The 10 Most Endangered Features of Midcentury Homes: 2012 report

10 most endangered retro house featuresWhen I first started the blog almost six years ago, I kind of bumped into launching a “campaign” that called attention to the death-by-evil-glee sledgehammering threat to vintage Mamie pink bathrooms. This campaign came together almost as a lark… I started the Save the Pink Bathrooms website, like, to see what would happen. And wouldn’t you know it, there was lots of news media attention to the issue ever since. A whole New York Times story even. As a result: I think the attention really made a difference, shifted the tide of ‘fashion’, and that today, there is significantly greater recognition that there is nothing inherently wrong with the color pink for bathrooms — and by association, vintage green or blue or yellow, etc. — and that original colorful vintage bathrooms in good condition are worth preserving. I think we can declare the campaign victorious, although we still must keep spreading the luv.

Which got me to thinking (which sometimes happens when I take a vacation week, can’t ya see the smoke from Massachusetts): What else now? That is: What are some of the other lovely but kind of still pooh poohed features of midcentury homes that we can shine our spotlight on. I brainstormed and came up with a nice round list of the 10 Most Endangered Features of Midcentury and Vintage Homes. So here is my list, in David Letterman count-down order. I count down to the final item — #1 — as the feature I’m most worried about, based on the criteria: overall cost-value + difficulty replacing, roughly speaking.

jalousie windows#10 Jalousie windows:

Number 10 on our countdown list is jalousie windows. I tend to believe that jalousie windows were used in millions of homes, often in the three-season porch, but sometimes even as main windows — as in Dawn’s house, above. I am no expert on the whole issue of jalousie windows. I need to do more research — and I welcome your help on this. I think there may be super-valid energy-efficiency reasons to replace your jalousie windows if they are the windows in your main living areas.  On the other hand, if you have them in a three-season room, maybe lean toward preserving them rather than replacing them?  I think they are interesting… coolio.

wood paneling#9 Wood paneling:

Wood paneling, along with knotty pine (#3 on my Most-Endangered list) is one of those things that get the scrunched-face “it’s so daaaaaated” complaint from so many folks on home decorating TV shows and in more mainstream design media. But, slap yourself in the face and step back from the ceaseless dictates of current fashion: There is nothing inherently displeasing about natural or finished wood walls, if the paneling is good quality. Au contraire. Our ancestors lived for hundreds of years with wood-paneled walls. It’s only in more recent history that the invention of drywall made smooth, painted walls affordable to the masses. Yes, there is poor quality wood paneling out there, in droves. But there is also plenty of beautiful, quality old paneling worth saving from the dumpster. Above: Wood paneling from States Industries.

tile countertops in kitchen#8 Tile countertops, especially in kitchens:

Tile is durable. Tile resists water. The grout can be cleaned — or use epoxy grout if you’re starting from scratch. Tile countertops have been fashionable in an on-again, off-again fashion from the 1940s on. I think they are charming. Above: Tile counter tops in Karen’s kitchen.

wood kitchen cabinets#7 Wood kitchen cabinets:

1950s and 60s wood kitchen cabinets may not have the keeping-up-with-the-Joneses appeal of brand spanking new (particle-board-laden) wood cabinets today, but they were often — usually? — made just fine. Better, even maybe. If you have ’em original, heck, they have lasted 50 years and could likely last 50 more. Or forever. New kitchen cabinets are one of the most expensive parts of a kitchen renovation — and way overpriced, I think. And remember: Replacing a ‘dated’ kitchen with an all-new 2012 kitchen means: You now have a dated-2012 kitchen that will be out of date in 10 years, probably less. This marketeering cycle is ceaseless, ridiculous. The wood cabinets that are/were original to 20+ million midcentury modest houses across American likely suit the “unpretentiousness” that runs throughout their entire design… so, why not go with the flow and instead of spending $ thousands on new cabinets, use the money for other stuff, starting with maybe: Ensure you have a solid, 6-months of living expenses emergency fund, pay down credit cards, save for retirement, pay down the mortgage and in general, avoid the terrible stress of debt. Above: Nancy’s original wood kitchen cabinets.

pam with vintage wallpaper#6 Vintage wallpaper:

