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Mid-Century Modern: 1945 – 1970

by Hänsel Hernández-Navarro (photo by Sotheby’s International Realty)

If there’s one thing we love about CIRCA, it’s the chance to “tour” the great vernacular architecture that makes America wonderful. Grab a martini and get ready to learn all about the Mid-Century Modern style!
The Mid-century Modern style is comprised of several subtypes including the Ranch, Split-Level Ranch, Contemporary & Shed. The historical precedent to the Mid-Century Modern is the Minimal Traditional style, which dominated the American landscape into the 1950s.


The Wermager House, a contemporary-style MCM beauty in Hartford, WI is for sale for $249,900. Full listing HERE.



Prior to WWII the dominant style in American home building was a simplified form of the Tudor Revival. Because of the economic constraints of the Depression the style has been seen as a compromised rendition of a more elaborate Tudor. These early “modern Tudor cottages”, if you will, have a lower roof pitch and the façade is simplified by skipping most of the decorative Tudor detailing. These houses were built in great numbers in the years immediately preceding and following WWII; they commonly dominate the large tract-housing developments of the period. Although relatively small and one-story houses, occasionally two-story examples can also be found. Generally, the two-story type has extra detailing and epitomizes the traditional Eclectic styles popular at the time, usually the Colonial Revival or the Spanish Mission Revival. Minimal Traditional houses became popular in the late 1930s and were the dominant style of the post-war 1940s and into the 1950s.

Minimal Traditional homes Atlanta, GA. Photo c. 1940s & courtesy of Alfred A. Knopf Books.

Now, I know you are thinking Levittown, but no. Despite the general economic scarcity, these were nicely designed and crafted homes. The post-war house-building boom created by the firm of Levitt & Sons, Inc. was really a “bang for the buck” enterprise. The Levitt houses could be rapidly constructed and as rapidly rented out to returning soldiers and their young families. Levitt and Sons built these towns focusing on speed, efficiency, and cost-effective construction; these methods led to a production rate of 30 houses a day. The houses were built on small lots, on concrete slabs, and the company used pre-cut lumber and nails shipped from its own factories. But guess what: Levittowns are now historic (over 50 years old), and some tracts are even in some State and National Registers of Historic Places thanks to devoted baby-boomers.

A Minimal Traditional house in upstate New York. Photo by Jackie Craven.


How to Identify Minimal Traditional Style Homes:


THE RANCH: 1930s – 1970s

Ah, the ranch house! The baby boomers’ “field of dreams”… or dread, depending on how you look at this quintessential American post-war house type. By the early 50s the ranch house had replaced the Tudor cottage fad, and it dominated American domestic building through the 60s; and it is still popular in many parts of the country. The style was originated in California in the mid-1930s, and it took inspiration from simple one-story adobe “rancho” buildings of the Spanish Mission of the 18th-and 19th-centuries found in that state and throughout the American southwest. Subsequently, it was modified by influences borrowed from the Craftsman and Prairie styles of the early 20th-century.

A c. 1960 ranch-style home in Houston, TX sold earlier this year by realtor Robert Searcy. Full listing HERE.

The popularity of the ‘Rambling Ranch’ is a direct result of the country’s intensifying dependence on the automobile and the increasing post-war sprawl of suburbia. The Detroit automakers, the Interstate Highway System, the concrete industry (highways), and new government mortgage plans to promote home ownership after WWII, combined to spur the exodus from large cities to the suburbs. Compact houses could be replaced by sprawling designs on much larger lots, and the rambling form of the Ranch house underscores this by taking full advantage of façade width (which is further increased by built-in garages that are an integral part of most Ranch houses).

The Stone Mountain Ranch in Stone Mountain, GA sold earlier this year. Full listing HERE.


How to Identify Ranch Houses:


THE SPLIT-LEVEL RANCH: 1950s – 1970s

You always want more! The Split Level style, with half-story wings and sunken garages, began to emerge in the 1950s. This style rose to popularity as a multi-story modification of the dominant Ranch house. Although it retained the horizontal lines, low-pitch roof, and overhanging eaves of the Ranch, an added two-story unit is intercepted at mid-height by a one-story wing to make three floor levels of interior space.
A mindset developed in those years pointing to the need for three types of interior spaces: quiet living areas, noisy living and service areas, and sleeping areas. The new split form made it possible to locate each area on separate levels. The lower level usually housed the garage and, commonly, the boisterous family room with its television, then becoming a universal possession. The mid-level wing housed the quieter living areas and den, and the upper level was relegated to bedrooms.

