Why do people stay in their time capsule houses?

new-york-timesSTEVEN KURUTZ OF THE NEW YORK TIMES has written a terrific story about time capsule houses — not empty ones, but ones people still live in today, original furniture and all. The basic question of his story was: Why do people choose to live in homes that they never change for 20…30…40…50 years? He interviewed couples living in four such homes, and it is fascinating, interesting and funny, even, to read their stories. In his research, Steven came across this site and all our interest in time capsules, so he contacted me and ultimately interviewed me for the story.

What do you think? If they fit the bill, why did your grandparents, aunt and uncle, parents, or neighbors stay in their house and never change it?

Why do people stay in their time capsules? From my experience — in particular regarding more modest, middle-class homes, I answered and was quoted:

In many cases, she said, the homes were occupied by elderly couples who were immensely proud of them. “I think the owners of these homes were tremendously invested in them emotionally, as well as financially,” she said. “They came from an era where a house was very hard won.” As a rule, she said, the homes were well cared for, and the belief was “Why change something if it’s not worn out?”

He also asked two psychologists. One said:

Lots of people become frozen to a time in their past,” said Gail Thoen, a psychologist who has done research on aging. The breakup of a marriage or the death of a spouse are two of the most common reasons people hang on to a particular time, she said, which is sometimes reflected in their environment.


Leon Hoffman, a psychoanalyst in Manhattan, said a house can provide a “secure base” — a bulwark against change. “Some people are more stuck in their ways,” Dr. Hoffman explained. “There’s a bit of anxiety about what the new stuff brings.”

And then, there were the four true-life stories.

What do you think? I think this is a very interesting question indeed.

Oh, and be sure to read the complete story here. You must register, but it’s free — and I assure you: It’s worth it! I also want to acknowledge: Photo above is from the Times; it is hotlinked directly back to their most excellent slide show.


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  1. says

    OMG! What a faulous article! Congrats on being included Pam!
    Do I ADORE the house with the couple in their late 80’s (although the wife wouldn’t admit her actual age) – Their living room is fantastic!
    So inspirational! Thanks for sharing.
    Maryann 🙂

  2. Juju says

    Well I also think it has a lot to do with the old school mind frame. People use to take better care of their belongings and didn’t feel the need to change with the fads.

  3. Elizabeth Mary says

    This is a great read and look. I just wish they had included some shots of the outside, but guess that wouldn’t fit with an article about interiors. My favorites are the ranch and the Berkley houses. And, I totally relate to not changing them. My mother had one sofa in her entire life. She did recover it from time to time, but would never have replaced it. Recently my niece, who now owns it, recovered it again. So, it has found another long term home in a third generation’s 1950’s brick ranch.

  4. Jo A says

    If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!

    Our house was previously owned by a family who had lived there for 50 years. They tried to “fix” original features by covering them in hardboard, and “fix” any maintenance problems such as damp by also covering them in hardboard. I can’t help but feel they hated the house, yet they stayed for 50 years! Must have been the great location…

  5. says

    I grew up with my Depression-era grandparents, who kept their house just the same as it was when they put it together in the late 40’s. They loved it and were very proud of it — this was back when furniture was better crafted and didn’t “need” to be replaced; plus they weren’t motivated to spend extra $ that way.

  6. Eucritta says

    As a child I had a neighbor — I did garden chores for her — who hadn’t substantively altered her house since 1931. I knew the date because she was very proud of having taken such good care of her things, that so few had needed to be replaced. Most of it dated from the early 20s when she’d been a bride, and she used to say that beeswax had kept her young.

    My great-aunt and her husband used to have a 70s time capsule — it was broken up about ten years ago when he died. He’d built and decorated the house from the ground up in 1975, and was disinclined to change much of anything after that!

  7. Teresa Halpert says

    Also, some of these people obviously have a sensitivity to the original architecture of their homes. (I.e., maybe they personally aren’t stuck in the 1950’s; they’re just surrounded by a house that is a solid artifact of the 1950’s.) When we moved into our rundown Victorian 10 years ago, I would sit in the living room and feel as though the house was actually talking to me about what it wanted (a tin ceiling and a camelback sofa…) I don’t think it will ever want a new sofa!

    Now we’re tackling the carriage house. Originally just a sort of barn for the horses/carriages, sometime during the Depression it was converted into rental housing. While it was trashed over the years, it still has art deco doorknobs and light fixtures. In the attic we found 1940’s metal kitchen cabinets. (Researching THEM is how I found this wonderful blog!) Needless to say, they’re going back in the kitchen. After years of happily acquiring Victoriana, I find that now when I go into an antique store, it’s the machine age and streamline-moderne stuff that cries out to me.

