Swingsites for Singles

New housing for new households in mid-century America.

South Bay Club, Torrance. Photographer: Arthur Schatz. March 1967. [The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images]

Swingsites for singles are … all pleasure oriented … girls and boys … sharing hangovers in the snackshop, mixing doubles on the tennis courts, cuddling by twos in the Jacuzzi whirlpool.
— Joyce Haber, Los Angeles Times, 1966 1

In 1972, novelist Cynthia Buchanan published Maiden, a parody of mass-market post-collegiate life in the bleached-blonde world of Los Angeles when the birth control pill was still new. The hapless heroine is Fortune Dundy, a thirty-year-old virgin looking for Mr. Right in all the wrong places. Enthralled with the romantic imagery of ’50s cinema, Fortune, who sells “House of Circe” cosmetics door-to-door, is mystified by the rising California culture of plastic surgery, spermicidal foam, and clothing-optional gestalt therapy at Esalen. But she is hopeful: she tries the beach in Santa Monica, the bar at Trader Vic’s, and computer matchmaking. Life gets really interesting, however, only when Fortune moves into Villa Dionysus, one of the city’s many “swinging singles” apartment complexes.

Villa Dionysus — not for nothing is the acronym “VD” — is operated by Dionysus West, a dubious social club for unmarried young adults owned by a San Francisco mobster who wears a diamond pinky ring and white “Pete Kardin” suits. The VD is, in period parlance, “Where the Scene Gets Together.” As a marketing brochure beckons:

Why not … GO DIONYSUS WEST, YOUNG SWINGLE … Year-round Bacchus Bashes! The Fun Scene! The Sun Scene! Parties! Dances! Dinners! Picnics! Celebrations! Clambakes! and Wienie Roasts! Sea Weekends! Ski Weekends! … FOLLOW THE SUN TO WHERE SWINGER MEETS SWINGER IN THE EYE OF ! ACTION !

From a distance the complex looks ordinary: plain-vanilla stucco boxes overlooking a freeway. But the real views are interior: balconies face inward, panopticon-like, toward a “vast courtyard” with lush lawns and tennis courts. Here a shimmering pool — “vast, cool, illusive” — is the focus of the “action,” where “Dionysids,” with their “tattoos, sideburns, chests and breasts,” their Bain de Soleil, pop-top Budweiser, skimpy bikinis, and Speedos, play ping-pong and checkers and share “marijuana joints.” 2 It is here that Fortune — characterized by one critic as “Huckleberry Finn played by Marilyn Monroe” — meets her dream man: a divorced dentist who, as it will turn out, dies before the relationship is consummated. 3

Now mostly forgotten, Maiden generated much discussion and high praise when it was published. Some saw it as a feminist statement. A review in the New York Times described it as part of “a natural trilogy” with Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar and Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays: “All three heroines are women struggling for breath in the smog of commerce and sexism.” But beyond its (questionable) feminist voice or literary merits, most contemporary reviewers welcomed Maiden as a critique of mass consumption. Buchanan, who was in her late twenties when she wrote the novel, captured growing anxieties about what one contemporary reporter called the “loneliness industry”: entrepreneurial efforts that sold the promise of sex, love, and companionship. Other commentators worried that a whole generation of young people — raised on Pepsi and the Beatles in a culture of mind-altering pharmaceuticals and body-altering cosmetics — was susceptible to the trendy, Day-Glo glamour of places like Villa Dionysus. If critics saw Fortune as a kind of feminist folk hero, in but not of her seedy milieu, they delighted in Maiden‘s skewering of the VD. The Washington Post reviewer lamented “the tawdry sustaining illusions of the Villa, which are a mixture of California youth cult and the broader American cult of sex-without-tenderness.” Hemingway scholar Earl Rovit praised Buchanan for capturing “the bleak loneliness and undignified despair that is at the core of the advertising dazzle of institutionalized hedonism.” 4

South Bay Club, Torrance. Photographer: Don Ornitz. July 1967. [LOOK Magazine Photograph Collection, Library of Congress]

But how much of the world of Villa Dionysus existed, and how much of the critique was valid? I would argue: not much. The singles apartment complex originated in Southern California beginning in the late 1950s and by the early ’70s had spread from coast to coast, attracting attention with newspaper and magazine articles copiously illustrated with images of wet young flesh. In fact, we might say Buchanan ripped her story from the headlines: born in Arizona, she wrote the novel while living in Spain. She had never visited a singles complex. One skeptic suggested her real target was not the singles industry but rather what was then becoming a stereotyped fantasy of California: “all those screwy divorcées, beach studs, pot parties, poolside orgies, and bizarre fads” that writers elsewhere liked to imagine. 5 And yet despite the hype —and the hyperbole — despite the appeals to consumerism, and even despite the sexism, the lives of most residents were fairly ordinary. Yet beyond that, I would argue, the complexes heralded a new era for young adults, especially women.

In this light Maiden raises provocative questions. Can we dismiss the swinging singles residence as a tawdry relic? A site of financial and sexual exploitation? Or can we view it as a creative response to specific housing and cultural challenges — and as a bridge from the early postwar era of mass suburbanization, the rise of the nuclear family and the triumph of the single-family house, to the more recent history of intensifying interest in urban life, alternative households, and gender equality? Was the singles residence as rearguard as critics suggested? Or if we look beyond the surface — beyond the Bacchus bashes and Jacuzzis — can we see it as part of the countercultural turn — even as a force for social progress?

