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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 — 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 most costly and deadliest war of all time was finally over. Nazi Germany, then Imperial Japan had unconditionally surrendered. The Depression was history. America was rich. 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. A gallon of gas cost 21¢. Americans had money jingling in their pockets for the first time in a long time. 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 just no housing. 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 particularly overcrowded areas. But, what people wanted was housing: good, clean affordable housing. Not to buy, just to rent. In 1946 few Americans owned their own home. Most working families rented. The ideal of actually owning a home was 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 pre-war 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, the United States 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 of Rights"), the government gave each of the over 13 million returning 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 his or her 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 his own home; and a solid, well built, home that could not, by government fiat, 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 some 70+ years 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.
…Just as Far as the Eye Can See.It's just after dawn. A small convoy of surplus army trucks rumbles through the rising morning mist over newly paved streets on what was formerly a potato farm. Every 60 feet they stop briefly in front of a just-cured 800 square foot slab of concrete and drop identical bundles of lumber, pipes, siding, bricks, shingles, tile and wiring. The pieces needed first are packaged on top. The bundles contain a nearly foolproof house-building kit — everything needed to finish one house. Construction crews arrive in small, quiet groups, subdued by the early hour, and quickly go to work; raising walls, framing roofs, hanging Sheetrock®; painting, siding, roofing and laying brick. Each crew does its own particular job, then rushes over to the next slab and starts all over again.
Under this furious assault of men and machinery, new houses rise at an astounding rate — one finished house every 16 minutes.
They sell for $7,990.00; $20.00 down and a $57.00 monthly mortgage payment — a mere 20% of a working man's income. As many as 350 of them are sold in a single day.
With the same speed and efficiency that built airfields on Guadacanal and tank bridges over the Rhine, seasoned veterans of wartime construction brigades are quickly building a new kind of American city, and with it, a new American lifestyle, far from the bustling, crowded city, surrounded by green grass and fresh 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.
Paid by the piece, not by the hour, subcontractors do the actual building using pre-cut lumber and pre-hung doors. Fence sections, flower boxes, windows and staircases arrive pre-assembled 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 its mortgage guarantee leverage to ensure that houses for returning war veterans were substantial, but still did not cost over $10,000.
In an era in which building codes were rare, the VA's detailed regulations for GI Bill housing became the de facto building code in many localities. Every house was inspected. Every house had to pass. VA inspectors were veterans themselves with no mercy on shoddy workmanship or deficient 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 underfloor radiant heat, fireplaces, and a large picture window. 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.
"Just 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, 'just look how wonderful it is.'"
Oral history of David and Mildred Glaser. One of the first Levittown couples. Courtesy the Levitt Corporation.
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 of any one viewpoint looked exactly alike.
And, it was just a wonderful house — the American dream house, all in a row, row after row — just as far as the eye could see.
American 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 breath and green grass to walk on. And, for $20 in closing costs and a mortgage payment of $57 a month they could have it — a brand new, 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. 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 50 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.
Levitt's mass production methods helped ensure that houses stayed affordable. Through the 1950s and early 1960s, the cost per square foot of a new home barely budged. Home prices were rising about 5% per year, but that was 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 1950 the typical new house was a one-story two-bedroom Cape Cod that cost $8,000. A generation later it was a climate controlled, landscaped, two-story three-bedroom colonial with attached two-car garage that cost just $20,000 with a mortgage 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 was a traditional Colonial Era architectural style: boxy, low to the ground with a sharply pitched roof and narrow eaves. It is a style 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 brothers, however, successfully adapted the Cape Cod to their mass production techniques; and both the style and the techniques were adopted widely during the post-war housing boom.
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.
A Carpenter Remembers.
By Larry Haun, author and post-war framing contractor in Southern California. Mr. Haun passed away in 2012.
[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).
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 back yard.
Not an inch of space was wasted. The coat closet and stair 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 to 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 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 expanding 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 additions.
The Post-war Colonial
The Colonial style of house has been around in one form or another since before the Revolution. There was a revival of the Colonial styles after 1870 that lasted into the first two decades of the next century. The Colonial Revival is often seen as a stylistic backlash against the excess of Victorian housing styles and a yearning to return to the country's "more wholesome" agrarian past. This sentiment helped trigger the Arts and Crafts movement that gave rise to the family of architectural styles that paralleled the Colonial Revival until the 1930s when both began to be swallowed up by emerging Modernist styles.