If you are new owner of an old home, please please please don’t rip out the vintage wallpaper. Not right away, at least. The old wallpaper may shock you initially. But once you dive into this website, and see other rooms full of the vintage-originals, you may start feeling the wallpaper luv. Vintage paper often had precious designs, and it was printed with rich, vibrant inks — lots of the wallpaper I see today just does not have the same printing quality, not at cheap prices, at least. Reflecting both its quality but also its increasing rarity, vintage wallpaper today also is quite valuable — $100 a roll or more if you try to buy New Old Stock today! I have always heard dissenters say, “Oh, wallpaper is so personal” — which is what can make it hard for Incoming Owner to like Outgoing Owner’s wallpaper choice. I understand this, for sure. But, when it comes to the original vintage wallpaper in a 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s or 70s house, golly, I usually always like it what I see. The stuff had amazing character. Live with it a while, give it a chance, before you start strippin’. Above: I love vintage wallpaper, ‘most all of it. I put 300 squares of it, 18 different design, on my office walls!

vintage laminate#5 Original laminate counter tops:

I put original laminate counter tops significantly higher on the Endangered List than tile counter tops, because the vintage laminate patterns so often found in original 1950s, 1960s, 1970s and even 1980s kitchen are impossible to replicate today. (On the other hand, you can get 4″ ceramic tile and bullnose in nice colors today, to replicate a vintage tile counter top.)  When it comes to vintage Formica and other laminate patterns, except for some boomerangs, mother of pearl and dogbones, charming decorative designs are simply not available. In fact, we are besieged by low-chroma, greiged out colors of laminate today, almost everywhere we turn. It is so drab and depressing: Resist the Greige Nation, I say!

Also, and this is IMPORTANT: The way back time machine laminate was better made, I believe. It was almost indestructible. It is awesome stuff. I do not have hard data proof of this. But I am sure. Don’t rip out your vintage laminate if it’s still in good shape. At least not until you live with it, and you are sure it’s time for it to go. Above: My vintage Textolite samples — which make us eat our hearts out!

house with awnings#4 Awnings:

Our parents and grandparents and great grandparents and so forth did not have window air conditioners or central air conditioners. Instead, they depended on window treatments — and often, awnings — to help control indoor air temperatures. Golly, if you are lucky enough to buy an old house with functional awnings — metal even? extra yay! — well, golly, you are lucky. Because you get temperature control for FREE. Hey, you should be able to sell carbon credits to the EU! Original awnings are not ugly — you read it here! Moreover, they are comfort-enhancing, money-saving, environmentally-smart features. (Note: I am not saying that putting up new awnings would necessarily cut  carbon overall — the cost/benefit would have to be analyzed. But, if you have ’em already, that’s sunk carbon, embodied energy, done deal, you’re preventing heat from entering your house, leverage the fact.) Above: I have several stories about awnings including 12 places to buy awnings today.

knotty pine kitchen#3 Knotty pine paneling:

knotty pine websiteWith so many first-time home buyers finding their way into old homes, I think I’m seeing increasing chatter about knotty pine and what to think of it. Right now, knotty pine is like pink bathrooms were five years ago: Original vintage knotty pine is in great danger from folks who are not getting enough information about the history of this material and aesthetic to make their own decisions whether to love it, or not. To me, knotty pine is a sentimental, wonderful wall finish. Totally cozy. In particular, I love Pickwick Pine, which I believe ws the most popular paneling style in midcentury America. If the knotty pine is the original 1940s or 1950s stuff, the wood is likely really good — old growth good, maybe even. No need to paint it just because it’s not today’s fashion. I’m telling you — just like pink bathrooms — it will be a benefit to your vintage house, down the road, if it still has its original knotty pine den or bedroom or whatever. Oh yes, read more on my website, Above: Eartha Kitsch’s world famous knotty pine kitchen (which just recently underwent a gawdawful plumbing surgery, ugh, our thoughts our with you, EK.)

steel kitchen cabinets#2 Steel kitchen cabinets:

You know I love vintage steel kitchen cabinets. I have them in my kitchen. My five-year hunt for my 1963 Genevas is what led me to start this blog… and led me, after four more years, to make a full time living from it. We now have 300,000 unique visitors every month. Yes: 300,000 a month! Oh, I digress with my little bootie dance. STEEL. Do you know what steel is? It’s what they make cars out of etc. etc. Crikey, if you have steel kitchen cabinets, you are Set For Life. Note: I am thinking, that if I did not buy the aqua cabinets that made their way into my kitchen, they would have ended up in a landfill in Staten Island. I kid you not. Above: A 1948 St. Charles steel kitchen from my A Short History of Steel Kitchen Cabinets.