Boys and girls together

The singles apartment complex might have been marketed as the “Fun Scene,” but like virtually all U.S. dwelling types, from the boarding house to the McMansion, it was also a commodity, a product shaped by economics and demographics, by taste and values. In particular, the singles complex emerged in response to the growing desire on the part of young unmarried adults for well-serviced, well-equipped rental housing outside of traditional urban centers. As such it benefited from a long history of experimentation with the now familiar garden apartment. Beginning in the late 19th century, housing reformers pioneered the mid-rise courtyard complex as an alternative to the working-class tenement; in the 1920s, designers like Clarence Stein and Henry Wright advanced the model at low-rise suburban communities like Sunnyside, Queens, and Chatham Village, near Pittsburgh. The trend accelerated after 1935 when the newly created Federal Housing Administration promoted an even lower-density variant: multiple two- and three-story buildings arranged loosely around spacious green commons. This type proliferated during World War II to provide housing for defense workers, and during the postwar period it offered expedient if temporary accommodations for veterans and their families. 6

By the late 1950s, when the singles complex began to take shape, the garden apartment — along with regional variants like the California dingbat — had become a standard housing type. 7 What was new were the clientele. While the rise of singleton middle-class households dates to the late 19th century and gained traction in the 1920s, it was the mid-20th-century that saw unprecedented growth in the number of unattached young adults who could afford to live on their own, rather than with their families or in residential hotels and boarding houses. In retrospect, the 1950s were a quiet prelude, amid the cultural obsession with nuclear domesticity, to the dramatic changes in housing — as well as in what began to be called lifestyle — that would take place as the baby boomers reached adulthood in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Better educated and better paid than any previous generation, young adults came to constitute nothing less than an important new demographic for specialized housing. 8

Left: South Bay Club, Torrance. Photographer: Arthur Schatz. March 1967. [The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images] Right: South Bay Club, Torrance. Photographer: Don Ornitz. July 1967. [LOOK Magazine Photograph Collection, Library of Congress]

Segmentation into ever narrower demographic and market niches, such as “swinging singles,” was already becoming a hallmark of the highly commoditized U.S. system by the late ‘50s. 9 And like so many trends of the day, the singles apartment complex emerged in California. The early driving force was the aerospace industry. In the late ’30s companies like Lockheed, Douglas, Alcoa, and Northrop began opening facilities in southwest Los Angeles, in the Centinela Valley and South Bay communities which stretched north-south from the airport to the ports of San Pedro and Long Beach. By mid-century, the industry was employing hundreds of thousands of well-educated and well-paid engineers and managers — a ready market for upscale apartments. 10 With few vacancies in places like Hawthorne (home of Northrop) and Torrance (with large Douglas and Alcoa facilities), by 1959 the Los Angeles Times was reporting a “near panic to build” among local investors. 11

But ultimately it was evolving gender dynamics that catalyzed the transformation of the old garden-variety apartment into “swingsites for singles.” For as landlords were learning, it was relatively easy to fill vacancies in “bachelor” apartments (studios and one-bedrooms): aerospace employed many more men than women, and the men were better compensated and could more easily afford to live on their own. But there was a hitch. The bachelors seemed increasingly to reject the de facto segregation. In the casual culture of postwar California, they wanted to live near the bachelorettes, and so in complexes dominated by men, turnover proved unacceptably high. Only with “boys” and “girls” together, in a ratio of at least one woman for every two men, could turnover be slowed to economically sustainable rates — a crucial consideration given the thin margins of the rental property business. 12

It was the effort to attract female tenants that spurred one landlord after another to introduce innovations in the garden-style apartment. Some of these innovations involved interior planning. By the mid-1950s, most U.S. builders were configuring apartments as either studios or compact one-bedrooms. These suited professional men, but were usually beyond the means of young working women, who could only afford to live with roommates; in addition, women often preferred shared living for reasons of safety and propriety — a revealing indicator of the persistence of a cultural double standard. As the Los Angeles Times put it in a story in the late ’50s on the new complexes, shared arrangements allayed “the fears of parents who have seen their ‘baby’ leave the fold.” 13 To better accommodate women, landlords began to feature apartments with “dressing rooms” (a.k.a., walk-in closets) and extra half-bathrooms. Eventually — paralleling trends in other markets with a similar clientele — they introduced larger units expressly designed for as many as four unrelated adults: the super, or luxury, two-bedroom, which included two master bedrooms as well as two full bathrooms, a plumbing extravagance all but unheard of at the time. 14


Top: Advertisement, House & Home, September 1969. [Environmental Design Archives, University of California, Berkeley] Bottom: Advertisement, Los Angeles Times, January 18, 1970.

Yet the most striking innovations of the new complexes involved not physical design but social program: what distinguished them were management efforts to encourage ongoing interaction among tenants. Although large cities like Los Angeles offered myriad social opportunities, building owners recognized that many tenants sought not just safety and respectability but companionship as well. In an era when early marriage was still common, single life could feel isolating, especially after the intense social experiences of college. As one young teacher explained, although she had looked forward to the “total freedom” of living on her own in L.A., it had left her feeling lonesome and unmoored. “All my life, I’d been with people my own age. Then, suddenly, you graduate, and your two best friends get married, and you’re alone.” 15

No wonder that the liveliest of the new swingsites came to resemble a co-ed “campus for single people,” as one resident described it, with tenants dining together by the pool and organizing skiing and camping weekends. 16 To encourage spontaneous friendliness, landlords not only included that most desirable of amenities — a large swimming pool, heated and night-lighted — but also a resident manager with highly developed interpersonal skills, often an older woman whose discrete presence suggested a kind of post-collegiate in loco parentis. (As one complex operator explained, the preference was for “older women — in their late 40s and early 50s. We want them to develop a mother image.” 17) Thus did evolving mores and markets spur landlords to assume the unusual role of social director.