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 style 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 re-interpretation of an earlier architectural style. It was something entirely new — purposfully 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. Architect Cliff May is widely credited with having built the first Ranch style home in San Diego in 1932. Although, to the modern eye, May's "Rancho" house does not look very much like what we now think of as a ranch-style house, it did have all the usual ranch features.
It was greatly influenced by low-roofed Spanish-adobe ranch and farm houses 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 after the Levitt brothers adapted the Ranch as one of the basic house styles in their Levittown, Pennsylvania development in the late 1940s.
Levitt's adaptations became the basic model for the post-war ranch, but for many architects and builders, they were just a starting point, intended to be improved upon and extended. Of particular note was California-based architect-builder Joseph Eichler, who's ranch houses brought a fresh, modernist approach to the ranch 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. 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 roon, 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 atuned 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. The popularity of the ranch blossomed with the wide-spread growth of casual outdoor dining and recreational activities such as the pool party and barbeque, that, along with the cocktail party, became mainstays of suburban entertainment during immediate the post-war years.
Second, relatively inexpensive land in the suburban developments meant that even the modestly affluent could afford the wider 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. 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 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 California.
As the house style migrated north 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". In the tract house version, this was 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 house with a low roof that is not a Cape 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 declines, interest in restoring original vintage ranches is growing.
The rustic ranch styles of the 1950's and '60s are again very popular with young restorers. Original Eichler and Cliff May "Rancho" houses in California are much sought after for restoration and are selling at extraordinary prices. In our town, Lincoln, Nebraska, modernist houses built by Staus Brothers in somewhat the Eichler style are seeing a resurgence of interest. Many have been renovated and many more restorations are underway.
Post-war housing featured what we might call "minimalist" interiors. The advent of gypsum drywall to replace wet plaster walls eliminated the need for the wide trim boards. Very narrow trim soon became the new standard that continues even today.
Many houses were fitted with tile floors set directly on concrete slabs. But, the asphalt tile used at the time became brittle after a few years and broke apart. Few houses had it after 1960.
Oak wood strip floors eventually became the standard, lasting until about 1975 when wall-to-wall carpeting took over (made possible by the wide availability of the affordable vacuum cleaner — but that's another story). True linoleum and later sheet vinyl were the standards for kitchens and baths.
Plain doors and windows, and the absence of crown or chair molding contributed to the "vanilla" look of the period. But, most did not stay vanilla very long. Homeowners immediately set about adding the special touches that made their new house a unique home.
Some of the more faddish post-war decorating trends came and went quickly. Remember Campaign furniture and the (best forgotten) Mediterranean style? Both appeared and disappeared in about five years, leaving virtually no trace that they ever were — thank you gods of good taste.
But, the nice thing about post-war houses is that they can adapt to just about any interior styling. They are extremely flexible. While fussy Victorian may look out of place, any of what are termed the "modernism" styles can be used: art nouveau, art deco, industrial, and Scandinavian. Colonial houses lend themselves well to Colonial styles. Cape cods can adopt any of these as well as a toned down Arts and Crafts look.
Art Nouveau/Art Deco:
Art Nouveau began in the late 19th century as the French version of the Arts & Crafts movement. In this country it morphed into the Art Deco movement that lasted in somewhat muted form until the 1970s. It was most popular in the 1930s and gave period movie theaters, the Chrysler Building and the Golden Gate Bridge their characteristic look.
Art Deco was not a true architectural style. It was more a style of decoration that emphasized very geometric shapes and forms using parallel straight lines, zigzags, chevrons and stylized floral motifs. The style made extensive use glass in both interior detail and furnishings and bold use of color in carpets and accessories.
Both Art Nouveau and Art Deco, although often somewhat muted, fit perfectly inside post-war houses. Interior walls are typically monochromatic and light to keep the look clean and crisp. The tone of a room is often conveyed through its rugs, usually containing rich colors and strong geometric shapes. A comfortable sofa, at least one club or lounge chair and a coffee table are almost required elements of the Art Deco living room.
Called by many names, the most common being "Danish Modern", no style captured the post-war spirit quite like Scandinavian Modernism, a celebration of simple, uncomplicated designs, minimalism, and functionality.
