capitalism and transnationalism, her research uses an urban lens to broaden borderlands studies from a concentration on the border itself to the far-reaching interactions of Americans and Mexicans across both nations. Considering the relationship between Los Angeles and Mexico broadens borderlands historiography, internationalizes histories of the American city, regionalizes histories of capitalism, and historicizes the development of contemporary global cities. She has also published in the Western Historical Quarterly and California History. She has received support for her research from the Huntington Library, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Newberry Library, and the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations. She is also the digital and social media editor for the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West.

Presenter: Jeffrey C. Sanders, Washington State University
Jeffrey Sanders is Associate Professor of history at Washington State University, Pullman. His research and teaching focus on the relationship between environment, politics, and culture in the twentieth-century United States. He has received research and teaching fellowships, including a Charles Redd Center Visiting Fellowship, Wallis Annenberg Research Grant, and an NEH Landmarks of American History and Culture grant. In 2010 he published Seattle and The Roots of Urban Sustainability: Inventing Ecotopia with University of Pittsburgh Press in their History of the Urban Environment Series. His book tentatively titled Razing Kids: Youth and Environment in the Postwar US West, is under contract with Cambridge University Press. A chapter of this book appears in the recent collection titled The Politics of Hope: Grassroots Organizing, Environmental Justice, and Social Change (University of Colorado Press, 2018). He has also published articles in the Pacific Historical Review, Environmental History, and in an invited collection with the University of Virginia Press. He earned his PhD in history from the University of New Mexico.

Presenter: Blair Woodard, University of Portland
Blair D. Woodard is Associate Professor of history and environmental studies at the University of Portland. His research and teaching focus is on the history of modern Latin America and U.S.-Latin American relations. He is especially interested in issues of cultural construction and contestation. The recipient of numerous fellowships, his current work explores the interplay of popular culture and official diplomacy in the creation of U.S.-Cuban relations, examining the popular visual ties that bound the United States and Cuba together before 1959 as well as sustaining the fifty-years of enmity between the two nations following the revolution. At the University of Portland, Dr. Woodard teaches courses in colonial and modern Latin America, including the histories of Cuba, Mexico, environmental history, and Latin American popular culture. He earned his Ph.D. at the University of New Mexico.