original windows#1 Original windows:

Okay, windows are not a super sexy topic. But they make #1 on my list because Americans have been fed a bunch of baloney that they need to replace their windows to (1) save on their fuel bills and (2) that new windows are ‘better for the environment.’ I advise to PLAY THE SKEPTIC and ask anyone trying to sell you new windows using the save-money-save-environment pitch to: SHOW ME THE DATA. Ask for a third-party validated cradle-to-cradle Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) to back up any environmental claims. Ask for a financial payback calculation regarding the money claims — and be sure to calculate in replacement costs if/when the new windows themselves need to be replaced in 20 years.

Most all the research I have ever read indicates: New windows will likely cost more to purchase and install than you will ever save in improved fuel bills. Also, even in the absence of an LCA: If new windows end up costing more, I posit that new windows also are not good for the environment — they are bad for the environment. This is because: Money is a pretty darn good proxy for carbon — meaning: Every time you make money, and every time you spend money, you are fueling consumption, which causes economic activity that emits more carbon. Using my logic, the only energy efficiency steps that really make net improvements to carbon emissions are those that have a demonstrated financial payback. Insulation usually pays you back pretty fast in terms of recouping what you spent in saved energy costs. But other fancier technologies usually don’t. Or don’t, yet, at current costs unless there are significant taxpayer-funded incentives. Want to approach improving the energy efficiency of your home in a no-baloney way: Consult the Energy Efficiency Pyramid (windows: now dead last in the things-to-do list!)

Note, my discussion is in regard to reducing carbon dioxide equivalents, not other environmental concerns or public policy reasons, which may prove to be valid reasons to make a change… and, I don’t have comprehensive data to validate my theory  per se. Another note: New windows may well improve your “comfort” level, helping to eliminate drafts and such (although you can likely accomplish this with storm windows and/or Window Quilts or other serious window treatments.  And, there may be very valid safety issues: Old windows may not feature tempered glass — and old windows may be painted with lead paint — consult with a professional on these issues. All this said: From my experience seeing advertisements and the like, I think I keep seeing replacement windows that are being sold with the spiel that they will “save money” and “help the environment.” It is these two claims I question: MAKE THEM SHOW YOU THE DATA.

On top of all this, new windows are getting a reputation for failing after 20 years. I don’t really understand the complaints. But if they are true: Then you need new windows. Which will lead to more spending — obliterated “savings” — and more manufacturing/consumption/greenhouse gases.

Conditions may differ house-to-house, so it’s critical to do your own research on this issue with Eyes Wide Open. If leaky windows are an issue, some more cost-effective ideas may include: (1) Caulk, (2) Window Quilts, (3) Exterior storms. Be skeptical, do lots of research that taps smart professionals, and demand data.

Above: My longer story discussing why you should consider keeping your original windows.

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  1. Jacki Anderson says

    I’ve lived in our 1965 ranch since 1996. The “knotty pine” is what made me fall in love with this house. Both my kitchen and den have beautiful knotty pine and my kitchen lamintate counter tops are original. While I did have to totally re-do my small master bath due to water damage under the floors, and a somewhat never finished shower stall, the main hall bath has all the original tile on the floor, counters, and up the walls, and original wallpaper. My only concern is that one of the sinks (double sink counter) has some cracks/rust damage that gradually gets worse and the way the sinks are set below the counter with small tiles framing them – if I have to replace the sink the whole counter-top/tile will have to go too! I’m hoping I can find replacement tile to match if I ever get to that point. Recently, my daughter, in a house cleaning/painting mood, attempted to talk me into “brightening” up the kitchen by painting the knotty pine, but I cannot bring myself to do it. She’s almost 21 and I’m hoping she’ll be out of college, working full-time and on her own soon, so me and my knotty-pine can live happily ever-after. Whether my daughter likes it or not!!

  2. Alan says

    I have a house built in 1954 and am the second owner.i replaced most of my windows 5 years ago. They were the old awning type windows very inefficient energy wise , I may have not seen a savings in bills but I can cool the house quicker and keep it warmer in winter I don’t feel the wind blowing thru the cracks. Plus the hard wear was breaking down.
    The orgial wod cabinets are still here and we are trying to get rid of smell from the wood.
    The Florida room ceiling is tounge and groove wood, down the stret from me that is finished that way.
    And these houses can survive a fire and just need cleaning and som new rafters.