The style was an extension of the European Arts & Crafts movement, particularly through the work of local Scandinavian designers such as Kaare Klint, Herman Gesellius and Armas Lindgren, but was also fertilized by ideas from other countries. Stylists and designers such as the Americans, Charles and Ray Eames, Charles Le Corbusier of France and the German Bauhaus School made full use of the possibilities of new materials such as bendable plywoods and moldable plastics to design furnishings with sweeping curves.
Klint, in particular, was very influential in stamping a particularly Danish look and feel to the Norse version of Arts & Crafts. He was particularly interested in chairs, and during his career designed a great many of them from 1914 to 1936. Klint's carefully researched designs were based on the propositions and functions of the human body, careful craftsmanship and the use of high quality materials.
All of these traits carried over into the design school he founded in Copenhagen in 1924, and to his students whose works popularized Modernist design throughout Europe and the Americas.
In full flower by the 1930s, the movement was refined during the austerity of the World War, a time when most imported and man-made materials became unavailable and Scandinavian designers were forced to return to local, native materials such as oak, birch, rush, clay and linen cloth.
After the war a few exotics slipped in, notably teak and rosewood, but the designs generally remained faithful to their wartime roots in native, natural materials and simple finishes. Designed always with an eye toward low cost mass production, Scandinavian furniture was not just beautiful and functional, it was also affordable, and well within the means of a typical suburban family.
Taking hold in New York City soon after the 2nd World War, the Scandinavian Modern look quickly swept all across the country, quickly becoming the defining furniture and interior design style of the period.
Young American families found it to be the ideal expression of the new, informal, suburban lifestyle. The simplified lines were geometric, clean and unpretentious and the scale was well-suited to the smaller rooms of the post-war period. "Hand rubbed" oil-and-wax finishes on wood furnishings meant freedom from worry about the interaction between young children and fine furnishings. If a table got damaged, it could easily be repaired. Framed seating with removable, slip cushions meant that a new look could be had at any time with some simple reupolstery.
Increasing its appeal to young post-war families was its low cost. Most of the principal designers of the style were schooled to fashion designs that were not just elegant and functional, but also easily mass produced in large quantities. Light weight Scandinavian furniture made cleaning and re-arranging a snap; and the natural materials and fine craftsmanship were a welcome counterpoint to the mass produced, man-made materials that seem to explode into middle of the century: plastics, nylon, Orion®, Selma®, vinyl and Formica®, to name just a very few.
The Modern Kitchen
Among their other contributions to the American home, the Levitt brothers largely invented the modern, fitted kitchen characterized by wall-to-wall built-in cabinetry and appliances tucked into recesses.
A Step-Saving Kitchen — 1949
A movie short produced by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1949 explaining the refinements of a "modern step-saving" kitchen developed in the Bureau of Nutrition and Home Economics.
The concept of built-in kitchens had been around for decades. As early as In 1912 researchers such as Christine Frederick began to apply the principles of industrial time and motion concepts to domestic tasks. Her book, The New Housekeeping: Efficiency Studies in Home Management, suggested the concept of a kitchen workspace organized like a factory with materials and tools conveniently stored and arranged.
Another pioneering domestic engineer, Lillian Moller Gilbreth began applying rudimentary ergonomic principles to household work through her own time and motion studies in the 1920s. She discovered that much of the time required for meal preparation involved moving among the three major work centers: sink, refrigerator (or ice box), and range. If this movement could be minimized, the time required to prepare meals could be vastly decreased. She created the kitchen work triangle to graphically illustrate how these three centers should be arranged for maximum efficiency.
But, perhaps even more important to modern kitchen planning was the ultimate refinement by Katharine A. Fisher of the concept of the task-centric workspace first proposed by Christine Frederick.
A director of the Good Housekeeping Institute, author, and columnist for Good Housekeeping Magazine, she wrote a series of widely read columns about kitchen efficiency beginning in 1925 in which she proposed grouping kitchen tasks factory style, according to purpose and materials, and assigning each task to its own work station. Cabinets within easy reach of the work station would hold all the implements and ingredients required to complete the task. Sounds basic to us today, but it was revolutionary at the time. Everything in "daily use" should be "in sight" and right at hand. Her ideas are central to modern kitchen planning.
You can read some of the original Fisher columns written for Good Housekeeping at the on-line library maintained by Purdue University. Particularly interesting are the multiple columns on "Cookery", "Household Engineering" and "Dustless Sweeping". It is astounding how much of her 1920's common sense applies today. Her cookbook, Good Meals and How To Prepare Them, first published in 1928, is still in print and available from any bookseller.
