The Mid-Century Modest Manifesto

“Mid-century Modest.” I coined this new term in 2009, recognizing that while there may have been 1 million “mid-century modern” homes built in postwar America, there were about 29 million “Mid-Century Modest” homes. And, while some observers today consider the vernacular mass-market postwar designs all too “kitsch” and pretty much discount “tract” houses and all they stood/stand for, I say: Let’s celebrate Mid-century Modest, too – because this era of American housing and all it encompassed were really quite fascinating and special. So, here is my “Mid-Century Modest Manifesto”:

The Mid-Century Modest Manifesto

NO QUESTION, we love Mid-Century Modern homes,
the high falutin’ designer kind.
BUT IN POSTWAR AMERICA, while we built
maybe 1 million mid-century moderns –
we built some 29 million Mid-Century Modest homes.

MID-CENTURY MODEST:
Mainstream. Main Street. Mass produced. Middle Class homes.
ROYAL BARRY WILLS Cape Cods at one end of the architectural spectrum.
CLIFF MAY Ranches on the other.
AND YES,  a dose of Contemporary increasingly thrown in, too.
AND OVER THE NEXT 30 YEARS –
a gazillion prosaic, vernacular melting-pot variations in between.

MID-CENTURY MODEST HOMES ARE: Small –
1,000 square feet for many years running.
“SMALL” TODAY– but to their owners starting in 1946,
they were the culmination of the American Dream.
Following years of economic Depression and WWII,
these little homes were an amazing gift.

HOW DO WE LOVE THEE, Mid-Century Modest homes?
Let us count the ways…

  • Built with love and immense gratitude.
  • Wonderful features – pastel bathrooms, fitted kitchens, livable layouts.
  • Knotty pine paneling – installed by Gramps.
  • Lots of ingenious Americana
    like Nutone exhaust fans, Hall-Mack Tow’lscopes, and Dishmasters.
  • Wallpaper and pinch pleats and pull-down kitchen lights.
  • Boomerang cabinet pulls and wagon wheel lights and braided rugs.
  • Indoor plumbing.
  • Unpretentious. Exuberant. The first taste of true material comfort
    for many millions of people.
  • Our houses have stories…
    Stories about the beginning of a new American era still playing out today.
  • Did I mention small? Yes. But small is — green.
  • Small is quite often: “enough.”

THERE IS MUCH TO APPRECIATE in our Mid-Century Modest homes.
And certainly nothing to apologize for.
GRANITE countertops? Who needs ‘em, especially when they come with
a home equity loan that stresses our family finances beyond our limits.
What silliness. What Insanity.
SHHHH! Don’t tell anyone, but our Mid-Century Modest homes,
because they are so unpretentious by today’s standards,
can be much more affordable to buy and to renovate.

RETRO RENOVATION is very much about the “Re”:
Reduce. Re-Use. Recycle. Restore. Re-Store.
Returning to the source of “The American Dream”…
And in the process, re-thinking what we want it to mean for us today.
OH YEAH, and Retro style has a happiness-quotient that is off the charts.
WE LOVE our Mid-Century Modest homes
in all their glorious simplicity and optimism,
and cherish the opportunity to safeguard their history and heritage.
That’s the: Mid-Century Modest Manifesto.

Copyright © RetroRenovation.com 2009

Hey, see me talkin’ about it all on this cool etsy.com video:

Comments

  1. says

    I love this blog.I live in a 1950 ranch style home and I absolutly agree with everything you say about these wonderful homes.While the trend in the past few years have been for big homes with master suites, bonus rooms and the like, these homes just don’t have the character and history as the midcentury ones do. And not to mention that they are built so well and sturdy Small like you said but very econominol and not so small that you get clostrophobic depending of course on the size of ones family.BUThey Ilove these little houses and it”s time they get reconized for being apart of amrecian history.

  2. Marjie says

    Thank you Pam for establishing this blog and validating all the owners of smaller (but solid) Mid century homes.We live in a ’58 storybook ranch in MN on the edge of a McMansion development,in a very nice school district.This little house has weathered numerous tornado seasons;only needing one roof replacement for hail damage( in 20+ yrs) while those large houses across the way seem to require repeated roof replacement.Almost a sign of Spring, when you see all the OSB sprinkled out on the rooftops like dandelions on a lawn.I confess we’re not purists w/ regard to maintaining our home (which hadn’t been cared for in decades w/ minimal,idiotic repair work), but our repairs have been solid and subtle to the neighborhood even though we haven’t sought out vintage products.I ‘d like to share our current project.Having lived w/ the original kitchen for the last 23 years complete w/ gold splatter formica,we are opening up the 85 sq ft corridor kitchen (also w/ stairwell) into part of the dining area of our L shaped living room.I suppose that’s considered a no-no to many people, but we aren’t building out w/ an addition-only making the existing footage more usable.The original kitchen door(pocket door) was only 29 inches wide-it will now be 40″ +/- ( we are making “aging in place” adaptations to the home) & the pocket door wall to the dining area was removed so that replacing large appliances won’t be such a challenge to fit into the space or to the pocketbook(since we won’t be forced to pay thru the nose for a counter depth frig.) I’m looking forward to finally having an “eat in” kitchen albeit only counter seating (sorry, Pam, not quite enough space for table & chairs). But a traditional(art deco style) oval table w/ chairs will be in the adjacent front area…The changes have created a mid century flow in the space and a functional 140+ sq ft kitchen is on it’s way.Code required additional lighting(thankfully);moderate retro flavor fixtures are going in (6 white flush mounts in the prep area , 2 pendants w/ cake cover shaped globes for the eating counter, 1 cake cover chandelier for the dining table).We’re using marmoleum on the floor in a light grey & drab beige checkerboard w/ accent tiles in dark slate.The cabinets are mid-tone wood – a rift cut oak w/ slab doors and European/box construction (I am thrilled).We put the old cabinets on the curb for free,installed a new low e window in the kitchen and one in the front room.Since the walls opened up for new plumbing and electrical, new insulation went in – I used to just keep the butter out by that north wall of the kitchen and it would stay solid all winter!….So, far the subfloor is in and next week the lower cabinets get installed..We did hire professionals for this but after saving and investing our own sweat equity for 23 years on the rest of the house , I felt the kitchen warranted professionals since it involved ADA changes….Thanks again Pam….Best of luck to you

