A pioneer in her field, Catherine Wurster ’26 devoted her life to advocating for affordable public housing, serving during her career under three U.S. presidents. Catherine Krouse Bauer was born on May 11, 1905, in Elizabeth, New Jersey, to Alberta Krouse Bauer and Jacob Bauer, the chief state highway engineer, whose occupation may have influenced his children. Her younger sister, Elizabeth Bauer Mock ’32, became the director of the Department of Architecture and Design at the Museum of Modern Art, while her younger brother, Jacob Louis Bauer, Jr., was an engineer.
For her early schooling, Catherine attended the prestigeous Vail-Deane School in Elizabeth. She entered Vassar in 1922, where she majored in art history and literature. In her third year, Catherine enrolled at Cornell University to study architecture as a special independent study. Feeling the very meticulous program to be a “combination of archeology and fancy watercolor rendering,” she returned to Vassar for her senior year, graduating in 1926.
After Vassar, Catherine Bauer travelled abroad to study contemporary European architecture, housing policy and city planning. Writing in 1928 in The New York Times Magazine about the work of Le Corbusier, she declared, “The question arises naturally, ‘What do we expect of a house?’ Is it a machine for living in or is it a badge of social disctinction, the proof of our taste in historic styles, or the one accomplished poem of our lives?” During her travels, she witnessed economic inequalities that ignited her passion for affordable housing. Upon returning to the United States, she devoted herself to the cause of public housing.
After her year in France, Catherine took up residence in Greenwich Village in New York City. While working for a New York publisher, she met the architecture critic of The New Yorker, Lewis Mumford, who was working on his study of American architecture and urban life, The Brown Decades(1931). She had admiredMumford’s recasting of earlier American culture in The Golden Day(1926), and, intrigued by her distinct views or both architecture and housing, he immediately brought her to his informal urban housing discussion group called the Regional Planning Association of America. As the historian Gail Radford observes in Modern Housing for America: Policy Struggles in the New Deal Era(1996), an “intense relationship” evolved between Bauer and Mumford, owing to “their mutual passion for modern architecture and literature and, soon thereafter, for each other.”
Catherine Bauer’s emerging career gained notice at Vassar. In July 1931 Vassar Quarterly announced that in an “‘Art in Industry’ essay contest conducted by Kaufmann’s store in Pittsburgh,” Bauer had “won a prize of $1,000 for her essay ‘Economics and Art,’ based upon the new housing developments at Frankfurt-am-Main, Germany.” The following year, she curated the housing exhibition, “Modern Architecture: International Exhibition,’” for the Museum of Modern Art. She undertook a similar task for the New York World’s Fair in 1939, and her growing success was reflected in the Class of 1926 “Class Notes” in July, 1933: “Catherine Bauer, our well-remembered Casey, is now batting out in regular and commendable fashion enough printed words to make her about our most stellar member. At present she is writing a book on European housing and modern architecture, which is to be published by Houghton Mifflin next fall. She also had two articles, in the January and March Nation.”
By 1934, Bauer was recognized as one of the lead “housers”—advocates for affordable housing. She was appointed executive director of the New Labor Housing Conference by the American Federation of Labor. The same year, she brought forth her widely-praised Modern Housing, which analyzed the social, political, and economic factors of housing policy. Advocating affordable housing, she simultaneously introduced the innovations of European housing to an American audience and campaigned for government-subsidized housing in the United States. In 1936, she received a Guggenheim Fellowship to research Western European and Soviet housing, and in December of that year the Miscellany News reported that Catherine had spoken at length with Associate Professor of Political Science Dorothy Schaffter and would soon be speaking at Vassar about her recent research. Catherine, Professor Schaffter said, compared Scandinavian low-rent co-operative projects for workers with American housing. Criticizing United States housing policy, she discussed with Professor Schaffter the ways in which rents for new houses built to replace slums were unaffordable for the previous tenants.