In 1944, the President of the University of Illinois at Urbana ordered the formation of the Small Homes Council to research housing issues. By war's end, the Council had already published a number of research findings on kitchen organization, which eventually became Kitchen Design Rules published by the National Kitchen and Bath Association, the cornerstone of kitchen design for the past half century.
By the time the Levitts began considering kitchen design, the basic principles had already been well established.
The three main tasks performed in the kitchen: preparation, cooking and cleanup should occupy their own work stations with all of the implements needed to accomplish the task close at hand. The refrigerator and pantry should anchor the food preparation station, the sink should be the center of the cleanup area, and the range the focus of the cooking area. These three centers should be arranged in a triangle, neither too large nor too small, and every surface in the kitchen should be sanitary and easy to clean.
The Levittown Kitchen
The universities and columnmists may have had the theory, but the Levitts had the design know how and production genius necessary to actually get the job done. They incorporated the first widely available, affordable, modern kitchen into their houses.
The new kitchens were fabulous selling points, and the Levitts promoted them heavily and very successfully. The chance that a post-war husband would get out of buying a Levitt house after mom had seen that kitchen was too small to be measured by the scientific instruments of the time.
Retro Small Appliances
You picked a great retro-style refrigerator and range; even your dishwasher looks like it was built during the Truman administration. But, now your Euro-modern stainless Italian-designed, German-made espresso machine looks more than a little out of place. What to do?
No worries. There are scads of retro appliances to finish off your mid-century kitchen; and although they look like they were built more than a half century ago, their innards are completely up to date.
Coffee-Bar Essential With retro switches and a long-life aluminum boiler, this miniaturized commercial espresso and cappuccino-maker looks like what an espresso maker could have looked like if there had been espresso makers 60 years ago. The racks on top even keep cups warm. The Cafe Retro, about $400.00, from Walmart.com.
Step Back in Time Cuisinart offers a a number of hand mixers that take their styling straight out of the 1930s. This hand mixer's chrome finish is the perfect complement to a retro-styled kitchen, and it's a hard worker as well. The 220-watt motor packs enough power to mix a double batch of chocolate chip cookie dough without slowing down,. From the Kitchen On-Line Store, about $50.00.
The Ultimate 1950s Appliance In post-war society the Waring Blender was so essential to that new suburban institution, the cocktail party, that many kitchens had Waring blenders built right into the countertop. If you forgot to add a Waring Blender to your countertop, no matter, Waring still makes the PBB212 professional bar blender, barely changed since its debut in the 1940s. In a variety of retro colors from the Kitchen Universe, about $100.00.
The Golden Newbie Sunbeam's Heritage toaster is a redesign of its 1940's "Toastmaster" deco model with modern features including extra-wide slots to accommodate thick bagels and muffins.
The toaster's food select buttons include bagel, pastry, and toast with seven toast-shade settings. In addition, it has an option for heating things up without drying them out. Self-adjusting centering guides ensure that bread is perfectly aligned for even browning on both sides. Who knew it took so much technology just to scorch bread? In polished chrome (and some other colors, but stick with the original chrome). From Amazon.com, about $25.00.
The Kitchen King Kitchen Aid made its first stand mixer in 1919, and hasn't changed it very much since. In fact, every attachment will fit every mixer, back to 1919. If you got it right the first time, why mess with it? The mixer is so iconic that its familiar bullet silhouette is trademarked; and it even has its own fan club. It mixes, blends, folds, beats, whips, slices, juices, grinds, chops, shucks, mills, kneads, rices, shreds, churns, stuffs, polishes, purees, grates, opens cans, sharpens knives, and makes pasta and ice cream. Whew!
Available in just about every retro color you can think of, and a few you probably can't — more than 40 all told, including basic white.
Even the less expensive mixers are lifetime appliances — maybe several lifetimes. Has anyone ever had a Kitchenaid mixer break? Available nearly anywhere, $300-600 depending on model and accessories.
The Other Kitchen King If you don't need quite this much mixer, try the Sunbeam Heritage Mixer, a reissue of the original MixMaster first made in 1930. From Walmart.com for about $120.00. More people have owned a MixMaster than any other single appliance in American history. Thousands are still in use, and it is the only kitchen appliance ever to be featured on a U.S. postage stamp.
