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Post-war Housing Styles Cape Cod, Colonial, and Ranch
The end of the Second World War brought a sea change to American housing that In just 20 short years altered the entire American landscape, creating whole new towns and cities where none had existed before, and inventing an entirely new suburban lifestyle.
By 1946, the demand for new housing had been growing for years. The Great Depression of the 1930s depressed, among other things, home building. Houses were built but not nearly enough of them. Housing starts plummeted 90%, from 937,000 in 1925 to barely 93,000 in 1933. Decent housing of any kind was hard to find.
Rents reached an all-time high in 1940, prompting the very first Federal Government rent controls. They were a complete failure – largely ignored by all, landlord and tenant alike.
Then came the World War. All of the "strategic" materials needed to build housing went to war with our armed forces and built barracks, airfields, and officer's clubs from Burma to Murmansk. By the end of the war, housing demand had been steadily outstripping supply for an entire generation.
But, at the start of 1946, it was a bright new world. The deadliest and most costly war of all time was finally over. Nazi Germany, then Imperial Japan had unconditionally surrendered. The Great Depression was history – succumbing to the demands of wartime production.
America was rich. For the first time in a long, long time, Americans had money jingling in their pockets. The total wealth of the nation had doubled in just four years. Americans produced more food than they could eat, more clothing than they could wear, more steel than they could use, and pumped more than half of all the world's oil.
Thirteen million American men and women had just returned from wartime military service. Lives that had been on hold since the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 were resumed. There were a record number of marriages in 1946 and again in 1947, and a record number of births – the beginning of the Baby Boom generation.
But, there was no housing to be had. Young couples with infants were living above garages, in spare rooms, in tiny apartments with their parents. Returning veterans were forced to live in their cars. The government erected temporary veterans shelters to ease the problem in especially overcrowded areas. But, what people wanted was housing: good, clean affordable housing.
Not to buy, just to rent.
Few Americans owned their own home in 1946. Most working families rented. The ideal of actually owning a home was a distant dream to the average wage-earner. It took years and years to save enough for the hefty down payment demanded by the banks on even a modest house. Many people simply could never do it.
So, the most that young post-war families looked forward to was just something clean and decent to rent. Home-ownership was something most considered completely out of reach until much later in life, if at all.
But, for once (and perhaps the last time) Congress was leagues ahead of the American public. Starting as a modest and almost unnoticed provision of the Servicemen's Readjustment Act of 1944 (popularly known as the "GI Bill"), the government gave war veterans the ability not just to rent but actually buy a modest first home by eliminating the down payment and guaranteeing part, and later all, of a veteran's mortgage.
For the first time ever, the average working guy – the policeman, the electrician, the bus driver, the teacher, the assembly line worker – could own a home – and a solid, well built, home that could not, by government edict, cost more than $10,000.
Millions of families who never even dreamed of home-ownership suddenly found themselves in the market for a new house.
Housing demand, already gigantic, simply exploded.
The American Dream House, All in a Row, Row After Row…
With a keen 20/20 hindsight over three-quarters of a century later, we can clearly see the many problems caused by the mass post-war migration to suburbia: the sprawl, the highway congestion, the pollution, our growing dependence on foreign oil, the row upon row of almost identical tract houses.
… As Far as the Eye Can See.
It's barely dawn when a small convoy of surplus army trucks rumbles through the rising mist over newly paved streets on what was formerly a potato farm.
Every 60 feet they stop in front of a just-cured 800 square foot slab of concrete, pausing just long enough to drop identical bundles of lumber, pipes, siding, bricks, shingles, tile, and wiring, then moving on to the next slab.
The bundles contain a nearly foolproof house-building kit – everything required to finish one house. The materials needed first are packaged on top.
Construction crews soon arrive in small, quiet groups, subdued by the early hour, and get to work: raising walls, framing roofs, hanging drywall, painting, siding, roofing, and laying brick.
Each crew does its particular job, then rushes over to the next slab and starts all over again.
Under the fury of this sustained assault of men and machinery, new houses rise at an astounding rate – one finished house every 16 minutes.
They sell for $7,990; $20.00 down and a $57.00 monthly mortgage payment – a mere 20% of a working man's take-home pay. As many as 1,400 of them are sold in a single day.