    • pam kueber says

      Welcome, Teresa. I think you are so right about houses talking to you and telling you what they want! I’m actually not a vigorous fan of immediate-renovation, I tend to think you need to live in the house for a while…to listen.

  8. sablemable says

    Growing up during the Fifties and Sixties and seeing these homes that my classmates lived in always made me think of prosperity. The economy was booming and people had money to spend, but not foolishly. It must have been very exciting for the prospective owners to see their dream homes being built, to decide on paint colors and furniture. I’d like to believe that their reasons for not remodeling is that their homes had become a comfort zone, kind of like Linus’ old blanket that he carried around.

  9. Tera says

    My Grandfather and his brothers in-law built the house he and my Grandmother have lived in for over 60 years. Nothing has changed because they told me,”Why buy new, cheap things? All our things were made when America was rich, they are good quality “. My Grandmother still has all her small kitchen appliances and their original boxes. They were wedding gifts.She takes them out, uses them , cleans them up well and places them back in their boxes. They have always taken care of their things. Their home is well maintained and everything is original. My Grandmother was born in 1929 and my Grandfather in 1923.
    I have always remembered my Grandparents telling me that their things were from a time when, “America was rich”.

  10. says

    I love hearing these stories about family and why they do the things they do – it’s amazing to me, and definitely validation as to why I buy nice ‘old’ things that so many of my casual friends tend to sneer at. I’ve got to the soul of an 85 year old woman in the body of a 24 year old, apparently.

  11. frankieswife says

    I agree with Sablemable regarding people had money to spend and they didn’t spend it foolishly. Families were proud to stay in thier homes on the weekend and “putter around the yard”. They didn’t have expensive toys like RV’s and such and didn’t feel compelled to use the toys on the weekends. Families and neighbors were so much more close knit then, when the big event of the summer was the annual block party in the street. Children came home after school to mom in the kitchen, and dad was always on time for dinner because he worked at the job same for years and had regular hours. Things were much less complicated then and it was just the simple event of living and working together as a family that brought pleasure and contentment.

  12. SMD says

    loved the article and yeay for RetroRenovation/Pam! i love all of the homes, even the 80’s one. but the 50’s and 60’s makes my heart swoon! just goes to show you that what goes around comes around! cheers.

  13. Lane_in_PA says

    We’re preparing to retire soon and hubby asked me if I wanted to stay in our Mid-Century Modern house. (Actually he didn’t call it that, he said something disrespectful about our home, he called it “old”.) I said that I wanted to stay here, but if we did move to another home, it would have to be even older, like an Arts and Crafts/American bungalow.

    New homes have no soul. Their windows are blank eyes staring at the street. The “openness” of the combined living area, dining and kitchen provide no walls for displaying artwork. What is the point of these MacMansions if there’s no wall space for artwork?

    Like Tera wrote, “Why buy new, cheap things?”

    Americans have devolved to the thinking of knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing, to loosely quote Oscar Wilde.

  14. sumac sue says

    No time capsules in my family. My maternal grandparents moved a lot — they loved to haggle and dicker and get a better deal and make a profit on buying and selling houses. The best buy they ever made was when they purchased a house from my parents! My dad was taking a job in a different town, and my folks couldn’t find a buyer for our house, so my grandpa said, Oh, we’ll just buy it. That meant when we went to visit them, I got to sleep in my old bedroom! That meant more years of memories from my childhood home — until my grandparents did some more wheeling and dealing, sold it, and moved somewhere else. Lots of great memories from wherever they lived.

  15. caymangirl says

    I am now the owner of my grandparents 1953 ranch style brick home that still has the original “Standard” pink bathroom fixtures and the other bathroom has the blue “Standard” bathroom fixtures. My mother grew up in the house, as did my sister and myself. Now I am raising my daughter here. We have no desire to update the bathroom fixtures….many people admire them and want to buy them from us. The all-ceramic toilet takes three strong men to pick up, but its worth it. The only fixtures in the house that have change are, of course, the refrigerator..the stove we have is from the 70’s (Yellow, of course)!

    I was not alive in the 1950’s, but we have a great admiration for the time period, and you cannot find this kind of quality anymore! We have real estate people calling us all the time to see if we want to sell!

  16. DigNDesign says

    Here’s a marvelous midcentury time capsule in Los Angeles that’s currently on the market: http://3893frankin.com. From the furnishings to the stonework to the AMAZING double ovens in the kitchen, just to die. Did I hear someone say road trip?

  17. frankieswife says

    DigNDesign-is this the house they used in the filming of “Ray”? The life of Ray Charles? I recognize the front of the house and the den from the movie when he lived in LA with his family during sixties.

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