It featured, among other things, durable and hygienic enameled steel cabinets (faster to install than wood cabinets), revolutionary Formica® laminate countertops, a single-spout mixing valve faucet, a Waring® blender base built right into the counter top, an electric range with oven, a refrigerator, a washer and dryer, and a built-in chopping block next to the sink.
The standard 1950s Levittown kitchen as it looked on move-in day — in pinkish — as recreated by the State Museum of Pennsylvania. This small, but well organized kitchen contained everything the post-war homemaker needed to prepare family meals and take care of the laundry while keeping an eye on the kids in the back yard, and all in a 10' x 12' footprint.
It was an absolute miracle of function and organization. All of the basic household services were placed in one conveniently arranged location: cooking, laundry, cleanup, storage; with a view of the kids playing in the back yard.
It was so widely copied that it quickly became the new standard American kitchen. Virtually all kitchen innovation since the Levitt kitchen has been mere refinement of the basic modern kitchen born in the genius of Alfred and William Levitt in the immediate post-war years.
Kitchens Outside of Levittown
Enameled steel kitchen cabinets were very popular in the immediate post war years, not just in Levitt kitchens. Consumers were familiar with enamel-on-steel as the preferred material for kitchen work tables and some Hoosier cabinets from before the war. Steel was promoted by companies such as Mullins Manufacturing (Youngstown Cabinets), St. Charles and Geneva as early as the 1930s as the vermin proof, sanitary alternative to wood. Once steel was no longer needed for the war effort and consumer production resumed, steel cabinets regained popularity and status as the high-end material for kitchens, which is one of the reasons the Levitts selected enameled steel for their houses.
Its heyday lasted less than two decades, however, and by the mid 1960s steel kitchens had all but disappeared. In part the problem was price — these were expensive kitchens — but also because they could be easily dented and scratched, and they rusted, especially around the sink. Touch-up paint was included by most manufacturers to treat scratches, but nothing could be done about the rust and dents.
They were also hard to fit. Wood cabinets are designed to be trimmed with a saw if necessary to fit perfectly into a kitchen. Steel cabinets could not be made to trim and fit, so the kitchen had to be exactly sized to fit the cabinets. Builders were reluctant to take on the extra headaches of dealing with steel cabinets, so their use in post-war housing was never widespread. Even the Levitts had dropped them by the 1960s.
In the early post-war years, wood cabinets were made on site as they had always been be specialized carpenters. But, very quickly the industry was taken over by factories that could make cabinets more cheaply — the beginning of the mass-production manufactured cabinet that is still with us today. Standardized sizes and modular construction made it fairly simple to mix and match cabinets to fit a particular space.
Post-war kitchen cabinets were streamlined with plain-as-day cabinet doors and drawers. Plywood eliminated the need to frame cabinets to control wood movement, so slab doors were the most common style and birch plywood the most common material. The usual finish was just varnish without any stain.
Color was imported in tile and countertop patterns, some quite bold, and in colors rarely seen today including flamingo pink, lemon-lemon and turquoise.
Typical features included drop soffits, Venetian blinds and a breakfast table of tubular chrome steel with a laminate top and matching chrome and vinyl chairs. At least one corner or end cabinet would be outfitted with open shelves for Mom's cookbooks. Colorful Melamine dinnerware completed the mid-century modern look.
Millions of these kitchens were built; most have, unfortunately, been "updated". But, the look is coming back as "50s-Retro". Vintage steel cabinets, chrome and vinyl kitchen table sets, and even 50s appliances, if in good shape, are commanding impressive prices in the antiques markets, and just about all of these are being widely reproduced.
The mid-century kitchen was usually well thought out and functional, but small for the purpose into which it very quickly evolved — the social center of the home. Kitchen design did not really catch up with this revolution in kitchen status for nearly 25 years, but somehow American families made their little kitchens work. By the 1960's with the addition of a built-in dishwasher, disposer, undercabinet lighting, and the electric range ventilator, the modern kitchen came into being. The only significant innovation since that time is the microwave.
Reproducing a Retro Kitchen
The basic limitation of the Post-War kitchen was its size. It was functional, but small. Often the first step in renovating a retro kitchen is finding some more space, often by removing the wall between the kitchen and formal dining room — now rarely used in an era of dine and dash. Once the size limitation has been taken care of, the process of reproducing the atomic kitchen is straightforward. Almost everything needed is available either in its original form or as a reproduction.