With the same speed and efficiency that built airfields on Guadalcanal and tank bridges over the Rhine, seasoned veterans of wartime construction brigades were building a new kind of American community, and with it, a new American lifestyle, far from the bustling, crumbling, crowded cities, surrounded by green grass and clean air.
Alfred Levitt designed the houses with an eye to mass production, and William Levitt, using his experience in the Seabees building pre-fab structures for the Navy and Marines, broke down the building of a house into 26 discrete steps, each step assigned to a subcontractor.
Paid by the piece, not by the hour, subcontractors did the actual building using pre-cut lumber and pre-hung doors. Fence sections, flower boxes, windows, and staircases arrived already assembled and ready to install from a central warehouse.
Doing exactly the same job over and over and over again, crews soon develop blistering speed and dazzling efficiency.
President Harry Truman's Veterans Administration was determined to use the leverage provided by its mortgage guarantee to ensure that houses for returning war veterans were substantial but still did not cost over $10,000.
In an era in which comprehensive building codes were uncommon, the VA's detailed regulations for GI Bill housing became the de facto construction standard in many localities.
Every house had to pass a detailed inspection. VA inspectors were wartime veterans themselves and on a mission. They showed absolutely no tolerance for shoddy workmanship or substandard materials.
To beat the VA's $10,000 price cap, garages and basements had to go. Levitt houses were built on slabs, parking was at the curb. But, these were solid, well-built houses, not cracker boxes.
All had a large picture window, underfloor radiant heat, and a working fireplace. Windows were glazed with Thermopane® dual-glass units – 30 years before anyone else. Venetian blinds were installed on every window.
Levitt kitchens were decked out in enameled steel cabinets with Formica's amazing new laminated countertops – hygienic and durable.
"Look How Wonderful It Is."
"They [had] just paved [the street] but it was covered with mud. And, I said, 'Oh, that's our house right there.' Downhill [Lane] 33, there it is."
"We walk up and there's this slab in the ground, and believe it or not, we're looking at it, and I said, 'Well, let's see: The bathroom's over here; there's where the bedroom is. And I laid down right on it. The wet slab.
"She said, 'Get up, you fool.'"
"Nah", I said, 'look how wonderful it is.'"
Every house came complete with a Bendix automatic washing machine (and by 1955 a clothes dryer), a GE kitchen range and refrigerator, a built-in bookcase, white picket fence, and flower boxes beneath the front windows – all included in the price of the house.
A staircase led up to the unfinished attic that could be turned into more bedrooms as the family grew. The yard was landscaped with trees and assorted shrubs.
Seven different exterior color schemes and four variations in front and roof elevation (by rearranging windows and doors) ensured that no two houses within sight from any one viewpoint looked exactly alike.
And, it was a wonderful house – the American dream house, all in a row, row after row – just as far as the eye could see.
What we seem to have completely forgotten in the rush to judgment, however, is that in the immediate post-war years a tiny suburban house with its own little parcel of green lawn, some scrawny rose bushes, and two gangly saplings in the front yard was a dream come true for Depression-dazed, war-weary American families.
Our cities were tired, run-down, and dirty. There had been little new building for two decades. And, no money for repairs. City treasuries during the Depression were mostly bare.
City streets were indeed mean: poorly lit and crumbling. There was yet no word for smog but there was plenty of it – coal was the primary home heating fuel.
Rents were high and apartments were small, old, and squalid. Many had no hot water and only limited electricity. The shared bathroom was down the hall. There was no parking for the new cars nearly everyone could now afford.
People just wanted out. They wanted something nicer, cleaner, and newer, with air you could breathe and green grass – not concrete or asphalt – for children to play on.
And, for $20 in closing costs they could have it – a brand new two-bedroom Cape Cod with its own yard, a modern kitchen with built-in cabinets and appliances, heated tile floors, and central hot water; curbside parking on wide new streets, and abundant privacy ensured by a goodly expanse of green lawn between your house and your neighbor's.
And, the name of this glorious place where the American dream finally came true was …
William Jaird Levitt will always be one of the most controversial figures in American life. He taught the world how to mass-produce high-quality, affordable houses (see sidebar), and built more of them than anyone else in history but never owned a house himself, and hated the suburbs. He rented a 5th Avenue apartment in New York City.
He is one of Time Magazine's 100 most important people of the 20th century, in good company with the likes of Franklin Roosevelt and Robert Goddard of NASA fame. But, he died penniless in 1994, unable to pay his bill at the hospital to which he had donated millions of dollars.