Sex and the Sunbelt

While rooted in what one critic called the “trackless sands” of Cold War boomtowns like Hawthorne and Torrance, the singles complex was, in the era of The Feminine Mystique, well suited to the needs of young adults everywhere. 18 In the early ‘60s, L.A. saw a proliferation of often elaborate complexes that became known as “active” spots for social tenants: places like West L.A.’s West Park Village and Burbank’s E’Questre Inn, which (naturally) featured stables. Still, none of these residences was explicitly created for unmarried men and women. This began to change when, in 1964, a trio of young developers — two MBAs and a contractor operating under the name R&B Development — built Parkview Village West, in Torrance, which featured more formal social programming for its youthful tenants. To be sure, this kind of programming itself was not new. Sun City, Arizona, the nation’s first “active retirement” community — residents had to be 55 years or older — opened in 1960, and it was soon followed by Leisure World, in Orange County. But Parkview was among the first communities to focus on young people, and its various amenities suggest a mix of family resort and summer camp (with a dash of the Playboy Club). It featured a swimming pool and recreation room; a children’s center and teen recreation room; and a clubhouse with a bar, card room, gym, steam room, and hobby workshop. All were overseen by an on-site recreation director. As a local newspaper noted, Parkview was designed to appeal to tenants who “want luxury now and are not willing to wait until they are over 50.” 19

The apartments rented well. But it soon became apparent that highly programmed complexes were not a priority for families with children, who tended to prefer privacy over community and to opt for the traditional single-family house or another then-new alternative, the “townhouse” development. But the social club format did appeal to young, unattached adults. Within a year R&B opened the South Bay Club, specifically targeting the “singles, the swingers, the young professional people.” 20 According to the developer’s market research, these people were “everywhere,” had a “fantastic amount of leisure time,” and were demanding “activities to use up that leisure time.” 21

Top: Advertisement, Los Angeles Times, September 17, 1967. Bottom: Advertisement, Washington Post, August 26, 1973.

It’s not surprising that the packaged singles complex would emerge in the mid-’60s. The early baby boomers were entering adulthood, unleashing a wave of demand for rental housing on the part of an affluent generation of enthusiastic consumers; still more important, the singles complexes were responding to rapidly shifting social values. Second-wave feminism and the birth-control pill were changing the dynamics of dating and sex; early adulthood was no longer necessarily a period of marriage and child-rearing but instead a kind of extended adolescence; divorce rates were rising, too, creating another new cohort of singles — and a new and experienced client for places like the South Bay Club. 22

It’s also not surprising that the apartment house-cum-social club would emerge in a low-density landscape like Torrance, a suburban place “crisscrossed by broad boulevards and elevated freeways,” where “brand-new, middle-income houses, gas stations and shopping centers … blend interminably into each other, for mile after mile,” as the Los Angeles Times described it at the time. 23 In the popular imagination as well as in much critical scholarship, the epicenter of the Sixties youthquake — and the singles lifestyle — was located in the bohemian districts of cosmopolitan cities like New York and San Francisco. (Think That Girl and the Summer of Love; Greenwich Village and Haight-Ashbury.) 24 But in reality young single people were less likely to live in Manhattan than in Manhattan Beach. Indeed, the number of singles living in U.S. suburbs nearly doubled in the ‘60s. In metropolitan Washington, for instance, nearly half again as many lived in Maryland and Northern Virginia as in the District by the early ’70s. Assessing the trend, one contemporary critic argued that young people were “fed up with the hectic life of the big city, drawn by the bonuses of the great outdoors, the cheaper rents and safer streets.” 25

But the great outdoors had its limits. That same critic conceded that suburbia could not match “the party whirl of the city,” the chances for entertainment and encounter. It was precisely this party-whirl gap that R&B Development was exploiting when it adapted the club format for “swingles”; in effect, the South Bay Club was an effort to transform the suburban apartment building into a social center with the “bright, self-contained air of a huge luxury hotel.” 26 Young adults in suburbia might have had discretionary income and leisure time, but what they lacked were the opportunities — the venues — to find partners. “Everyone is lonely,” said the South Bay Club’s manager. “Most of our tenants have no other way to meet people informally. Where can a school-teacher find a mate — outside of school?” 27 Where indeed? One place, as it turned out, was the swingsite. Already in the late ‘50s, one Hawthorne landlord told the Los Angeles Times that eighteen of her thirty tenants had married one another, while in its first year the South Bay Club claimed “17 to 20” nuptials. Of course, suburban complexes encouraged other kinds of coupling, too. As one tenant explained, to Time, South Bay was “a good place to be bad.” 28 No matter the terms of engagement, complexes promised a pool of eligible candidates, and R&B became the first to explicitly target the young and unattached, and to take the well-publicized — though largely symbolic — step of prohibiting tenants who were married or over thirty-five. (This was a switch from earlier days, when many landlords shied away from young tenants.) In its promotional brochures, R&B likened South Bay to “a hometown in a big city” and highlighted the credentials of its desired tenants: college-educated, professional, white-collar. 29

Never on Friday and the year-round holiday

To help program the South Bay Club, R&B partnered, initially, with the Never On Friday Club — the first of several large social organizations for singles that flourished in U.S. cities in the ‘60s and early ‘70s, and the model for Maiden’s Dionysus West. The idea was concocted in 1961 by four young bachelors who shared a house in Long Beach; one of them in particular, an enterprising engineer at North American Aviation named Dick Hoagland, recognized in his tens of thousands of coworkers — a third of whom he estimated were young and single — a lucrative untapped market for “dancing and socializing” — for “respectable” intermingling that would attract single women without dates. “Even for today’s liberated career woman,” Time noted in the mid-Sixties, “walking into a bar … still boarders on indiscretion.” 30 By 1963, Hoagland was hosting parties at the Lakewood County Club; soon he quit his aerospace job and incorporated Never on Friday, targeting “single, fun-loving young adults, 21 – 35,” and playing on the idea that Fridays were not for steady dates but instead for new friends. Within a year Never On Friday was sponsoring dances at hotels and country clubs across L.A. and Orange County and operating party cruises to Catalina Island. By 1965 it had recruited 20,000 members, and the offerings had expanded to include nightclubs in Long Beach and Santa Ana, and weekend travel packages. 31 Members formed a ready market for the South Bay Club.