Cabinet wood in a Post-War kitchen was overwhelmingly birch, due to the widespread post-war availability of high quality birch plywood (originally developed to build war planes and PT boats). Natural varnished birch captured the light and airy look favored by the new suburbanites. Most of these have since been painted, but the paint is relatively simple to remove and the original varnished finish restored.
Most cabinet doors were simply lipped sheets of plywood with exposed hinges and mechanical or magnetic catches. Cabinet corners were often rounded — reproducing the look of Scandinavian design. The simple, unadorned cabinet designs fit in well with the unadorned Scandinavian furnishings of the day. (For more on cabinet door styles, see Cabinet Basics)
For true authenticity, countertops should be ceramic tile or laminate, preferably one of Formica Corporation's retro patterns. These were often edged in chrome trim, but if not, should have a square or diamond edge treatment. Ceramic tile was also used, and the tile was often carried up the wall to the bottom of the wall cabinets. Tile patterns were typically bold as were the colors. Solid surfacing with a laminate look would work. The key is to keep the square edge typical of the period. Granite and manufactured stone tops would be out completely of character in a Retro-50s kitchen.
Tile is a good choice for long-lasting countertops. Tile has gotten a reputation for being difficult to keep clean. But, it was not actually the glazed tile that was the culprit, but the cement-based grout that stained easily and collected dirt. New urethane and epoxy grouts have all to eliminated the problem, making tile one of the best choice for durable, beautiful countertops. The tile should be brightly colored, but largely monochromatic. Fancy tile designs were not a feature of the Post-War style.
Kitchen floors typically started out in asphalt tile set in bold patterns of alternating colors. Asphalt tile is no longer available for the simple reason that it is not very good tile, but there are plenty of vinyl tile replacements.
Sheet linoleum was also used. True linoleum is once again available, and in authentic colors and patterns for the period. In an upscale kitchen ceramic tile could be found, again in bold patterns and bright colors. Slate and oak strip flooring are also authentic. Oak and slate-look laminates would look right and be easier to care for. For more about flooring see Flooring Options for Kitchens and Baths.
The molding in a mid-century modern kitchen should be plain and understated. Complex moldings were not a design feature of the style. Moldings were largely treated as a necessary evil, needed to hide wall edges, but were deemphasized as much as possible. In many instances they were painted in the same color as the walls, reemphasizing them further.
Birch, Sweet Gum and Fir are the most authentic. Pine is a good substitute and is more readily available in the Midwest. Sweet gum is now so rare, due to overcutting and disease, that it is classed as an "exotic" species. But, authentic gum trim can often be found in stores that specialize in architectural antiques. Elm and oak were also used.
It is certainly permissible to use completely modern appliances in your mid-century modern kitchen. But, it would be vastly improved with retro-look appliances.
Other sources for retro major appliances:
• Heartland Retro Appliances Energy Star-rated Classic Series.
• Smeg Retro style refrigerator in eleven 1950s colors: black, orange, lime green, pink(ish), red, blue, cream, pastel blue, pastel green, and silver.
If you are looking for a restored vintage original appliance such as this 1951 O'Keefe & Merritt range, try The Antique Appliance Company.
Are any of these links broken? Please report any broken or missing links.
Many are available. Big Chill makes a complete line of retro appliances, including a dishwasher. Elmira Stove Works makes a dishwasher panel to attach to any dishwasher for a retro look, and a range vent as well as a retro-range and refrigerator. They have all the functionality of modern appliances, but feature an authentic style and period colors such as Buick Red, Lemon Yellow, Flamingo Pink and Robin's Egg Blue as well as White, Bisque, and Black.
Some original appliances are worth considering, primarily ranges. The technology of gas ranges has not changed much in the past 60 years, so gas ranges in good condition from the 1950s still work well. You might want to update the range with electronic ignition to replace the wasteful and sometimes dangerous pilot light. A number of companies rebuild vintage ranges with modern innards. Among these are The Antique Appliance Company and Good Time Stove Company. Or, find a used appliance dealer in your area. He can probably direct you to an old timer who upgrades vintage ranges, stoves and ovens.
Most Requested Kitchen Feature
More space. Many post-war kitchens are small — very small. We have seen them as small as 8'x7', much too small by any measure.