Like it or not, William J. Levitt forever changed our world. His ideas literally rebuilt America. He gave us not just a new kind of house in a new kind of neighborhood but a new style of living with a new word to describe it: "suburban".
By 1950 every major metropolitan area in the United States was in midst of a housing boom – barely slowed by the United Nations "Police Action" in Korea in the early 1950s. And, by the mid-1960s the majority of Americans had become homeowning "suburbanites". Over 65% of American families owned their own home – a number that has remained relatively constant for the 75+ years since.
William Levitt's mass production techniques had enveloped the nation. Between 1945 and 1965, 28 million new homes were built – an average of nearly 5,000 houses each and every working day – more single-family homes than had been built in all of American history up to that time.
Production processes pioneered by the Levitt brothers helped ensure that houses stayed affordable. Through the 1950s and early 1960s, home prices rose about 5% per year but the cost per square foot barely budged.
Home prices rose because houses were getting larger and more luxurious: 40% bigger by 1965 with central air conditioning, better insulation, more appliances, improved design, and extensive landscaping.
In 1955 the typical new home was a one-story two-bedroom Cape Cod that cost $8,000. Ten years later it was a climate-controlled, landscaped, two-story three-bedroom colonial with an attached garage and unfinished basement that cost under $20,000 with a mortgage payment that was still less than 20% of a workingman's wage.
The Post-war Cape Cod
The Levitts did not invent the Cape Cod style. It is a traditional colonial-era architectural styl – boxy, low to the ground with a sharply pitched roof and narrow eaves – that re-appears from time to time in American architectural history.
It briefly emerged from the shadow of Victorian architecture in the late 19th century Colonial Revival period, then again beginning in the 1920s when it was re-popularized once more by Boston architect Royal Barry Wills whose writings sparked a revival of early Colonial styles, primarily in New England.
The Levitt Cape Cod had 4-1/2 rooms: living-dining room and kitchen across the front, two bedrooms at the rear, and a bath tucked in behind the kitchen. But, it kept the boxy rectangular shape, high pitched roof, and narrow eaves characteristic of the original Cape Cod style.
The floor plan was soon revamped so that the kitchen was at the back of the house, for reasons of better privacy and to make it easier to watch the children in the backyard.
A Carpenter Remembers
By Larry Haun (1931 - 2011), Nebraska-born author and post-war framing contractor in Southern California.
[T]he demand for new houses was so enormous that it required revolutionary thinking about how to build them. We didn't have time to build one house at a time. We needed to find ways to build 500 houses at once…
To compete you had to specialize. As specialists, we got pretty fast. When I started out as a carpenter, I was expected to hang eight doors a day. With a helper and the advantage of production tools, my friends Al and Royal Schieffer could hang nearly that many in an hour….
[W]hat was lost in the massive building boom was not quality. What was left behind was all the hand-crafted details that take time to create. We weren't building California bungalows or Victorian gingerbread houses. We were building solid tract houses that working-class families could afford to buy. And, you know what? More than 50 years later, despite frequent earthquakes, those houses are still there. Hundreds of thousands of them."
Excerpted from: "One Carpenter's Life", Fine Homebuilding #177, March 2006).
Not an inch of space was wasted.
The coat closet and stairs were conveniently right off the entry. The kitchen opened to both the dining room and living room, facilitating entertaining. The bedrooms were separated from the public spaces by a short hallway, and the bath was located between the bedrooms and living portions of the house so it was convenient for both guests and family members. The toilet, hidden behind a protruding closet, was partly shielded from view from the bathroom door. The furnace, and later the air conditioning, tucked neatly into its own little closet next to the water heater.
But, relatively few pristine post-war capes still exist. Improving your tract house became something of a nationwide obsession in the 1960s, spawning a whole new "do-it-yourself" industry and creating the tool-belt-totin' weekend warrior.
Almost as soon as the paint was dry on the original house, homeowners turned to making it bigger and better – finished basements, new gardens, garages, porches, decks and, for the very ambitious, bedrooms in the attic or even whole new additions.
In Nebraska a lot of Cape Cods were built as one-story homes with relatively low hip rather than gable roofs, reducing the opportunity to expand easily to a second floor. But, this did not prevent owners from improving on them: out the back, out the side, or remove the roof and add a story.