Carousel Club Apartments, San Diego, Building Progress, 1970. [Environmental Design Archives, University of California, Berkeley]

Like so much of ’60s suburbia, the architecture and site planning of the singles complexes tended toward the standard-issue and no-frills. Designed by the Los Angeles architect Robert H. Skinner, the South Bay Club comprised a compact cluster of three-story, stucco-veneer buildings with off-the-shelf aluminum windows and a covered parking deck that doubled as a podium for tennis courts. The interior of the club, however, was anything but ordinary. Here sportif tenants found lush plantings, swimming pools, tennis and volleyball courts, gymnasia and weight rooms, hot tubs and saunas, party rooms and snack bars, bowling lanes, beauty salons, barbershops. Carpets were wall-to-wall, windows were floor-to-ceiling, and colors were bright: “fluorescent green … flaming orange.” 32 The programmatic features were arranged to encourage interaction and maximize visibility, even voyeurism. One competing complex even boasted a wooden “play tower,” ostensibly to give tenants “something to swing on” but perhaps used chiefly for looking. 33 Occasionally one of the competing complexes would break the stucco-block mold. Some boasted “environmental” or vaguely historicizing architectural motifs; most dramatically, the Carousel Country Club, in San Diego, comprised a massive circular structure, four stories high, surrounding three acres of play space, including a putting green and a “meandering” lake with an island and a beach, complete with 900 tons of trucked-in sand. 34

In operating the clubs, R&B and other managers emphasized the personal touch: new tenants were met not by a leasing agent but by an activities director or “club hostess.” These figures were central to the experience of the residential clubs, where the typical weekly calendar rivaled that of a cruise ship. In the kind of commercial come-on that made parodies like Maiden practically inevitable, advertisements beckoned: “Some SINGLES have all the FUN! … Dances, parties, entertainment, barbecues and songfests make living a year-round Holiday.” 35 In a given week the “holiday” might include a happy hour on Tuesday, a cocktail party and dance on Saturday, and on Sunday a “hangover brunch” followed by a steak cookout and “hootenanny” with live music. For the intellectually inclined there were lectures on contemporary topics, from the personal (“sex and the single person”) to the political (civil rights, the war in Vietnam). Tennis, badminton, and volleyball tournaments were popular; so were softball and bowling leagues. Indoor activities included bridge, yoga, and sculpture. Club directors organized field trips to the beach and sports arenas, to museums and theaters. Every national holiday rated a party. (The frenzy portrayed in the now obscure but then popular 1968 film For Singles Only, set in a thinly fictionalized South Bay Club, is hardly exaggerated. 36)

A clip from For Singles Only. [Four-Leaf Productions]

Managers like R&B and those who emulated them did more than provide nonstop programming. They tailored the clubs to the transient rhythms of the young and unattached. For a small fee they offered apartments that were furnished, and because — as it would turn out — most tenants stayed less than a year, they eliminated leases. They even managed to transform high turnover — what most landlords sought to avoid — into a virtue by charging premium rents and retaining in-house crews that needed just a day to spiff up an apartment for the next fun-seeking single. R&B in particular also mounted a highly effective public-relations campaign (with features in Business Week, Cosmopolitan, Ladies Home Journal, Life, Look, and Time) that ensured a steady waiting list and turned South Bay Club into a recognized name. Soon the company began to expand, first in West Los Angeles, then the San Fernando Valley and Long Beach. Financing flowed from major national lenders and within five years R&B had fourteen complexes as far afield as Northern California, Arizona, and Texas — and was planning thirty-six more — making South Bay Club the country’s first branded apartment chain. 37

The limits of swinging singledom

For a while it all worked: especially in the early years, singles complexes delivered on many of their promises. Fatherly landlords, matronly managers, space for roommates — these fulfilled the growing need for post-collegiate housing that was more permissive than traditional women’s residences but that limited the perceived risks. Meanwhile, a lot of people had a lot of fun. Maiden might have been exaggerated, but the complexes were vibrant social scenes; at the height of the trend, one large swingsite, in Atlanta, “literally rocked from sunup to sundown” with parties that attracted two or three thousand guests. 38 Yet the triumph would prove brief. The singles apartment-club phenomenon had grown quickly, but the culture was moving quickly, too. As second-wave feminism (and long-forgotten offshoots like Southern California’s “singles liberation movement”) upended cultural norms and social values, women were released from the complex’s implied moral guardianship.

At the same time, being suburban and single became more common as household demographics diversified. New social venues — including organizations like the First Singles Church in Orange County, California — effectively created social opportunities that didn’t depend upon housing arrangements. 39 But most of all, the singles club collapsed under the weight of its own impossible expectations. Inevitably the gap between marketing promise and everyday reality would lead to growing disappointment. Visiting one complex, a reporter found no “swingles” at play but instead tenants reading paperbacks, women dining alone, and a group of thirty-something men talking about football — “overweight junior executives in UCLA sweatshirts … losing their hair.” And at another, in Arlington, Virginia, a visitor found an equally joyless scene: an empty pool surrounded by tenants nervously watching each other. 40

Top: South Bay Club, Torrance. Photographer: Bill Ray. 1966. [The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images] Bottom: South Bay Club, Torrance. Photographer: Don Ornitz. July 1967. [LOOK Magazine Photograph Collection, Library of Congress]

