During the late 1970s and early ’80s, Americans’ love of all things kitsch combined with optimism for the year 2000 to create what was perhaps one of the most bizarre chapters in American pop culture and architectural history—the Xanadu houses.
You see, in the late 1970s, most of us were under the impression that by the year 2000, we would all either be dead from an apocalyptic nuclear war, or we’d all have robots and computers taking care of our every need. The American film industry made money in the 1980s by taking the first view of the future, while architect Bob Masters decided to take the more optimistic second route.
Masters truly was both an idealist and optimist and believed that affordable, automated homes could be built in the future. To demonstrate his theory to the world, he sprayed some polyurethane insulation over several balloons, creating a “house” in 1969. The invention didn’t get much press, but it did attract the attention of Tom Gussel, who had the money to bankroll a much more ambitious business project. Gussel envisioned creating foam houses and equipping them with state-of-the-art computer technology. He believed, like Masters, that energy-efficient homes would be the wave of the future.
If only they could get people to see their idea.
Lucky for Masters and Gussel, they lived in America, the land where there is a very fine line between kitsch and tasteless. After scouting some potential locations for their invention, they decided to purchase some land in Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin, which by 1979 was quickly becoming one of America’s kitsch hot spots.
The pair decided to call their futuristic home Xanadu, after the medieval Mongol capital in China. What a thirteenth-century city had to do with a futuristic house was never explained, though.
Coincidentally, the film Xanadu, starring Olivia Newton John, was released in 1980. Well, it was a strange time and there is no doubt that Xanadu was a strange concept, although it proved to be very lucrative in its first few years. In fact, Xanadu was so popular that two more Xanadu home were opened in other American kitsch zones: Gatlinburg, Tennessee and Kissimmee, Florida.
Although ticket sales were good for all three locations, especially at the Florida home, the true intention was to sell Xanadu homes to private buyers. Another idealistic architect named Bob Mason designed the Kissimmee Xanadu home. He then planned to market similar homes to buyers for three hundred thousand dollars, with homes boasting less features for eighty thousand dollars.
Even in the 1980s, that was simply too much for most people.
Besides, by the late 1980s, technology was rapidly catching up and the Xanadu homes began to look real cheesy to most people. By the 1990s, home computers were more affordable, Windows was out, and the World Wide Web was becoming more widely used. The Wisconsin and Tennessee Xanadu homes were demolished in the early 1990s, but the Florida version continued for a few more years until it was shut down in 1996.
The Florida Xanadu home continued to serve as an unofficial weird attraction. By the early 2000s, people routinely took snapshots of the oddity and it became a destination for urban hikers and homeless people alike. Above all, the Florida Xanadu home became an eyesore to the city of Kissimmee, so the city leaders made the decision to finally have it demolished in 2005.
It may have seemed like a good idea at the time, but the Xanadu homes are proof that a business model that mixes kitsch and futurism just won’t work.