Some expansions are so extensive that it is had to tell that there was once a humble Cape Cod under the pile of add-ons.
The Post-war Colonial
During the post-war housing boom, the Colonial-style arose once again to serve the need for a larger house that could be mass-produced in very large numbers.
The Cape Cod was just not enough house for many post-war homebuyers. They wanted three bedrooms rather than two and a little more space. Builders, already familiar with the humble Cape Cod, merely added a second story. The additional story allowed the bedrooms and main bath to be moved upstairs. This, in turn, permitted a full formal dining room as well as a larger kitchen and living room with a guest bath just off the entry hall. And, thus was born the mid-century Colonial house.
Like the Cape Cod, designed to be easily added to, Colonials soon sported wings, decks, porches, and attached garages. As time went by, fewer and fewer of the smaller Cape Cods were sold and the larger Colonial in its many different forms, particularly the split-level, became the dominant tract house style by the mid-1960s.
By then the simple post-war colonial had undergone a number of major transformations. The second story was made larger by cantilevering it over the ground floor. The larger space allowed for a small additional bathroom attached to the "master bedroom" – a term just coming into use.
Variations in roof styles and detailing emerged. Adding a gambrel roof turned the structure into a Dutch Colonial. Split foyer colonials inspired split-level colonials with the obligatory unfinished "recreation" room in the basement. These allowed as much living space as ranch-style houses (see below) without the large lots required for ranch houses. Attached one and two-stall garages had become indispensable in the late 1960s.
But, by that time the style has lost many of the elements that had originally defined it. The early Georgian detailing such as the entry cornice and detailed eaves was gone as was the two-story rectangular shape. Split-level and split-foyer variations had so diluted the style that it was almost unrecognizable. In fact, whether a split-level house is termed a Colonial or a Raised Ranch is now often a matter of which label will most quickly sell the house.
The Colonial had become a "left-over" style. Any two-story house that did not fall easily into another architectural classification automatically became a "colonial".
The Ranch House
The Ranch Style or "Rambler" became become one of the dominant home styles during the middle decades of the century and passed the Colonial in popularity by the 1970s.
Unlike other dominant Post-War styles, the Ranch was not a reinterpretation of an earlier architectural style. It was something entirely new – purposefully geared to casual indoor-outdoor living with its open floor plan, semi-enclosed patios nestled between the wings of the house, and extensive use of glass doors and large picture windows to bring the outdoors in.
In 1977, over 75% of the single-family houses built in the U.S. were single-story Ranches and Cape Cods.
The ranch-style was born in the sprawling deserts of the American southwest. Self-taught San Diego architect Cliff May is widely credited with having built the first ranch-style home in San Diego in 1932. Architectural Digest took notice of the new style of house as early as 1934, and the notoriety allowed May to build more California Rancheria houses over the next five years.
The World War stalled home building for several years but in 1944, with the end of the War in site, Sunset Magazine featured May's houses, re-naming them ranch houses – the name that stuck. A feature in House Beautiful followed in 1946 solidifying May's reputation as the designer of a new style of house.
May was critical of conventional architecture which he felt had failed to take into account climate in the design of houses. His were designed specifically for Southern California living and greatly influenced by low-roofed Spanish-adobe ranch and farmhouses on which thick walls, broad overhanging eaves, and tile roofs were intended to keep the house cool in blistering desert summers.
The complete absence of blistering desert summers did not keep the style from quickly migrating north and east into the suburban landscape. May sold plans for his ranch houses to homebuilders nationwide fueling the spread of the style to all conerners of the country.
May's ramblers featured an open floor plan, making the best use of the limited space by eliminating interior walls to combine living, dining, and kitchen areas into what later became known as "Great Rooms". Large windows invited plenty of natural light and sliding glass doors that opened onto exterior living spaces, especially patios and decks.
The Levitts adapted May's houses to their mass-production methods, featuring two- and three-bedroom ranches in their developments in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. But they were by no means the only builders to adopt and customize the style. Of particular note was California-based builder Joseph Eichler, whose ranch houses brought a fresh, modernist approach to the house style, elevating it to something of a period icon, much admired and widely copied.
Eichler designs were known for their inward orientation. Like the Spanish Missions that were in part the inspiration for the style, The houses opened into a central courtyard or open-air atrium which provided light and ventilation while enduring almost perfect privacy.