As the trend stalled, building operators sought to stave off obsolescence through what seems a counter-intuitive strategy of proliferation: more clubs, more apartments, more marketing. Early complexes had twenty to 130 units; by the late ’60s, R&B was developing buildings with 500 to 1,100 units, for a target population of approximately 2,000: the size of a small liberal arts college. But you might say it was too much, too late; the “scene” had moved on. R&B Development stopped planning new singles-only complexes in 1969 and quietly began lifting age and marriage restrictions, refashioning its properties as “adult communities.” It also began phasing out the South Bay Club name in favor of the more mature sounding “Oakwood Gardens.” But even the adults-only format proved unsustainable. It was not until 1986 that U.S. courts would rule against age restrictions in housing, but by then R&B had left the market entirely. (It would soon become a global leader in a new and more promising venture: long-stay “corporate” travelers.) By the ‘80s, the singles complex was utterly outmoded. 41

Today few traces of the singles club remain. Most of the original structures still stand but new owners have repurposed them as all-age apartments, or, like so many cheaply constructed apartments from the ’60s and ’70s, as low-rent housing. 42 Some of the well-equipped off-campus apartments that have recently become popular in college towns recall the older model, but the student clientele makes further comparisons impossible. In the Bushwick section of Brooklyn, the CastleBraid apartment complex — which on its website boasts “a seamless interplay between the individual and the vibrant collective they’ve helped create” — has echoes of South Bay, but chiefly as a lure for upscale tenants. Closer in spirit to the old format are projects like the Anton Menlo, a ten-acre, $120-million housing development now under construction in Menlo Park, California. Planned by developer St. Anton Partners in collaboration with Facebook, the 394-unit complex is targeting young tech workers who prefer not to reverse-commute from San Francisco to Silicon Valley. Like the South Bay Clubs, it is aiming to create a world of its own: not only a swimming pool and landscaped courtyard but also pet daycare, a convenience store, bike-repair shop, café, and sports bar. Yet even though a majority of young adults continue to settle in suburbia and not city centers, developments like Anton Menlo have become a tough sell: they seem out of tune with the times, eliciting less envy than disdain (as in the millennial sitcom Arrested Development, with its lampoons of Singles City, and later, Swing City and Fuck City). 43

Rearguard or counter-countercultural?

In retrospect, the singles apartment-club of the mid-20th century appears singular: a specific response to a specific cultural moment. But I would argue that it also speaks to broader truths and perennial realities. The swingles-club phenomenon reminds us that despite the popular stereotypes of American housing as a monoculture — an endless repetition of the suburban single-family house — the system has always had real capacity for innovation. Decades before developers began marketing “NextGen” homes for extended families or “micro-apartments” as the ultimate in solo city living, the singles apartment complex was responding creatively to new social needs. And what was especially important, it was responding to the inevitable confusions of young adulthood: a period of life defined by the need to set up one’s first household and, as often as not, a time of restless experimentation with living arrangements. Such confusions are fundamental to modern experience and, as cultural historian Jerrold Seigel has argued, date at least to the rise of the concept of the bohémien in Paris in the 1830s. Every generation since has sought to fashion its particular style of adulthood, to find a place apart from what one singles-club advertisement referred to as “your prudish elders.” 44

Clearly no discussion of the singles complex can then be complete without acknowledging another mid-20th-century experiment in youthful alternative community-making: the commune. The comparison seems especially valid in the case of racy examples like Drop City and Morningstar, whose raison d’etre, some would argue, was akin to that of the swingsites: opportunity for sex. 45 At first glance, of course, the singles apartment complex and the hippie commune would appear to have little in common. One was a real-estate commodity that required a security deposit, if not a signed lease; the other was an intentional community set up explicitly outside the usual market mechanisms. One comprised generic buildings, basic geometries, and mass-produced parts, the other featured A-frames and do-it-yourself geodesic domes assembled from scrap material. The singles complex embraced the low-density landscapes and car culture of the postwar Sunbelt and appealed to stable, mainstream tenants; the commune held values that were resolutely anti-suburban and appealed to dropouts. And while places like South Bay were motivated by the “mindless pursuit of pleasure,” communities like Drop City were devoted to the “mindful pursuit of happiness.” 46

Yet closer scrutiny reveals that these two quintessentially American inventions share common characteristics — and also ambiguities. Both provided middle-class young adults with a physical and moral escape from the conventional bounds of grown-up domesticity. Both titillated; the apartment club and the hippie commune traded on promises of sex, pleasure, and personal fulfillment, and profited from live entertainment and easy access to drugs. Both claimed to “liberate” women while often reinforcing old inequities. And, most obviously, both fashioned new, immersive environments intended for people in roughly the same age group, at the same moment, in the same West Coast milieu.

History has sided with the communes. No doubt they could be creepy and cultish, but they were also optimistic, and with their handicraft DIY agendas and self-conscious quests for authenticity, the communes embodied cultural currents that continue to resonate strongly. Yet I would argue that ultimately it was the swinging singles complex — despite the chlorinated pools and cosmetic excesses — that was truly the more progressive. For the anti-modern, utopian impulses that animated the communes were, after all, old; however radical they appeared, the communes were also self-indulgent and elitist: a connoisseur’s exercise in the conspicuous consumption of non-commodities. 47 And in the end, the impact of the communes was fleeting. In contrast, the singles complex played a key role in introducing changes in gender, life cycle, and lifestyle into mainstream culture. The complex’s incremental and commercial approach may have been middlebrow — to borrow a popular pejorative of the era — but it was also democratic and far-reaching. As a mode of dwelling , singles apartments quickly outlived their purpose. But the cultural transformations they embodied were novel and enduring. More so than any commune, they signaled a deep shift in how, where, and with whom Americans would live as young adults. Looking back after fifty years, we should dwell not on their “advertising dazzle” and “institutional hedonism” — although, to be sure, many former residents still fondly recall that aspect — but on the role they played in the historic journey toward personal liberation.

