12 reasons to own (and love) a mid-century home

model houseWhen I am interviewed for stories involving mid-century houses, reporters almost always ask, “Why do you and your readers love mid-century houses so much… What is the appeal?” In today’s sound-bite age, the pressure is on for a snappy answer. But for me, the reasons I have grown to love mid-century houses are multifaceted. Golly six years into the blog, and it’s only now I am writing this down? Here goes — 12 reasons to own and love a mid-century house, based on my experience including interacting with thousands of readers. In a kinda sorta order:

1. Mid-century houses often were built in locations that today, are desirable:

Springfield Defense Housing 1942

Royal Barry Wills’ Springfield  (Mass.) Defense Housing Project, formally known as Lucy Mallory Village, 1942 rendering from Pam’s collection

Location — I am very conservative about big-money purchases. I am a believer in the classic real estate maxim that the three most important factors to consider when buying a house are, yes: Location, location, location. Fortunately, in many cases, mid-century houses are in good locations. They can be in mature, well-tended neighborhoods with wonderful character, caring neighbors and friendly-sized neighborhood shopping areas nearby. In addition, American suburbs often were developed, over time, in proceeding concentric rings around towns and cities. This means the mid-century neighborhoods can be relatively close to town and city centers, making them easy to commute from; they are not typically remote “exurbs.”

2. Mid-century homes often were built with outstanding quality materials and workmanship that have, and will continue to endure:

dutch boy paintGood quality workmanship —  Golly, many of these houses were well made. Mud-set tile… Steel kitchen cabinets… Gorgeous vintage lighting… lovely paneling… and more, in many houses. Yes, there may be some refreshing needed. There may be hazards such as lead and asbestos etc. and other not-to-today’s-code issues that you need to get educated on and invest in handling appropriately; consult with your own properly licensed professionals, for more info see our Be Safe / Renovate Safe page. And, there can be ugly surprise maintenance costs. But my sense is that new construction can have its own problems and even nightmares… and that in general, wonderfully crafted mid-century houses still exist by the hundreds of thousands — even by the millions.

3. Mid-century houses — and especially, mid-century modest houses — can be found at relatively affordable prices:

Price — Mid-century homes tend to be smaller than new construction. This is the first reason they may cost less than new or more recent constructed houses, which today average much larger than 50 years ago. In addition, the finishes used inside mid-century homes were typically not what the mainstream market today would consider high-end — no granite or marble or the like. That may put the brakes on their current sales price. And, because original features may read as “dated” to many buyers, the relative purchase price may be better, compared to new construction or to homes that have been “updated” <- now, there’s a word we are wary of here. Finally, even an old house that’s a “fixer upper” in need of repairs is more attractive to me and Kate — we don’t want to pay for someone else’s recent “upgrades” that we don’t like. We would rather get the house at a discounted price and take the chance that we can do the remodeling on budget in way more pleasing to our period tastes. All of these issues suggest you might be able to ‘get in cheaper’ versus buying a newer house.

Of course the overall “better pricing” equation may not be true depending on the market you’re in — in many hip-to-the-vibe locations now, mid-century houses with their original features intact have become more desirable, with the trendiest architectural examples selling quickly.

4. Small mid-century houses can cost less to maintain and remodel:

kate-pink-bathroom-photo

The new pink bathroom tile that Kate used in her bathroom remodel was under $5 per s.f. Read all the stories about Kate’s epic bathroom project here. 

Size and unpretentiousness = Long term affordability — In addition to costing less because it’s small, a smallish mid-century house will likely scale to require fewer expenditures happily ever after. Small can mean: (1) Less house to pay to maintain, (2) Less house to heat and air condition, (3) Less house to furnish, (4) Less house to pay taxes and insurance on, (5) Less house to clean. Kate adds that a ranch style house means (6) Easier to DIY roof repair$ and hou$e painting and $uch. All of this, by the way, means the less you will need to work to pay for it all. Also, the fact that the authentic period finishes on these house are not ‘fancy’ by today’s standards, means that materials required for restoration may be less costly. For mid-century houses we are talking: 4″ bathroom tiles… resilient flooring… plain cabinets… simple sinks and tubs… and many of these items can be purchased vintage, at ReStores and the like, for rock bottom prices. Peoples, I am telling you:  Turn away from the siren song of keeping up with the Joneses and the everlasting gobstopper American marketing machine that works ceaselessly to burrow new-new-new-buy-buy-buy messages into our brains… keep the finishes in your mid-century house simple, which is architecturally appropriate anyway, and squirrel “the savings” into your retirement.