In January 1937, Catherine Bauer returned to the college to lecture on modern housing problems. Warning that the United States would soon face a critical housing shortage, she declared that the “building industry does not serve the interests of the majority of the people,” as 30% of the residences in America were uninhabitable, and only 25-30% of the American public could afford to live in new homes. A few months after her speech at Vassar, Bauer played a key role in drafting and advocating for the United States Housing Act of 1937, known as the Wagner-Steagall Act. Part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, the act revolutionized American housing by introducing affordable, subsidized residences for low-income U.S. citizens.
Caroline Bauer served three U.S. presidents during her thirty-year career. After the ratification of the 1937 Housing Act, she was selected to be the first Director of Research and Information for the newly-created United States Housing Authority. She also advised and consulted the Federal Housing Administration, the Housing and Home Finance Agency, and the California Housing and Planning Association. In addition, she wrote a chapter on housing for the 1960 “Commission on National Goals” during President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s administration and later served on a committee at an urban problems conference commissioned by then-Senator John F. Kennedy.
Catherine Bauer also had a remarkable career in academia. In 1940, she was appointed Rosenberg Lecturer at the University of California at Berkeley’s School of Social Work. That year, as part of the celebration of it 75thyear and “in honor of Henry Noble MacCracken in the Twenty-Fifth Year of his Presidency,” Vassar published A Citizen’s Guide to Public Housing by “Catharine Bauer, Rosenburg Lecturer, University of California; Consultant, U.S. Housing Authority, Author of Modern Housing.” Also in 1940, Catherine married William Wilson Wurster, a California architect whom she met when they both were students of the German Socialist city planner Martin Wagner at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. In 1944, she and her husband moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she became a lecturer at Harvard University’s Department of Regional Planning. Soon after, she became the first female faculty member at Harvard’s School of Design. In 1950, the Wursters returned to California, where Catherine joined the Department of Architecture at UC Berkeley. Bauer’s husband became the principle of the architectural firm Wurster, Bernardi and Emmons and was also an advocate of architecture that responded to local conditions. During the Red Scare, both were accused, along with Paul Robeson, Edward G. Robinson and several others, of disloyalty in 1953 by Senator Jack Tenney, the chair of the California Senate Factfinding Subcommittee on Un-American Activities. Catherine, however, successfully defended herself and her husband. She later helped establish the UC Berkeley College of Environmental Design and founded the architectural research group Telesis.
Catherine Bauer Wurster died at the age of 59 on November 21, 1964, of a brain concusion and exposure after she apparently fell during a solo hike up Mount Tamalpais, on the California coast in Marin County. Wurster Hall at the University of California at Berkeley, the site of the university’s College of Environmental Design and its Center for Environmental Design, was built in honor of William and Catherine Bauer Wurster. The university also established the Catherine Bauer Wurster Award for Social Practice, honoring alumni of the College of Environmental Design “whose professional work and personal commitments contribute significantly,” as did Catherine’s,” to social and environmental justice, fair housing opportunities, healthy and equitable communities, and sustainable cities and regions.”
Bauer, Catherine, “Machine-Age Mansions for Ultra-Moderns,” The New York Times Magazine, April 15, 1928.
Radford, Gail, Modern Housing for America: Policy Struggles in the New Deal Era, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, 1996.
“1926, Class Notes,” Vassar Quarterly, Vol. XVI, No. 3, 1 July 1931.
“1926, Class Notes,” Vassar Quarterly, Vol. XVII, No. 3, July 1933.
“Catherine Bauer to Lecture on Modern Housing Problem.” The Vassar Miscellany News, Volume XXI, Number 21, 16 December 1936.
“Bauer Talks on Acute Housing Problem in U.S.” The Vassar Miscellany News, Vol. XXI, No. 22, 13 January 1937.
Lowell, Waverly and Lisa Monhoff. “Finding Aid to the Catherine Bauer Wurster Papers.” University of California.
Penner, Barbara. “The (Still) Dreary Deadlock of Public Housing.” Places. October 2018.
“Woman Hiker Dead; Aided 3 Presidents On City Planning.” The New York Times. November 24, 1964.