Editors' Note

“Swingsites for Singles” has been peer-reviewed.

  1. Joyce Haber, “The Great Matchmakers in the Sky-Rise,” Los Angeles Times, September 25, 1966: M1.
  2. Cynthia Buchanan, Maiden (1972; New York: Quill, 1999): 20–21, 32, 35, 37, 84, 202.
  3. Earl Rovit, “Some Shapes in Recent American Fiction,” Contemporary Literature 15, no. 4 (Autumn 1974) 539-61: 544.
  4. Annie Gottlieb, “Upstream to Spawn Among the Beer Cans,” review of Maiden, The New York Times, January 9, 1972: BR6; Julian Moynahan, review of Maiden, The Washington Post, January 10, 1972: B1; Peter Osnos, “The Loneliness Industry: Homes With Companionship,” The Washington Post, October 19, 1972: A1; Rovit, “Some Shapes in Recent American Fiction,” 544.
  5. Digby Diehl, “They’re at It Again: California Put Down,” Los Angeles Times, March 12, 1972: P43.
  6. Matthew Gordon Lasner, High Life: Condo Living in the Suburban Century (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012), chaps. 2-4; Laura Bobeczko and Richard Longstreth, “Housing Reform Meets the Marketplace: Washington and the Federal Housing Administration’s Contribution to Apartment Building Design, 1935-40,” in Housing Washington: Two Centuries of Residential Development and Planning in the National Capital Area, ed. Richard Longstreth (Chicago: The Center for American Places at Columbia College Chicago, 2010).
  7. Carl F. Horowitz, The New Garden Apartment: Current Market Realities of an American Housing Form (New Brunswick: Center for Urban Policy Research, Rutgers University, 1983); Larry R. Ford, “Multiunit Housing in the American City,” Geographical Review 76, no. 4 (October 1986); John Chase and John Beach, “The Stucco Box,” 1983, in John Chase, Glitter Stucco & Dumpster Diving: Reflections on Building Production in the Vernacular City (New York: Verso, 2000); Reyner Banham, Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies (1971; Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001), 157-59; Joseph B. Mason, History of Housing in the U.S. 1930-1980 (Houston: Gulf, 1982), 111; Paul Mitchell Hess, “Rediscovering the Logic of Garden Apartments,” Places Journal 17, no. 2.
  8. Paul Groth, Living Downtown: The History of Residential Hotels in the United States (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994); Wendy Gamber, The Boardinghouse in Nineteenth-century America (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007); Mason, History of Housing in the U.S. 1930-1980, 67-69; Robert Schafer, The Suburbanization of Multifamily Housing (Lexington, Mass.: Lexington Books, 1974) 6-7; Mason Doan, American Housing Production: A Concise History, 1880-2000 (Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1998); Horowitz, The New Garden Apartment, chapter 1; Dowell Myers and John Pitkin, “Demographic Forces and Turning Points in the American City, 1950-2040,” The Annals of the American Academy of Political Science 626, no. 11 (November 2009).
  9. Herbert J. Gans, “Urbanism and Suburbanism as Ways of Life,” in People, Plans, and Policies: Essays on Poverty, Racism, and Other National Urban Problems (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991); John Chase, “The Role of Consumerism in American Architecture,” Journal of Architectural Education 44. no. 4 (August 1991) 211–24; Craig A. Watkins, “The Definition and Identification of Housing Submarkets,” Environment and Planning A 33, no. 12 (2001) 2235–53; Christopher B. Leinberger, The Option of Urbanism: Investing in a New American Dream, paperback ed. (Washington: Island Press, 2009); Dianne Harris, “‘The House I Live In’: Architecture, Modernism, and Identity in Levittown,” in Second Suburb: Levittown, Pennsylvania, ed. Dianne Harris (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2010), 226.
  10. Ann R. Markusen, et al., The Rise of the Gunbelt: The Military Remapping of Industrial America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), chapter 5; Kevin Starr, Golden Dreams: California in an Age of Abundance 1950-1963 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009) chapter 8; Josh Sides, L.A. City Limits: African American Los Angeles From the Great Depression to the Present (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003) 81–90; Greg Hise, Magnetic Los Angeles: Planning the Twentieth-Century Metropolis (Baltimore:  Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997); Becky M. Nicolaides, My Blue Heaven: Life and Politics in the Working-class Suburbs of Los Angeles, 1920–1965 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002).
  11. Herbert Jay Vida, “Bay Story: Vacant Lot Today – An Apartment House Tomorrow,” Los Angeles Times, July 19, 1959: CS A10.
  12. Vida, “Bay Story”; “Apartment Project Rushed in Centinela Valley District,” Los Angeles Times, June 11, 1961: O19; “Former Mayor of Hawthorne to Get Diploma,” Los Angeles Times, June 3, 1962: CS11; “4 Apartment Projects Rising,” Los Angeles Times, October 21, 1962: N10. See also Louis Winnick, Rental Housing: Opportunities for Private Investment (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1958); “Building Good New Apartments is the Best Way Anyone With Money Can Make More Money,” House & Home 13, no. 4 (October 1960) 90-94; “How An Apartment Builder Taps the Young-singles Market,” House & Home 36, no. 3 (September 1969): 98-101; Chase and Beach, “The Stucco Box.”