5. Old is the new Green:

brown vintage stove in dumpsterEmbodied energy — These houses already exist. Buy one — and as possible, practical and advisable, retain its original features — and you likely will be helping to avoid additional energy and natural resource use versus building or buying new. Of course, when it comes to energy and environmental features of our houses, each one will need to be assessed on its own; that said, I continue to find it impossible to mentally process the suggestion that we can consume our way out of a consumption process — that is: the implication of “build a green house!” and “buy this green product!” stories that imply that by abandoning our old housing stock in favor of building all-new “energy efficient” housing structures — or, by gutting existing houses and replacing still-functional stuff inside — we would be setting ourselves up for a better environmental future. I flat out find this impossible to believe; I need to see the calculus of how much carbon, water, forest, etc. this massive reworking of our housing stock would chew up.Waste distresses me, so I intensely favor buying existing houses: Use it up, wear it out, make it do (you can see this topic puts a heat-seeking-missile bee in my bonnet.) Note: At the end of January 2014, there were 1.9 million existing-built homes for sale in the U.S., the National Association of Realtors reported. The NAR considers this a 4.9-month supply, at the existing sales rate (which was slow in January), under the approximately six-month supply generally recommended. That said, there are now 10,000 Baby Boomers turning 65 daily. Additional houses will be heading our way soon enough….

6. Mid-century was a heyday of architectural inventiveness:

bowling-alley-in-1950s-michigan-house-2

If you are really really really lucky, you’ll score a time capsule house with its own bowling alley in the basement.

Great architecture and features — Mid-century America was a period of immense innovation. Merchant builders built houses that were stylin’. My sense is that there were lots more major manufacturers in the marketplace supplying products, so there was a lot of competition, which meant a lot of proud invention — amazing stoves! sparkle laminate! cork floors! amazing tile! Homeowners did wicked awesome things like build tiki bars in their basements. And again, quality of workmanship was often wonderful. All this adds up to discovering many wonderful features in mid-century houses. There was interesting design, outside and in.

Another thing we Retro Renovators have in common, I’ve typically found, is that we are highly visual. Once we own or live in a mid-century home, we can easily become fascinated by the aesthetics of the period. That said: All design is highly visual, so I think you could be a highly visual person and be into any interior design style. But I think that our highly visual nature, combined with all the other factors on this list, make the mid-century period a particularly appealing one for us.

7. As cozy as Grandma’s kitchen, hey it is grandma’s kitchen:

yellow-kitchen

1946 Merillat kitchen that was built by the company’s owner and his wife, by hand, for one of their first employees. Now in the company archives.

Warm fuzzies — Our definition of mid-century houses includes both “mid-century modern” and “mid-century modest.” Interestingly, while “moderns” and “modests” may have been designed to look very different on the outside, on the inside they often shared many many design features — namely, use of unpretentious materials, interesting design features, and similar pastel bathrooms and colorful kitchens. Mid-century modern houses: Hard not to get gaga over the fabulous lines of these houses. Add color, and they are so fun.  Mid-century modest houses: These can be so00000 cozy. The ceilings are not super high. The homes envelop us.

America is such a mobile country — so many of us needed to move for jobs — our roots may be far away. We love our mobility, but hey, we miss our kinfolk, too… and the cozy features within our mid-century houses remind us of our Grandma’s house. My grandma had a kitchen full of knotty pine galore, a den with a wall full of family photos, and bathrooms with sunny tile. Happy happy memories, easy to channel if you own a mid-century house. 

8. All the modern amenities:

youngstown-catalog-sm-after“Modern” living — My sense is that for the mass of America prior to World War II, it was a hard-knock life. But the economy boomed after World War II. And houses from that point on began bringing all kinds of “modern” amenities to the largest generation of families ever… Modern conveniences like: electricity, indoor bathroom plumbing, central heating [and with it, larger windows], “fitted kitchens”, larger flowing rooms, and more. Today, all these same features continue to comprise the fundamental requirements for contemporary homes. Not a lot has really changed. Today, homes need better amperage… windows are double-paned (although not likely made better)… the materials we use to build homes or fit them out may differ… ya got yer low-flow toilets and Energy Star appliances (again, likely not made with as much quality as back in the day)… and certainly many superficial “fashion” choices may be different. But even if you live in a mid-century house that is 50 years old, you are likely living in a house that still is almost entirely suitable to contemporary 21st century living.

