From China to Flint

From China to Flint

In China, Bacon found a job working for American architect Henry Killam Murphy in Shanghai, supervising a crew of Chinese draftsmen. He traveled the country and was struck by the Chinese sense of design and movement. He was especially influenced by the Forbidden City in Beijing. Bacon later commented that his experiences in China greatly influenced his planning of spaces like Penn Center and Society Hill in Philadelphia.

In the summer of 1934, Bacon returned home from China and worked briefly for William Pope Barney, a Philadelphia architect and family friend. In 1936 he was admitted to the Cranbrook Academy of Art, where he studied with an intimate group of artists, sculptors, and architects under renowned Finnish architect/planner Eliel Saarinen.

Saarinen had been working with government and business officials in nearby Flint, Michigan (at the time a major auto manufacturing center), helping them with city and traffic planning efforts. Saarinen sent Bacon to Flint to spearhead a Works Progress Administration (WPA) traffic survey, where at age 26, he supervised nearly 150 men. The survey received significant attention in national news outlets, by the Society of American Planning Officials and the WPA.

Bacon was joined by Eliel Saarinen’s son, Eero (who of course went on to have a celebrated career of his own), and the two of them worked together on planning and architecture projects. While in Flint, Bacon met Catherine Bauer, the founder of the modern American housing movement. He also witnessed the famous United Auto Workers strike of 1937. In Flint, Bacon also met Ruth Holmes, the daughter of a wealthy Long-Island family, visiting with a group of her peers. Ed and Ruth were married in 1938.

Bacon went on to become the Secretary of the Flint City Planning Board, and a member of the Flint Junior Chamber of Commerce. Over time, Bacon became an advocate for affordable housing, and an active member of the Flint Housing Council. Partly through his efforts, Flint procured nearly $4 million in federally earmarked funds for affordable housing. However, Bacon’s emerging influence brought suspicion from the Flint City Council and the business community, who opposed the housing reform efforts. In 1939, Bacon was effectively run out of Flint, and his major efforts were defeated in Council. Bacon and Ruth traveled to Europe, then returned home to Philadelphia in despair, and without future direction.