  13. Herbert Jay Vida, “Apartment House Offers Dweller Both Shelter and Social Outlet,” Los Angeles Times, July 26, 1959: CS3.
  14. In this taxonomy, developed by Peter C. Papademetriou, “basic” two-bedroom units had just one bathroom. Peter C. Papademetriou, “Magnificent Fountains, Beautiful Courtyards,” in VIA, VI: Culture and the Social Vision, ed. Mark A. Hewitt, Benjamin Kracauer, John Massengale, and Michael McDonough (Philadelphia: Graduate School of Fine Arts, University of Pennsylvania; Cambridge: MIT Press, 1980) 132–33 Fig. 4. On design changes see Vida, “Bay Story.”
  15. Charles Mangel, “Boys & Girls Together,” Look August 22, 1967: M8–10. See also Dick Turpin, “Four Young Men Profit From a ‘Single,’” Los Angeles Times, August 27, 1967: I1; Osnos, “The Loneliness Industry”; Clyde V. Smith, “The Swingers … New Concepts Let You Do Your Thing,” San Diego Union-Tribune, August 31, 1969: F-1, F-8, F-10,  F-11.
  16. Bill Domenico quoted in Charles Bethea, “Hoochie Koo,” Atlanta, November 2009, 97.
  17. “How To Manage Your Apartment Managers,” House & Home 36, no. 3 (September 1969): 93-97. See also Vida, “Bay Story;” Turpin, “Four Young Men Profit From a ‘Single’”; Andrew Jaffe, “Pads for Swingers Booming,” The Free Lance-Star (Fredericksburg, Va.), November 16, 1965: 11.
  18. Quotation in William Murray, “The Swinging Singles,” Los Angeles Times, April 2, 1967: A22.
  19. Quotation in “Apartments Cater to Families With Children,” Los Angeles Times, May 10 1964: G9. See also Turpin, “Four Young Men Profit From a ‘Single’”; Dick Turpin, “New Breed of Developer Emerges,” Los Angeles Times, September 29, 1968: H1; Bea Miller, “All This and a Bachelor, Too,” Los Angeles Times, November 16, 1969: M26; “How An Apartment Builder Taps the Young-singles Market,” House & Home. On retirement see Lasner, High Life, chap. 5.
  20. R&B principal Howard Ruby in Turpin, “New Breed of Developer Emerges.” On townhouses see Lasner, High Life, chap. 6.
  21. South Bay Club Torrance social director Lucille Retter in Chuck Cole, “New Units Geared Toward Young, Modern Residents,” [South Bay] Daily Breeze, March 19, 1965.
  22. It is now typical for middle-class men and women to invest in careers before starting families; today 23 percent of Americans age 18 to 31, for example, lives with a spouse. But as late as 1968, 56 percent did. Conversely, 34 percent of this cohort now lives alone or with roommates, while in 1968 only 9 percent did. Singles complexes helped engender this dramatic shift. See Richard Fry, “A Rising Share of Young Adults Live in Their Parents’ Home,” Pew Research Center report, August 1, 2013. See also Charles Bethea, “Hoochie Koo,” 95; editorial, “Booming Singles ‘Industry,’” Marietta Daily Journal, August 7, 1969: 4-A; Haber, “The Great Matchmakers in the Sky-Rise”; Art Seidenbaum, “Housing the Unattached,” Los Angeles Times, Sept. 6, 1965: D1; Osnos, “The Loneliness Industry.”
  23. Murray, “The Swinging Singles.”
  24. Peter Bacon Hales, Outside the Gates of Eden: The Dream of America from Hiroshima to Now (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014): 315-22, 358; Katherine J. Lehman, Those Girls: Single Women in Sixties and Seventies Popular Culture (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2011); Elissa Auther and Adam Lerner, eds., West of Center: Art and the Counterculture Experiment in America, 1965-1977 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012); Timothy Scott Brown, “The Sixties in the City: Avant-gardes and Urban Rebels in New York, London, and West Berlin,” Journal of Social History 46, no. 4 (Summer 2013): 817-42.
  25. Jurate Kazicas, “Singles Follow Couples to Safer, Cleaner Life in Suburbs,” Washington Post, August 1, 1971: G10. See also Schafer, The Suburbanization of Multifamily Housing, chapter 5, 106, 115; Jay Mathews, “Suburbs and Single Person,” Washington Post, July 20, 1972: F1; Emily Fisher, “Where They Swim … And Where They Don’t,” Washington Post, July 9, 1975: D9; Bethea, “Hoochie Koo.” In the preference for suburban living, other important factors were race, the unfolding urban crisis, and fear of crime.
  26. Murray, “The Swinging Singles.”
  27. Anna Duda in Jaffe, “Pads for Swingers Booming.”
  28. Quoted in “Modern Living: Housing, Pads for Singles,” Time. See also Vida, “Bay Story”; Haber, “The Great Matchmakers in the Sky-Rise.”
  29. Quoted in Haber, “The Great Matchmakers in the Sky-Rise.” See also “How An Apartment Builder Taps the Young-singles Market,” House & Home; “Modern Living: Housing, Pads for Singles,” Time.
  30. “Modern Living: Male & Female,” Time, February 17, 1967: 47.
  31. Quotation in display advertisement, Los Angeles Times, April 23, 1964: C8. See also Jack Smith, “Time of Trial for Organization Man,” Los Angeles Times, June 24, 1964: D1; Vi Ehinger, “Business Booms at Never on Friday Club,” Los Angeles Times, September 13, 1965; Vi Smith, “Single Adults Find Swinging Solution,” Los Angeles Times, July 15,  1968: F1; Lael Morgan, “Singles King Swings Back Into Act,” Los Angeles Times, December 11, 1970: J1.
  32. Emily Fisher, “Oh, Brothers, What Mom Didn’t Tell Us,” Washington Post, April 24, 1975: C1. On Skinner see “New Headquarters Planned for R&B Development Co.,” Los Angeles Times, November 5, 1967: O14.