Hey: Because a mid-century house may be smaller and cost less to purchase and maintain, it may be MORE suited to 21st century living, if you are concerned about climate change and having the money — in a less stable economic and jobs environment — to maintain it and even to hold on to it.

9. Great for aging in place:

Floor plan: Mid-century houses often were ranch-style houses or Cape Cods with bedrooms on the ground level. Single-story ranch houses, in particular, are great for aging in place. Having lived in several styles of homes, I would go a step beyond and say that ranches — with those bedrooms close at hand and nice circulation and flow — are more livable for virtually anyone and everyone — although I do miss all the exercise I got going up and down stairs 800 times a day when I lived in two-story houses. Sort of. Note, I do acknowledge: Ranch style houses require larger lots – and obviously, the larger and more sprawling the home is, the more land will be required; my understanding is that building up, if you need space, is more economical along a number of dimensions.

10. Getting trendier every day:

midcentury-modern-houston-sputnik-house-1957-7 (2)

Heck to the yeah to the Sputnik house!

They’re hip(ish) — When I started this blog in 2007, there already was a market for mid-century modern houses — the architect-designed confections, with impractical roof lines, especially on the West Coast. In the six+ years since, interest in these mid-century modern houses has really exploded. Meanwhile, flash back to 2007 and mid-century modest houses were not much on the fashcionista radar, they were disparaged, even. But then came Mad Men (Betty had a knotty pine kitchen) … and in general, 50 years passed and there was a new generation of buyers without any baggage…. and all the kids are wearing retro anyway… and more Baby Boomers were retiring, and they were nostalgic and downsizing and wanting ranch houses… and there was a Great Recession, and small, affordable houses were sort of appealing again… and I’ll even suggest there was the internet, including this blog, connecting folks to mid-mod alternatives and resources… and before you knew it, the world began to see the charm of the simple tract house. Today, there’s much more interest in mid-century houses — modern and modest alike — with lots of readers telling me that they are searching for old houses from the era to call their own.

11. Multi-generational neighborhoods:

Neighbors from the way-back days — Live in a mid-century neighborhood, and chances are there are original owners in their original houses nearby. Theirs may be the last generation in America not to move nine times (or whatever) because of job changes. It’s so nice to have some grandma and grandpa-aged neighbors around, to tell us what the place looked like from the start, don’t you think?

12: Wonderful stories, and Polaroids, too:

midcentury-modern-house-photo-5

Remember Gabe & Amanda’s stunning mid-century modern house? Sons (above) of the original owners came to visit and share stories about their childhood home.

Leota & Tobias Schindler, original owners of this lovely house

Leota & Tobias Schindler, original owners of this lovely house

The stories — This one is related to #11 … and is one of my favorite “unexpected surprises” about the joy of owning a mid-century house: There are folks still around who can tell us first-hand stories about our homes, including who built them, who lived there and why. I am sure there are wonderful stories about Victorian and Arts ‘n Crafts houses, etc., too. But we can longer hear those stories first-hand, and there likely aren’t many photos. Readers with mid-century houses, on the other hand, report experience after experience of meeting the original owners, or their children, of their houses. The original owners share information and stories and photos and architectural drawings…. In my house, the grown child of early, longtime owners showed me where he stashed his teenaged Marlboros (they are still in their hiding place; he searched; yes, they were there, and then we put them back – a little time capsule.) He showed me where his beloved boyhood dog chewed the door molding at the top of the basement stairs — and I now treasure that boo boo. He showed me where the dog was buried in the backyard. His mother sent me photos taken in the house in the 1950s — weddings, Christmas, the original kitchen…. It’s all so heartwarming, I could bust. I am just the latest caretaker of this treasure of a house. Which there are oh-so many reasons to love.

What do you think, dear readers: Did I capture the big reasons we love our mid-century houses?

And for sure: I would love to hear — in great detail — yes! — the exact reasons that you chose your home!

Tip: If you do want to write a long answer, write it out in Word first, then cut and paste it into a Comment. In case something goes wrong, I don’t want you to lose your thoughtful work!