  3. Morgan says

    We have another original endangered feature in our new (old) house: push button light switches!!! Our 1961 house is almost entirely original. There is something satisfying of turning a light on or off and hearing that click on the basement switchboard. Love it!

  4. Xefi Rah says

    Original windows must be replaced in order to get a mortgage in many markets- Low-emission glass must replace the old and the metal post-war frames do not insulate. That said, the replacements should be glazed to match the original windows. It irks me to see ‘colonial pane’ windows in a modern ‘picture window’ or Chicago window opening.
    Park Forest, IL is where I first had metal cabinets. They get bent and no longer close!!! Replacing them with wood is fine *but* I like to keep the ‘feel’ of metal by painting or staining mid-century- styled wood cabinets. It is awful to see 70’s style ‘Mediterranean’ panels in a lovely ranch-style home!!!

    • pam kueber says

      I’ve had my steel cabinets for quite a few years now without one ding or bend; both the doors and the drawers are doubled-up steel…. I guess if you ran into the door while it was open, that would be a problem — but that would be a problem with wood, too.

      A requirement to replace windows to get a mortgage? I’ve never heard of that… Can you tell me where, I’d like to check into that.

      • Ed says

        I checked into buying a house in early 2008 or so, it seems like Fanny Mae and Freddie Mac had some first-time homebuyer programs with odd rules. The house I was interested in was actually a well-maintained doublewide… from 1962. It was immediately disqualified. Had it been stick built, it may have qualified, pending an inspector’s recommendation, but they weren’t interested in going much older. The Wall Street pendulum swung the other way before I made any more progress, and the details have gotten fuzzy over the years, but it just seemed rather annoying how all the houses I was interested in would have to be independently financed.

  5. Maureen Bajeyt says

    We had to replace the windows when we bought our house. All but one were not original to the house and about as sturdy as tin foil – one wouldn’t close completely. However, we did replace one original window – a huge picture window. It’s too hot where I live to have a large window that doesn’t open, so it was replaced by a smaller picture window that has two flanking casement windows, and they are vinyl. I know it’s considered a cardinal sin of MCM remodeling – but vinyl was less expensive than wood for us.

  6. Shannon Hudson says

    Ok. I had medal awning and have replaced them with black and white cloth awnings. My new front door is mid century. I need ideas for a fence to go in the front yard.

  7. Alan Crawford says

    There is a difference between awning type windows which are what are shown. And jealousies which are thinner and narrower.

  8. Julie says

    Love this article! I grew up in a house built in 1958; my parents were the second owners, buying in 1964. It had the pink bathroom, large formal DR, an entire wall of bulit-in wooden bookshelves, fieldstone fireplaces in the LR and basement ‘rumpus room’, knotty pine basement walls, wood kitchen cabinets, closets galore, gorgeous hardwood floors preserved by decades of carpeting, and a basement ‘laundry room’ that ran the entire length of the house. Two other wonderful ‘oddities’ were a door between the LR and kitchen that could slide closed between the walls, and a laundry chute– these made life a little easier and we loved them. Mom had to sell last year, and it truly broke my heart to think what must have been done by the buyers in the way of ‘improvement’– I haven’t been able to drive by it since her last day there. Your article and the comments have given me hope that perhaps the new owners might retain and grow to love some of the ‘dated’ features of our beloved ex-home.

  9. Scott says

    This article was fun to read (but aren’t they all here in RetroRenovationland? :-) ) and made me feel really good as 10, 7, 5, and 4 apply to my house.

    10. I have the original Jalousie windows in the basement. They close snugly and even here in Central Ohio the basement does not get super cold in the winter. Located on 3 sides of the house means great cross-ventilation so opening them for about 3-4 hours a nice day means instantly spring-fresh basement.

    7. Original honey-colored wood cabinets retained. The uppers are spotless, the lowers show some wear but are nice enough that I can’t imagine getting rid of them.

    5. While not original, I replaced my 1990s drab gray countertops with Stop Red Formica.

    4. My original front and back porch awnings were dented all to heck so I replaced them with new ones plus added two new ones over the front windows which dressed up my little Modest immensely.

    • pam kueber says

      Sounds great, Scott. I am doing another story on awnings in the near future — I’d love to see photos your modest refreshed! Send me an email if you’re game! Thanks!