The idea of kitchen as family social center had not occurred to mid-century architects. Kitchens were considered utility rooms, like the bathroom, to be kept as small as possible to add space to the living areas of the house. Now that we generally see kitchens as part of the living area - in fact, probably the most important part - the space is just not there. There are a number of tried and true options for getting more space for that dream kitchen, however. We can remove a dividing wall between the kitchen and another room, add a small bumpout to the kitchen or even a full addition to greatly expand the space. All of these possibilities are more fully explored in Finding Some More Kitchen Space.
The Post-War Bathroom
The post-war bathroom was small and Spartan. Architects of the period considered the bath to be a utility room, like the kitchen, furnace room and laundry, it had to be just large enough to do its job, without taking space away from really important rooms like the living and formal dining rooms. The rooms were just large enough to hold a toilet, sink and tub, typically 5' x 7' or, in "upscale" houses, 5' x 9'.
Retro Bathroom Style
Small and Spartan, however, should not be taken to mean absent all style or refinement. Like the atomic age interior as a whole, mid-century bathrooms were characterized by clean lines and sleek, minimalistic design that first came to prominence in the pre-World War II era in Scandinavian.
These were well thought out, attractive and even pleasant spaces. The overwhelming motif was tile — tile floors, tile countertops and even tile wainscoting. Most of the tile was ceramic. It was so well set that more than a half-century later most of it still exists. Some, however, was plastic. Plastic was the new space-age material in the 1950s and very au courant. All we can say now is that very little of it still exists because it was such incredibly terrible tile. What has not fallen off by itself was removed years ago. We see very little of it now.
Tile colors were vibrant. Like the kitchen palette, decorators preferred bold pastels — sea cerulean blue, turquoise, pink, peach, lemon-lemon, black and white. The most popular bathroom colors were pink and peach, often trimmed in black or turquoise. By some estimates, as many as 5 million homes were built with pink or peach bathrooms between 1945 and 1960, about 25% of all bathrooms constructed during the immediate Postwar period.
First Lady Mamie Eisenhower is credited with initiating the craze after she redecorated the private quarters of the White House in pink. Today, the pink bath is back. It even has its own web site: Save The Pink Bathrooms, full of the history of the pink bath, and hundreds of photos.
Tile typically had little pattern. Partly this was a stylistic choice, but it was also faster to lay patternless tile, and post-war builders were for anything that saved time. If tile designs were used, they were almost always geometric and repetitive. Borders in a contrasting color were common.
The wall-mounted and pedestal sinks of the early Post-War period began to be replaced Vanity cabinets. These distinctive cabinets housed a single or double sink as well as proving storage spaces for bathroom accessories. The storage was needed in rooms that tended to be much smaller than more spacious pre-war bathrooms. Cabinetry was sleek and minimal, with doors that are flush with the rest of the cabinet, and simple, straightforward minimalist hardware.
Fixtures were fully modern. Aside from the low-flow siphoning toilet and low flow lavatory faucets and showers, mandated by the federal government in the 1970s, every fixture in a mid-century bath is identical to those in today's bath. The only device that has been added since the mid-century is power ventilation, made necessary by the advent of whole-house air-conditioning. Before air-conditioning, window ventilation was thought to be adequate. But, after air-conditioning made opening windows for ventilation in the summer much less likely, another means of ventilating moist air out of the bath had to be adopted. This was the bathroom fan.
As the 1950s ended, showers were becoming more common fixtures. Tub/shower combinations were considered a necessity in nearly every new bathroom by 1960, and continue to be the standard today. Glass was another popular feature of mid-century baths, especially glassed in tub and shower enclosures in place of the less effective curtain. Today the more practical choice is a semi-frameless or frameless enclosure which are not only easier to maintain that the 1950s full-frame shower door, but give a more spacious feel to the room.
Finding More Space for a Retro Bath
When mid-century houses were built, 50 or more years ago, a grand bathroom was not a big selling point. New home buyers of the period wanted spacious living areas and large bedrooms, breezy porches. The bathroom was considered one of those utility areas like the laundry room and furnace room that got tucked in wherever it would fit, in the smallest size that would accommodate the functions it needed to perform. If the builder had provided a grand bath, buyers would have wondered why he was wasting all that perfectly good space.