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Comments

  1. Julie Bricking says

    Pam- I love your website. I live in the house my parents built in 1957 in Northern Kentucky. I think it might be a Royal Barry Wills, it sure has some of the characteristics. It is a brick story and a half. We live on the first floor and it will be great as we age (other than the laundry downstairs).

    I’ve done some remodeling but have kept the charm of the house. I still have my peach tile bathroom! I did remodel the kitchen a few years ago but the cabinets I chose are quarter sawn oak and have a vintage look to them. The brick hearth/fireplace and built-in basement bar are from used brick my father collected from the Monte Casino Monastery in Covington, KY, after it was torn down. We also have real wood paneling on the fireplace wall and hardwood floors throughout the first floor. There are many people in my neighborhood that live in the house they grew up in as well!

    This house has so much sentimental value that no amount of money would ever be enough to sell! There was a time when I thought I wanted a brand new big house but as I age I’m glad I have the one I’m in. My saying is that “I don’t have to downsize because we never upsized!”

    Keep the great articles coming. Thanks!

    • pam kueber says

      Awwww, thank you for the lovely comment, Julie! I love your quote, “I don’t have to downsize because we never upsized!” Perfect!

      • Mary Elizabeth says

        Yes, the downsizing quote is one of the best I’ve seen on this site! 🙂

        Julie, when the time comes to bring the laundry upstairs, you can get those stackable washers and dryers and have them installed in a closet or build a tiny addition off the kitchen for a laundry/mud room.

        Your home sounds lovely, and I wish we could see it.

  2. jessica says

    #12! We live in a mid century modest neighborhood in the vicinity of a WWII bomber plant (which we are currently fighting to save), specifically our little subdivision was built in the early to mid 40’s. Within the week we had met all the neighbors on the block (another added benefit of a multi a generational neighborhood, its still an actual neighborhood, not just a collection of people who live near each other!). And we heard how our land used to be corn fields, and how our home’s first owner was a Ford man who moved from Detroit to take a job at the plant and aid in the war effort. I love the feel of living history, and researched all the previous owners. I think in our young nation (as far as countries go, we are babies) we hunger for our roots. Personally, we found ours in a modest mid century home.

  3. Mark says

    All very good and true points. I bought my MCM hone without knowing much about the architecture other than the period that they were typically built. I bought my home 3 years ago from the estate of the original owners (the house was built in 1958 and they lived there until they were in their 90’s) and I cannot imagine living anywhere else. You are so correct about how the home is a great place to age, and I hope I can live on this house until I too am in my 90’s! Also, it is so true of how my home reminds me of my grandparents house! When i first moved in, I unfortunately caught the Home Depot bug and made some “updates” that I now regret, but luckily they can be undone easily and cheaply enough. I now find myself getting ideas from your website almost every day, and I am so glad that I found you. Because of you I now understand how lucky I am to have all original yellow fixtures in my kitchen, and green sinks, tub, and toilets in my bathrooms! I even found some gold sparkly laminate in my kitchen under the peel and stick tile that will look like new after a good waxing! Thank you very much for this post and your website. Well done.

  4. Mari says

    We are the third owners of a house built in 1956. Other than the kitchen, we have not changed much in the interior. I am proud to say I have saved my pink bathroom. My neighbor has lived in her house since the neighborhood was built and she knows the layouts of all the houses (as she toured them all before she chose hers). She’s now 89 years old and still living independently in her house. It’s nice to have that connection to the past.

  5. Ann D. says

    http://www.realtor.com/realestateandhomes-detail/408-N-Main-St_Gladewater_TX_75647_M82100-77313 . I have no connection to this home other than it’s in the town next to where I grew up. It is AMAZING! I looked at it online because I always thought it was beautiful on the outside. I think almost everything inside is original 50’s. I wish I could buy it and worry whoever does won’t appreciate it and will gut it. The down side is the town is very small and in east TX. I don’t think there is much job opportunity. But larger towns are 20 minutes away. I hope someone who will cherish it will buy it.

    • Elizabeth says

      I feel the same way. We have been putting offers on homes – and lost homes – to developers with cash. Four now. They turn these cute quaint homes, with their aqua tile bathrooms and amazing MCM features, into something unrecognizable. I could never tell if I was more sad about losing the home or the fact that someone would buy that cute home, tear out everything, add on to it with vinyl siding and other fake material, and enormous square footage and sell it for $300K more. Taking all the charm.