  3. Jessica says

    Just about to purchase a cute little 1949 house. Just CANNOT find a flooring for the kitchen. Everything in Sacramento is so Tuscan, I think even the people of Tuscany would be sick of this trend.
    Any ideas? I want happy and cute, I love yellow and white checks, but cannot afford Marmoleum. Why do they make so much black and white checks but no other colors?
    The cabinets are white, countertops charcoal laminate. I just want my yellow and white floor, but at this point would settle for anything upbeat, maybe blue? All the Armstrong vinyl looks so gross in the stores, haven’t even seen the Cushion Step in Sacramento yet. Come on flooring people, we don’t just want Tuscan!

    • pam kueber says

      See my Kitchens/Flooring category for all my research. How about Armstrong VCT floor tiles in white and yellow? Also See Reader Kitchens button at top of the homepage for lots of ideas.

  4. says

    Hi – I enjoy your site very much. I am a real estate agent in Denver’s northwestern suburbs. I plan to use the term you coined in a blog post (maybe several), and will credit you. I plan to copy the entire first paragraph of this post. Is that OK?

  5. RoB says

    Pam,

    My partner & I just found a ‘relic’ of mid century that has come on the market. It’s has great bones, 1500 sq. feet and could ‘shine’ with the right renovation and improvement. Built in 61, it’s pretty clear the owners didn’t ‘get it’ and have not preserved this property well. If our offer’s accepted we want to dive right in to renovation mode.
    We’re located in West Palm Beach, FL. We are fishing for reno specialists referrals. If over the years you have head of a strong reno contractor in SoFla that specializes in MCM architecture we would great ly appreciate your feedback.

    Thank you!

    RoB
    West Palm Beach, FL.

  6. Katrina high says

    I have been researching some 1950s furniture that belonged to my parents and come up empty. I love the stuff and suspect that it may be pretty rare it was produced by Sears and Roebuck it’s called ranch mode it’s solid oak but with the lines of mid century, and is decorated with leather strips and solid brass nailhead on the drawer handles. My family had a whole hues full of the stuff.

  7. Elisha says

    Hi Pam. Not sure if I’m doing this correctly. I am not technology savvy
    at all. So pls bare with me. I have been following your blog for almost
    a month now. I grew up in a mid century modest home. I currently live
    in a mid century modest home. Both are so so close to would you
    describe as mcm homes…small brick ranch homes built in 50′s and
    60′s. Things like wagon wheel lights…knotty line walls…pink tile bathrooms…the list goes on. Also the stories behind my home I grew
    up in I carry wonderful memories with me, and when I got married
    and moved into my home now…is dead on the nail with what I read on
    this blog. Think I will stop now…don’t want to write a book…but much
    more I would love to share! let me just see if you get this before I
    continue…lol!! I have lots I want to share and lots I want to be a part
    of on this blog. If you get this message will you pls let me know…thank
    you so much. By the way I live 50 mi. South of Atlanta Ga.

  8. Maureen Bajeyt says

    I’ve been searching for the name of my home style. There are tons of them built in Southern California, but I just discovered what it is through looking at pictures on this site. It is a Cape Cod “ranch” style home. Wow, that’s a mouthful for a 999 square foot house! I threw in “ranch” style because it’s always associated with California,and the main living area of the house is one big L-shape. I grew up in a true ranch style home near Palm Springs. I never knew Cape Cod style went beyond New England! I guess I learn something new every day!

  9. Tracy says

    Wow, I just found this blog, but I love it already! The Manifesto alone just about brought me to tears. Mid-century modest homes aren’t unique to the U.S.; the Canadian prairies are covered with them. However, they are often poo-poohed in favour of new two storey, front attached garage homes that are sprawling in the suburbs of many Canadian cities. I always thought my 1956 bungalow had a lot of character (it hasn’t been changed much) – steel kitchen cupboards, blue tub, sink and 13 litre toilet. I’m so happy to find a blog where these homes are appreciated. Thank you!

  10. chris says

    Midcentury Modest is something I actually use to define my little cinderblock home in Sacramento, California built in 1950. Not an Eichler by any stretch, no expansive window walls, no cantilevered roof, Shulman would have laughed if he was asked to photograph it. But for me, it is a slice of heaven. Modest, but squarely Midcentury. The trick for me has been not to dress it up in period (or “period-like”) accessories that reach too high. I think a George Nelson bubble pendant light fixture would be a bit overachieving for this house. Maybe a smaller knockoff would be more appropriate. Boomerang drawer pulls? Sure…fits right in. Anyhow, I really appreciate your nod to these solid, and solidly-built smaller homes and what they really represent in terms of who they were constructed for and why. Thanks and keep those articles coming. I am still waiting for the book-sized publication on this less showy stepchild of the MCM ethos.
    Chris

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