  10. Carol says

    Keep old wood windows in good shape. My mom has the original divided pane wood windows from 1967. The bath window was large and in very bad shape on the inside due to moisture. I spent the better part of a week restoring the inside of the window. I used porch paint from Home Depot after making repairs. It was beautiful and when Mom came back from a trip she was so estatic, I thought she would cry. That was exactly 10 years ago and it looks as good as the day I finished it. It was definitely worth the work. You will freeze in the winter without storm windows. I know this from experience because one broke. That room was cold! With storm windows, nice and cozy and energy efficient. Mom has great energy bills and has a full basement with no insulation in the ceiling. She is by no means losing heat from the windows. All of the other windows are stained wood and still look great.

  11. JimW says

    Not to split hairs, but the windows in your first picture are not jalousied windows. They are aluminum awning windows. I grew up in FL in the early 1960s and they are extremely common the farther south you go in FL. In fact, in Miami, I don’t think they used anything else in the 1950s. They are much more energy efficient than jalousied – which leaked to the point in our house, that you could actually feel air coming thru closed windows, when the central a/c fan was pulling. Jalousied have much more narrrow slats that don’t seal well at all. You can get replacements for aluminum awning windows today at Lowes. They look pretty 1950s authentic.

  12. Joel Evans says

    I don’t know if I agree with the non replacement of windows. I live in the Pacific northwest and spent 4 years working for a contractor doing all sorts of restoration work. i have built turn of the century cabinets, repaired windows, made lots of victorian style architectural elements for period houses. The original cabinets I have built while look nice act like the old ones. Every environmental shift changes the way the doors and drawers fit. I think the only way to go is to toss the old cabinets and put some modern hardware on them so that they are useable and modern feeling with the old look. With old hardware they are old cabinets. The same goes for windows. The stick on weatherstripping stinks. Most new wood windows have weatherstripping that is integral to the frame that cant be applied after the fact. Get new windows built for you with thermal units in them… the trouble is that the thermal units are too thick to instal in the existing frame. It is still a compromise because they are notorious for sticking not opening and or leaking air around the outside. Storm windows could be a solution … but you cant tell me the production of the glass for a storm window isn’t co2 friendly… then you get condensation between the windows that causes the paint to peel off. I cant really say much good from what I have seen with single pane windows. Want a solution to your dilemma, don’t cheep out get wood double hungs or whatever you want. You can pull out the thermal units if they fail and replace them. Or get a new pane made if it is damaged. They are not drafty, no condensation, don’t feel like a hole in the wall, and have an authentic look. The labour to repair old wood windows is huge and they never work to the owners satisfaction. (if they actually open they rattle when its windy and your neighbors can hear everything your saying. Now i’m rambling.)

    • pam kueber says

      See this research also: Installing new windows would be the next to last thing you would do to improve energy efficiency. And, I recall that I was told, that now that prices for solar cells have dropped further, replacement windows to to the top of the pyramid, that is: The bottom of the list.

      Readers: Do your own thorough research…

  13. says

    Thank you for motivating me to save my old crank windows. Nicole Curtis reminded me of all the reasons I did not want to gut my solid wood cabinets, even though I would love to have a larger kitchen. Can’t wait to get this place renovated. I am gutting (more or less) the bathrooms. The old authentic 50s pastels were replaced late 70s with some hideous faux stone tiles. I am now on the hunt for some retro pastels I can blend with some glass tile to both honor the past and live in the present.

  14. Teddy says

    I agree with your argument about keeping original windows. According to the energy audit I had done for the 1969 experimental modernist house I am restoring, the inefficiency of the doors and windows is not primary to making the house more efficient (let’s face it, a restored house is never going to be a poster child of efficiency unless it is “remuddled”).

    The expansive window walls in my house are beautiful -commercial grade, custom made, and work amazingly well given their neglect. I am loath to replace them, because they will never look the same. But where do I find craftspersons who can restore them? I’ve been scouring the Internet and am coming up with nothing.

    Any suggestions for the New York state, Vermont area?

  15. James White says

    Not splitting hairs but the windows in the first picture are aluminum awning windows – not jalousied. They were common in countless mid-century houses in S Florida for the main living part of the house. They close reasonably tight for use with a/c. Jalousied windows have no frame on each pane, are maybe 4-5″ in height and leak like crazy. Not practical for using in the main part of a house, but unfortunately, many were also used in FL mid-century houses.

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