      We are finally under contract now for a home that we managed to win – white glitter pristine countertops, Jetson-looking original stainless steel appliances, 2 pink bathrooms (1 with pink glitter countertops too!), and so much more! The layout for this ranch was so well thought out – from window placement, to pocket doors, to my husband’s new man cave/den. The owner recently passed away, but she and her husband lived there as original owners. I can’t wait to learn more from the neighbors around there. I would love to live in a home for that long – I am so envious of people that do!

      I hate to see that popular home and garden network have people on that say “how dated” something is and then tear it out for something blah and no personality.

      Thank goodness for this website.

      • Mary Elizabeth says

        First, let me congratulate you on finally finding a home you can preserve and love. Welcome to the group of those who enjoy fixing up their midcentury homes without destroying them.

        Second, I agree with what you said about the homes of that period being well-planned. There are many features that just began in new home construction post-World War II. (Some of these features, of course, were taken from earlier architectural forms, such as the Mexican rancho house.) Family rooms are an example Another example is the roof line. My ranch house has roof overhangs that keep the hot overhead sun away from the windows in the summer and yet allows the lower arc of winter sun in through my southern exposure windows, when you want the sun’s light and warmth. Another feature I noticed when I had been living in the house for a few months is that although there are windows on four sides and there are nice cross breezes in the summer, the windows and interior doors are offset. This means you can’t look through the windows of the front rooms into the back rooms and vice versa. This provides a measure of privacy that other newer homes do not have.

  6. Grandma says

    Pam, you are so right! My grandson bought this 1964 last fall, a classic brick ranch, 1464 sq ft, although a few renos had been made–like enclosing the garage (an extra 400 sq ft for a “man cave”), the green fixtures in the baths (although toilets were changed to white at some point), laminates and old school tile. We love it, even though someone also “opened up” the LR to the dining and kitchen with a beam (probably sometime 15 or 20 yrs ago). It’s well built and has that “sturdiness” that only brick verifies for me. Even something as small as crown molding and windowsills (something, it seems, installed only in high-end houses these days) are included. So while not exactly a “time capsule”, we love it anyway.

    But, the structure is sound (I can stand up in the crawl space on one end), there’s a separate, spacious laundry room w/room for storage off the DR, and painting is really the only thing we’re going to have to do to “spruce it up”. This is a small southern “city” of around 25K. founded in the late 1700s and has 4 distinct historical districts with some wonderful older houses. This neighborhood is one of the first expansions in the city, w/lots selling to individuals who custom built on them, starting in the 1940s into mainly the early 1960s, so there are a variety of styles, from cottage-y to MC modern. This is just a lovely older neighborhood w/lots of old growth trees, birds and small critters running around and I know of 2 people whose families raised them in this neighborhood and they bought houses very close to those houses, one across the st from his parents.

    Looking at older houses before settling on this one, we saw what damage flippers can do to these older jewels. I kept saying if I saw anymore granite and stainless steel, I would scream!

    And we’re still amazed at the bargain my grandson got for all this and we’re not wasting resources, to boot! I hope he can stay in it until he’s as old as I am–50 more years for him.

  7. says

    Friends!
    Inspiring, practical, fun! Why oh why did the real estate agent advise the owner of my knotty-pine mid-century Southern rancher to paint over the lovely blue 4×4 tile squares in the half bath? Oh well: the knotty pine kitchen and two dens are intact.

    Coming to South Carolina from Palm Springs, I had a snooty idea of what mid-century meant. Here, it means is hard-pine 2×4 framing with “nogging,” (the cross-pieces that gave framing strength that you never see, today), amazing hardwood floors, massive varnished crown moldings, screen-porches, big lots, and neighbors in their 80s and 90s who can tell stories about how the neighborhood came to be.

    This website doesn’t feel like it is pushing me to a single definition of the “good house,” and I appreciate the wise planning, safety advice and links to materials, suppliers, and ideas.

    Deep bows! And keep your work area as tidy as your grandpa’s shop (or grandma’s kitchen)!

    Ken and Jackson

  8. joan says

    Is there such a thing as Mid-Century Realtors and or Companies? With the interest in all things MC I would think there would be.

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