A c. 1961 split-level beauty in Atlanta, GA.


How to Identify Split-Level Ranch Houses:


CONTEMPORARY: 1950s – 1970s

Particularly after WWII, large groups of young architects were coming out of schools and were eager to put their design philosophies and knowledge into practice. However, not every American in the post war year could afford to hire an architect to design his very own house. But the country and the economy were rapidly becoming very robust and this allowed good residential design to come forth.

The c. 1964 Butterfly House in East Hampton, NY was designed by Henry T. Howard and is for sale for $699,000. Full listing HERE.

Most of the young architects opted to repudiate the traditional and embraced industrial materials and the strict rationality of the American distillation of the International Style. But others continued the organic tradition started by Frank Lloyd Wright and favored long, low, sweeping lines, up-tilting planes, surface patterns and abstraction, and crafted materials and finishes.

A c. 1956 MCM home in Houston, TX, designed by Mel O’Brien, sold earlier this year by realtor Robert Searcy. Full listing HERE.

For the most part, these houses have wide eave overhangs and either flat roofs or low-pitched gabled roofs with broad, low, front-facing gables. Exposed supporting beams and other structural members are commonly found. Contrasting wall materials and textures, and unusual window shapes and placements are also typical features.

The Wermager House in Hartford, WI is for sale for $249,900. In typical contemporary MCM fashion, the landscaping is integrated into the design of the home. Full listing HERE.

It is this style of house one most readily thinks of when the term “mid-century modern” pops up. But even this style is found in large tract housing, as for example, in the Eichler Homes. Developer Joseph Eichler used well-known architects to design both the site plans and the homes themselves. He hired Wright disciple Robert Anshen, of Anshen & Allen, to design the initial Eichlers. These fabulous, rational, modern houses have also been deemed historic and worthy of preservation.

The Eichler-developed Foster Residence in Los Angeles, CA. Image by Los Angeles.

I can’t help think of Carol and Mike Brady’s house. Yes, I am talking about the Brady Bunch and their spacious and functional abode, forever engraved into our post-modern psyche, and which is the epitome of the Contemporary style. Think about it: the large front-facing gable, exposed supporting beams, the entrance has an unusual transom window and placement under the eave of that gable, and the entrance wall is clad with that groovy field stone. The exterior lacks traditional detail, but to me it is a cross between a Craftsman cottage and an Eichler home.

The Brady Bunch house. Image courtesy of The Fun Junkie.


How to Identify Contemporary Houses:


THE SHED: 1960s – 1970s

Like the Contemporary, this style shuns traditional detail, and an architect generally designs them. With the Shed, the designer makes use of planar angled roofs, or “shed roofs”, instead of the gable, which dominate the façade, with the pitch of the shed being from moderate to high. The overall effect is of several geometric forms pushed together and there is heavily predominant use of exposed wooden surfaces.
The Shed’s origins harken back to the 1960s and the designs, writing, and teachings of particularly two architects, Charles Moore and Robert Venturi. Primarily, the multi-directional shed roof accompanied by additional gables, are the features, which architects and builders throughout the country adopted in designing these very distinct and eye-catching buildings. The effect is of colliding geometric shapes, for they appear to be assembled from two or more gabled and shed-roofed forms linked together. The style was commonly used for houses, schools, and small office buildings, and it peaked in popularity in the 1970s.
The style can be said to be an early example (at the time) for passive-solar design, because windows are often angled towards a single direction to maximize and retain light and heat, and the predilection for re-purposed or weathered wood as cladding material.

A c. 1966 Joseph Esherick-designed Shed house in Sea Ranch, CA.

The most well known example of the Shed, aside from Venturi’s early houses, is the influential planned community Sea Ranch in northern California, begun by Charles Moore in 1963, which also included architects Joseph Esherick, William Turnbull, Jr., along with landscape architect Lawrence Halprin.

A c. 1965 Shed-style condominium in Sea Ranch, CA.


How to Identify Sheds:


Hänsel Hernández-Navarro is an architectural conservator specializing in the preservation and rehabilitation of historic buildings and monuments, and cultural resource management. He received his Masters in Historic Preservation from Columbia University. He lives in New York City and has worked for the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, the Getty Conservation Institute, the National Park Service, The American Academy in Rome, and the Museum of the City of New York.


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