  33. Display advertisement, House & Home, September 1969: 10-11.
  34. On Carousel see Clyde V. Smith, “Apartments …The Answer For Housing?,” San Diego Union-Tribune, September 3, 1967: F1, F4, F9, F-10; Clyde V. Smith, “Ten Architects Draw Praise For Distinctive Design,” San Diego Union-Tribune, October 25, 1970: F-1, F-6, F-8.
  35. Display advertisement, Los Angeles Times, November 6, 1966: B33.
  36. Murray, “The Swinging Singles”; Sherrod, “Atlanta’s ‘Swingle’ Clubs”; “Modern Living: Housing, Pads for Singles,” Time; Jaffe, “Pads for Swingers Booming”; Haber, “The Great Matchmakers in the Sky-Rise’; “How An Apartment Builder Taps the Young-singles Market,” House & Home; Seidenbaum, “Housing the Unattached”; Smith, “The Swingers…New Concepts Let You Do Your Thing”; For Singles Only, DVD, directed by Arthur Dreifuss (1967; Culver City: Sony Pictures Homes Entertainment, 2011).
  37. Bob Levey, “Oakwood Shedding Old Swinging Image,” Washington Post, March 13, 1980: VA1; “How An Apartment Builder Taps the Young-singles Market,” House & Home; Haber, “The Great Matchmakers in the Sky-Rise”; Kent Hansen Wadsworth, “Brand Marketing Apartments,” Journal of Property Management, March-April 1997: 44-49.
  38. Ron Huspeth quoted in Bethea, “Hoochie Koo,” 85. See also John McCosh, “The Remake of Riverbend,” Atlanta Journal Constitution, May 9, 1992: B1 “Beer Sales OK at Riverbend,” Marietta Daily Journal, April 14, 1977: 4B.
  39. “Modern Living: Male & Female,” Time, February 17, 1967: 47; editorial, “Booming Singles ‘Industry’”; Herman Wong, “Singlehood: The Trend Toward Acceptance By Society,” Los Angeles Times, June 17, 1973: OC1; Kazicas, “Singles Follow Couples to Safer, Cleaner Life in Suburbs.” On suburban “spaces of encounter“ see Tobias Armborst, Daniel D’Oca, and Georgeen Theodore [Interboro Partners], “Community: The American Way of Living,” Places Journal, October 2009. On the lives of singles in suburbia in a more recent era, see Carl Abbott’s discussion of Douglas Coupland’s novels: Carl Abbott, “Jim Rockford or Tony Soprano: Coastal Contrasts in American Suburbia,” Pacific Historical Review 83, no. 1 (February 2014): 1-23.
  40. Quotation from John D. Weaver, “Messing About In Boats [L.A. Style],” Los Angeles Times, July 25, 1971: West Magazine 24-29. See also Fisher, “Where They Swim … And Where They Don’t.”
  41. “Oakwood — Country Club Life for Young Marrieds,” Los Angeles Times, Feb. 16, 1969: J1; Smith, “The Swingers … New Concepts Let You Do Your Thing”; Sharon Fay Koch, “Tide of Marrieds New Trend at Marina,” Los Angeles Times, April 3, 1972: 16A; Peter H. Brown, “Singles-only Boom Fading,” San Diego Union-Tribune, December 2, 1973: B-1; “Apartments, Office Parks Exchanged by R&B, Koll,” Los Angeles Times, August 7, 1977: I2; “Singles Apartment Pioneer Expands Real Estate Focus,” Los Angeles Times, August 20, 1978: J18; “Houston Complex Acquired by R & B,” Los Angeles Times, January 14, 1979: I39; display advertisements, Los Angeles Times, October 21, 1981: F3, September 30, 1982: G4.
  42. Susan Rogers, “Superneighborhood 27: A Brief History of Change,” Places 17, no. 2 (Summer 2005); Roy Vu, “Retaining the Home not the Homeland: The Significance of Vietnamese Ethnic Identity in Houston’s Village Communities,” Fourth Biennial Conference, The Urban History Association, Houston, Tex., Nov. 5-8, 2008; Ellen Dunham-Jones and June Williamson, Retrofitting Suburbia: Urban Design Solutions for Redesigning Suburbs (Hoboken, N.J.: Wiley, 2009) 30-35, 89-90.
  43. John Eligon, “In Student Housing, Luxuries Overshadow Studying,” New York Times, June 14, 2013; Jed Lipinski, “Posting: An Artful Way to Rent Apartments,” New York Times, July 4, 2010: RE5; Nancy Scola, “Facebook Enters the City-building Business,” Next City, Oct. 4, 2013; Gregg Logan, “RCLCO Forecast: Does the Housing Market Still Want the Suburbs?,” The Advisory, April 30, 2012 (Bethesda, Md.: RCLCO); “Queen For a Day,” Arrested Development, FOX, January 23, 2005.
  44. Quoted in Murray, “The Swinging Singles”; Jerrold Seigel, Bohemian Paris: Culture, Politics and the Boundaries of Bourgeois Life, 1830-1930 (New York: Viking, 1986), 5-27. On the recent surge in living “solo” “see Eric Klinenberg, Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone (New York: Penguin, 2012).
  45. Richard J. Williams, Sex and Buildings: Modern Architecture and the Sexual Revolution (London: Reaktion, 2013): 75.
  46. Quotation from Hales, Outside the Gates of Eden, 358. See also, for example, Williams, Sex and Buildings, 74-83; Margaret Crawford, “Alternative Shelter: Counterculture Architecture in Northern California,” Reading California: Art, Image, and Identity, ed. Stephanie Baron et. al. (Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art and Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000); Auther and Lerner, West of Center; Brown, “The Sixties in the City,” 827.
  47. Crawford, “Alternative Shelter,” 267-68. On antimodernism see T. J. Jackson Lears, No Place of Grace: Antimodernism and the Transformation of American Culture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981), especially chapter 1.
Matthew Lasner, “Swingsites for Singles,” Places Journal, October 2014. Accessed 08 Jun 2023. https://doi.org/10.22269/141007

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