Often the front and sides of Eichler ranches were completely devoid of windows, offset by entire glass walls enclosing the atrium and opening into the back patio or court. The enclosed open-air atrium brought the outdoors into the very core of the house, taking the outdoor-indoor interface to its ultimate expression.
In less temperate climes, the atrium was often enclosed and climate-controlled to better handle scorching summers and frosty winters. The opening in the roof became a skylight which created a feeling of being outdoors, without actually being outdoors.
For more on designing and building an indoor garden room, see A Jungle in the Dining Room – The Solarium Addition.
Still, the ranch-style would probably not have gained much of a toehold in the architecture of the early post-war decades were it not for a confluence in the 1950s of three unique events.
First, the casual, west coast style of living promised by the open, one-story ranch design struck a chord with Post-War homebuyers. The design was more connected to and more attuned to nature than the popular two-story styles of the period. Outdoor spaces such as patios and decks were joined to indoor spaces by minimal partitions, including glass walls and sliding patio doors, to create the impression that the two spaces were actually one larger space.
None of this was new but it was very American.
Andrew Jackson Downing, an enormously popular and influential American architect in the mid-Victorian period, adopted Henry David Thoreau's belief that being surrounded by nature is necessary for healthy living to home design. He insisted on an expansive front porch or sweeping veranda as an essential transition between the house and nature.
To this day, American houses commonly feature generous porches, patios, and decks, while European housing does not largely because of Downing's influence on home design.
For more about Victorian influences on modern housing, see The Victorian House Styles: Queen Anne, Italianate, Gothic & Eastlake.
The second factor was the wide-scale availability of relatively inexpensive land in suburban tract developments. Even the modestly affluent could afford the larger lots required for the rambling ranch-style. It was not until the late 1970s when land began to become increasingly expensive, that the ranch-style started seeing a decline.
Third, and possibly most important, convenient and inexpensive central home heating (and, later, air-conditioning) had become widespread by the 1950s. Electricity and natural gas powered the post-war furnace, not coal or wood.
In the days when a wood-burning fireplace or coal stove was the main heat source, heating a house took a lot of work cutting wood or shoveling coal. Building up rather than out made the most efficient use of heat rising from the first floor to also warm the second (and possibly third).
But, in the post-war years, reliable, cheap central heat was available by adjusting the thermostat. It made Ranch houses possible in cold climates. Without central heating and air-conditioning, the ranch-style would probably be nothing more than an interesting Southwest regional curiosity; something like the Tidewater style of the deep South or the Spanish Mission of the Southwest and Southern California.
As the house style migrated north and east it shed much of its characteristic southwest flavor and began showing more Prairie-style influences – at least in more affluent neighborhoods. In its tract house version, builders seemed to make a special effort to make it as bland and characterless as possible. In fact, the ranch style is often described by architectural critics as the "complete absence of style" – unfortunately too often true – but, a well-styled Ranch has as much character as any other house type. It's just that there are not that many of them.
The defining characteristics of the style were also muffled when the variations started such as the "Raised Ranch". Today the Ranch is largely a "left-over" style like the Colonial. Any one-story, three-bedroom house with a low roof is probably going to be identified, rightly or wrongly, as a Ranch.
The ranch style has been declining in popularity because it requires so much land, and is more expensive than other styles to heat and cool. Both land and heating are getting more expensive nearly everywhere. In 2005 single-story houses, including Ranches, had declined to just 42% of new homes sold – far below their post-war peak.
But, the style is far from extinct. As interest in building new ranches wanes, enthusiasm for restoring original vintage ranches is growing.
The rustic ranch styles of the 1950s and '60s are again very popular with young restorers. Original Eichler and Cliff May houses in California are much sought after for restoration.
In our town, Lincoln, Nebraska, modernist houses built by Straus Brothers in something of the Eichler style are seeing a resurgence of interest and commanding premium prices. Many have been renovated and many more restorations are underway.
We are privileged to participate in a great many of them.
Post-War "Atomic Age" Interiors
Post-war housing featured
minimalist interiors, devoid of unnecessary ornamentation and focused squarely on function. New materials such as plastics and engineered wood products dramatically influenced mid-century designers. Plastics such as vinyl, Plexiglass, and Lucite found a place in post-war design for their own qualities, rather than as an imitator of other materials such as wood or stone .... (Continues)
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