Now that the bathroom concept has changed into a spacious room for relaxation and repose, its hard to find the roominess you need in the standard functional 5" by 9" bathroom. But, if you want more features in your bathroom than the standard sink/tub/toilet, then more room is going to be required from somewhere. You have three basic options:… (Continues)
The nation is in midst of an post-war retro revival, still in its infancy, but blooming quickly as more young couples rediscover the beauty and budget friendliness of retro housing. So, there are a growing number of post-war retro resources available. Anything you need to restore, refurbish or refresh your mid-century home can be acquired somewhere, and it is entirely possible today to recreate an mid-century homestyle virtually indistinguishable from that which our parents and grandparents enjoyed — with the advantage of modern conveniences and improvements in both technology and design.
Here are some of our favorite places.Furnishings & Appliances
Big Chill: Retro appliances. All of the features of modern refrigerators, ranges and dishwashers in post-war colors and styles.
Danish Teak Classics: Danish Teak Classics specializes in finding, restoring and selling vintage Danish modern furniture as well as new products from Danish furniture makers in the mid-century style. Also offered are lighting, ceramics, glass, as well as a collection of fine art.
Elmira Stove Works: Retro 1950's and Victorian Era appliance reproductions with completely modern workings. The line includes ranges, refrigerators, range hoods, microwaves and dishwasher panels.
MidcenturyLA: "MidcenturyLA imports mid-century modern vintage furniture from Denmark, Sweden, Holland, England other European countries which are restored and reconditioned. Matching lighting available.
Mid-Century Modern Furniture: Mid-Century Modern Furniture specializes in the finest reproductions of modern furniture classics, including re-issues from the original furniture designers and manufacturers including Knoll, Vitra, Modernica, Cherner Chair Company, Architectural Pottery, Malm Fireplace and Daniel Donnelly.
Rejuvenation For period lighting, hardware and house parts plus a raft of ideas and illustrations, we know of no better place than Rejuvenation. Truly excellent customer service.
Retro Chalet Mid Century Modern Vintage Porcelain and Melmamine dinnerware. It's not always open, so check back periodically.
Vintage Danish Modern: Post-war Danish modern furnishings. Inventory varies, but there is usually a nice selection of furnishings for every room. Prices are reasonable.
Atomic Ranch: Atomic Ranch Quarterly Magazine celebrates mid-century houses—from 1940s ranch tracts to 1960s architect-designed modernist homes with an emphasis on affordable solutions and homeowner renovations.
Preservation Magazine: The journal of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
Mid Century Home Style: A well-designed eclectic web journal edited by Rikki Nyman as a resource and forum for mid-century modern house owners, and those who wish they were. Supported by subscription and advertising, neither gets in the way of the substance of the site, and advertising is nicely keyed into the context of each page. A huge number of photographs of vintage houses, both interior and exterior by an accomplished photographer, as well as vintage house plans. Well worth a visit, and once you get addicted, you'll keep going back.
Fifties Web: Fashion, music, style, year-by-year history — just about anything '50s, including a whole section devoted to Burma Shave signs.
Northwest Renovation: From home improvement basics to large-scale remodeling Northwest Renovation is a comprehensive source of information for home owners and trade professionals. A free, bi-monthly publication, its feature articles and pictorial how-tos highlighting local products and services inspire and educate both the home owner and professional.
Rancho Style: Created and maintained by realtor Douglas Kramer as a resource for owners of Cliff May Ranchos and those interested in the May's modernist post and beam architecture. Many architectural historians identify the May Rancho as the first of the ranch style houses, and certainly it is the only one routinely built using a post and beam structure.
RetroRenovation: Probably the most complete Web source for 40s, 50s, 60s and 70s interior design, fashion and style. The site is essentially a moderated user site with lots of input from homeowners and remodelers. A great source of inspiration and ideas with good articles and lots of illustrations. It even has ideas for making a pink bathroom work.
Mid-Century Home Style: Explores the lifestyles of the mid-20th century through house plans, interior designs and styles, color schemes, and advertising. Picture galleries of mid-century kitchens, baths and interiors from the 1940s to the 1960s taken from period publications. Original plan books and ready-built (kit) homes of the post-war period. The site supports itself through advertising, but it is unobtrusive and clearly identified.
The Eichler Network: Everything about Eichler Homes. Information about individual Eichler neighborhoods, the history of Eichler homes, a list of Eichler homes for sale, the Eichler lifestyle, and how to improve your Eichler ranch. The site even publishes its own quarterly magazine, "CA-Modern" devoted to things Eichler. The site's forums allows Eichler owners (and wannabe owners) to exchanges information.
Do you know of a mid-century modern or Retro 50s resource we ought to add? Please contact us. Are any of these links broken? Please let us know.
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