What do you shop for when you shop at Macy’s?

Martha Stewart-branded hand towels? Mattresses? Underpants? Fully furnished — and modestly priced — vacation bungalows?

No doubt the very thought of buying a home at Macy’s is outlandish today. But at the staunchly mid-range retailer's Manhattan flagship department store circa 1963 to 1965-ish, some shoppers were very much on the prowl for a weekend getaway — a home that, like much of Macy’s merchandise, was available in small or large (more like small or medium by today’s housing standards) sizes and subject to reasonable payment plans: the “Convertible” ($12,990 or $490 down plus $73 per month) or the “Expanded Convertible” ($15,990 or $940 down plus $87.90 per month).

It’s safe to assume that a few Macy’s shoppers in the early 1960s didn’t set foot in the cavernous Herald Square emporium intending to buy a home.

But somehow, in between perusing melamine dinnerware and picking up a fresh bottle of Hypnotique by Max Factor, these shoppers — many of them women — wound up on the ninth floor oohing and ahhing over a full-scale and fully furnished “Leisurama” model home. Perhaps it was love at first sight; perhaps it was the tour and the marketing materials; perhaps the sales pitch and the promise of leisure-driven modern living was just too good to pass up.

Go in for a pair of new nylons, leave with a 950-square-foot summer cottage. Hey, it happens to the best of us.

Perhaps the most appealing aspect for harried Macy’s shoppers was that the petite retreats, which in addition to being showcased on the ninth floor of Macy’s also appeared at the 1964 New York World’s Fair, were sold as turnkey properties. That is, Leisurama homes were outfitted with everything from bed linens to state-of-the-art GE appliances to pots and pans. “Prepackaged to meet your budget,” Leisurama homes were “accessorized in your choice of four decorator color schemes."

All buyers had to do was sign the paperwork and show up.

“A completely furnished and decorated home you can buy exactly as you see it … fully equipped for modern living with everything included from central air conditioning to brand new toothbrushes,” exclaimed the original Leisurama sales brochure.

There was, however, one important consideration that shoppers had to ponder before signing away.

A Leisurama home, Montauk NY

An original Leisurama home complete with signature carport in Montauk's Culloden Point development. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Unlike Sears Modern Homes, which were sold via catalog and shipped across the country as build-it-yourself kits for much of the first half of the 20th century, buying a Leisurama home from Macy's — and everything inside of it including one rug, three lamps, eight pillowcases and fold-out “phantom" (read: Murphy) bed — meant you had to vacation (or live full-time) on Long Island.

Or outside of Fort Lauderdale.

You see, these modular modernist vacation homes designed by Andrew Geller weren’t shipped off to the customer’s desired location after purchase. Marketed with plenty of good, old-fashioned hyperbole (“The greatest advance in housing since the invention of bricks!”), all 200 Leisurama homes went up at Culloden Point, Herbert Sadkin’s beachfront development just north of Montauk on the South Shore of Long Island.

In turn, Macy's shoppers weren't just buying a second home but buying into a nascent housing development where perks included membership to a local country club, easy access to the beach and other community amenities.

I’d be curious to know how many lunatic impulse shoppers folks bought Leisurama homes without even setting foot in Montauk beforehand. (Macy's provided train fare to potential buyers wanting to visit Culloden Point in person).

Dubbed “Leisurama North,” Sadkin's development, a kind of leisure-centric take on the postwar planned suburbs of Levittown, was joined by a larger All-State Properties-developed vacation colony for the snowbird set in Broward County, Florida. That development, Lauderhill, was also referred to as “Leisurama South.”

Leisurama, a prefab vacation home sold at Macy's in the 1960s

Outfitted with an array of furnishings and appliances, this Long Island home was purchased at Macy's. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

In conjunction with the 2003 release of “Leisurama,” a documentary film — a story of "ambition, creative marketing, and a desire to leave the daily grind behind and escape to a fun, playful utopia" — directed and produced by Jake Gorst (Andrew Geller’s grandson), the New York Times explored the concept of a "branded" vacation community:

While earlier housing developments, like Levittown, were marketed with recognizable names and designs, Leisurama went several steps further by offering a leisurely lifestyle. The development was, in the language of marketers, 'branded.' ‘A brand is a promise of an experience,’ says Debbie Millman, one of several experts who provide commentary in the film. Ms. Millman is president of Sterling Group, a Manhattan-based company that specializes in branding, or creating an overall look, for clients like Burger King and Corona beer. The Leisurama brand, she adds, was ‘about instant gratification.’ ‘This was a planned utopia,’ she says early on in the movie. ‘This was something that was like paradise.’

Leisurama’s glory days, however, were short-lived. As Gorst explains in another New York Times article from 2003, the low-slung homes with attached carports, wood paneling and picture windows weren’t exactly profitable, despite their popularity: "They were losing money. The cost of building the homes turned out to be more than the cost of what they were selling them for. Apparently, they miscalculated the cost of the septic systems.''

Herbert Sadkin's All-State Properties, a company of fascinating origin, eventually went belly-up. Macy's halted sale of the homes and the full-scale model "Convertible" disappeared from the ninth floor of the department store. Gone were the days when Manhattanites like Laura Goodman, one of the original Leisurama residents profiled in Gorst's documentary, could (allegedly) pop into Macy's for a new bra and leave with the paperwork for a brand new Long Island vacation home.

''I always wanted to give people something they could recognize, something new and novel to break away from the cell-like apartment style,'' Andrew Geller explained to the New York Times in 2003. ''The kitchen, which was part of the family room, was a novel idea.''

Geller passed away in 2011 at the age of 87.

Over the years, some of Montauk’s Leisurama homes have been razed with new homes appearing on the original 75-by-100-foot concrete slab lots; others have been remodeled and expanded upon, converted from vacation residences into full-time homes; many are still standing in their original condition.

Not surprisingly, the remaining Leisurama homes have garnered something of a cult following in the last decade or so, bolstered by Gorst’s documentary (in addition to a series of screenings, the film has found a receptive audience on public television) and their undeniable throwback appeal. As Curbed recently noted, original Leisurama homes have hit the market in recent years for serious beacoup bucks (in the ballpark of $60,000 and $750,000).

Lesser has been written about the current state — and cost — of Lauderhill's stock of Leisurama bungalows.

Those who aren’t in the market to buy a home that someone bought 50-plus years prior from Macy's, can always get the full Leisurama experience via Airbnb starting at $400 per night (!). While authenticity is part of the appeal, it's probably a good thing that the shower curtain is likely not a period original.

Via [Curbed], [NY Times]

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Matt Hickman ( @mattyhick ) writes about design, architecture and the intersection between the natural world and the built environment.