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.

UPDATE: Tiles (both old and new) may contain lead in their glaze, which can pose a lead dust hazard if the surface is damaged; for more information, read this story — Understanding potential lead hazards in old porcelain enamel bathtubs and sinks and ceramic tile of any age — which includes information and advice on this issue from the Centers for Disease Control and other governmental agencies.

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” because of those energy savings. 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!)

be safeNote, my discussion is in regard to reducing carbon dioxide equivalents, not other environmental or safety concerns or public policy reasons, which may prove to be valid reasons to make a change. For example, there may be very valid safety issues to address, for example old windows may be painted with lead paint; I recently read a warning that seems to have come from National Institute of Health research about risks of fine-particle dust from even routine opening and closing of windows painted with lead paint; here is the EPA’s homepage on lead paint in houses. In addition, old windows may not feature tempered glass — there may be egress issues, etc. On these issues and other potential hazards in your house: Consult with your own properly licensed professionals; for more info and links see our Be Safe/Renovate Safe page.

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.  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.


Get our retrolicious free newsletter.


Get our retrolicious free newsletter.


  1. Tonia McBride says

    Okay, my boyfriend’s house is like a midcentury museum. We have to modernize it a bit (previous owner carpeted everything when his wife started to slip on the hardwood and the laminate countertops are not in good shape), but I’d love to keep some of the original wood paneling and the unembellished oak cabinets. My dream would be to see some remodels that kept those classic elements while updating the overall feel. If anyone has pictures of such a thing, please share!

    • pam kueber says

      Hi Tonia, we have a lot of photos of readers and their kitchen remodels and bathroom remodels — they are up in their respective categories under Kitchen Help and Bathroom Help. You can start there.

      Go through the Other Rooms category to see some of our slide shows of Reader Rooms.

      And… on any specific question, try either the category or use the Search box — the search box actually works pretty well!

      Good luck.

  2. Sue Taylor says

    My metal cabinets have been painted on the outside but are nasty and rusty on the inside. Any suggestion?

    • pam kueber says

      Hi Sue, Get with a professional to assess the situation: Know that old materials and products like this can contain hazards such as lead paint etc. — get with a pro.

  3. Kathi Gosnell says

    Love this article! We bought a 50s ranch a year ago and have been doing a delicate renovation/restoration process, hampered slightly by the presence of our toddler. We are ELATED that we have two bathrooms with original fixtures and laminate (you’re right, that stuff is bullet-proof) but they’ve both had some less than desirable modernization that we’re working to address.

    Additionally, there is a sunken family room that was added in the early 60’s that has wall to wall wood paneling and a vaulted/beamed ceiling. It’s a LOVELY room with a cute freestanding fireplace and we’d never consider painting any of the woodwork. However, when we moved in and showed our friends and family pictures, the most common question was whether we planned to paint the paneling. Um, NO! So aggravating.

    Finally, we are currently discussing ways to restore our original windows throughout. Evidently their mechanism is fairly unique (coil spring balance or constant force balance) so finding information on how to fix those has been difficult. We’re committed to keeping them because of the cost savings, environmental implications, and authenticity factor. Of course, because we’re in an “older” neighborhood our mailbox has been filled with replacement window fliers since we moved in.

    Thanks for the confirmation that we’re doing the right thing with our retro home!

    • pam kueber says

      Hi Kathi, thank you for the nice comment. With that toddler in the house, be sure to be vigilant about the potential for lead paint on those old windows. I have read a warning that seems to have come from National Institute of Health research about risks of fine-particle dust from even routine opening and closing of windows painted with lead paint; here is the EPA’s homepage on lead paint in houses. In addition, old windows may not feature tempered glass — there may be egress issues, etc. On these issues and other potential hazards in your house: Consult with your own properly licensed professionals; for more info and links see our Be Safe/Renovate Safe page.

  4. Susan Adams says

    wow, just found this site. we have a 50s home with the pink bathroom, which is why i bought it! Original kitchen cabinets, knotty pine ceilings like the ones in the pictures. however, some jerk painted most of the ceilings and the fireplace mantle white !! How do you ever get that off? the windows really are a disaster, the old ones that crank (ususally don’t work) are single pane, leak like a sieve when it’s windy and awful aluminum screens that don’t fit and are impossible to remove. these windows are truely awful and we want to replace them but with what? Please help. Susan and Larry in CA

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *