Sumac Sue and her Gardenside way of life – a Retro Renovation re-run

My house. Hattie, my cat, is jumping out of the flowerbed, by the way.

The post about Madison Sarah and her hunt for a 50s or 60s home drew lots of comments, including a lovely note from Sumac Sue, aka Judi, of Lexington, Kentucky. Her comments were really moving, so I asked her if I could make a post out of them – and asked if she could send pictures to go with. She kindly did, and even added some more info at my request. A long post – but well worth the time to read and think about. Sumac Sue is a former newspaper reporter – so the girl can turn a phrase! Maybe other readers have similar stories about their neighborhoods that they would like to share? Send in your stories and your “walking tour” photos and I’d be happy to make this a regular feature. Thank you, Judi (Sumac Sue), for getting this started!

With so much emphasis on gizmos and gadgets and other facets or retro interior decorating, I really hadn’t thought much about how simple the facades are on most mid-century homes. I find our house, and the houses in our neighborhood of modest, mostly one-story brick ranches, to be sort of sturdy and cute, like freckle-faced boys. It’s a look I find appealing.

But, if someone like Madison Sarah wants a bit more oomph, then maybe she could try an approach such as looking for a house with a really pronounced modern style, such as Anne and Gary’s house, which has been mentioned on this site. Sure, it has some flatness to it, but, it has angles and overhangs and lots of glass, which makes it cool.

Interesting decorative block and wrought iron on a mid-century apartment complex in the neighborhood. I like the little touches like the eagle.

If Madison Sarah can’t find a house like that, then, my only other suggestion is to try to think of the mid-century houses not as a look, but, as a way of life. Sounds cliched, I know, but, we have found that living in our ’59 ranch, in our ’59 era neighborhood, to be really pleasant.

We weren’t really looking for a mid-century house when we found this one. We were looking for a house that was well built, of good materials, one that would be pretty easy to maintain, and one that was in a neighborhood that would be a pleasant place to walk with our dog in the evenings. And, we had a tight budget, but we wanted at least 1.5 bathrooms. So, we found our house in a nice neighborhood of 1,000 to 1,500 square-foot houses, most with carports or garages. Some have basements, but ours has a roomy, dry crawlspace — either way, they are all easy to get under to work on plumbing, the furnace, etc. (A previous house had virtually no crawlspace, and we had to scoot on our stomachs in the damp dirt. No more of that!) Houses this size are pretty easy to care for, and the utilities aren’t outrageous.

The rest of the shopping center has been updated, but they left this 50s look at one end. It\'s so neat.

Like many such mid-century neighborhoods, ours includes a shopping area with a grocery store, bank, post office, and some other stores. We have enjoyed being able to walk to this shopping area, and now that gas prices have risen so much, we like it even more.

I can’t speak for other such neighborhoods, but ours is really stable. People buy these houses and hold onto them. We still have four people on our little street who are the original owners of their houses! They are all in their 80s. We bought our house last summer from the original owner, who was 86. We joke that these houses are good for your health, because people live so long in them.

Duck pond is a pleasant place to go -- to feed the ducks, of course.

But, maybe it is no joke — they really are nice places to live. We are in our 50s, and there are other middle-aged people on the street, and there are a few young couples with kids. The ones we have met have said the same thing as us — they moved here because they were looking for a well-built house. They also say they didn’t want to buy a cheaply built new house way out on the edge of town.

Our neighborhood is called Gardenside — doesn’t that just sound like a nice place to live? Madison Sarah, I hope you find a nice place to live, too.

Landscaping with spring-flowering trees and perennials. (Much better planned than what you usually see, I hate to say.)

I know I’ve gushed on about our neighborhood like a real estate agent with too many houses to unload. The thing I want to stress is, like you, we really weren’t looking for a mid-century house, but it has worked out really well for us, much better than expected.

We once lived in a quaint 1910 era frame house, but it was hard to maintain, and closer to downtown and the university, so traffic was terrible. We then bought some land in the country with a mobile home on it. We wanted to build a farmhouse or cabin. But traffic was terrible there too! All of those other city people moving to the country just like us, causing so much traffic on the winding rural roads. We just couldn’t commit to building a house there and putting up with the traffic forever. It seemed pretty nutty — so wasteful of time and resources. When Wayne changed jobs and his commute got even longer, that’s when we decided to move back into town.

I had once lived in a 1970s era suburb, and it was OK. I admit, we were a bit like Madison Sarah when we started looking at houses in the suburbs. We thought of them as being sort of boring. But the main thing we wanted was a well-built house — after living in an elderly cottage, and then a mobile home, we wanted a house that didn’t have something breaking every other day! A mid-century house fit the bill. And you know, we have not found one other house in the whole neighborhood just like ours. So, it’s really not boring, it’s unique!

The only story-and-a-half on my block. I like how they have used a cream-colored trim rather than the more conventional stark white. In the background, you see a ranch with cream trim and sage-colored shutters and front door. It\'s nice too. When we change our white trim, we are thinking of going to something like this, or maybe a light gray. We don\'t plan to rush into anything. Hope to get more tips from your site!

I just wanted to let Madison Sarah know that living in a mid-century house was more than just about the facade of one particular house — at least that is what I am finding out. We love living here not just because of our particular house, but because the whole neighborhood is a nice place to be. Our house, and the entire neighborhood, is built on a scale that seems so liveable.

When we walk our dog, in a few blocks we get onto some streets of bigger houses, from about 1,800 to 3,000 square feet. (I was a bit incorrect when I said our neighborhood was 1,000 to 1,500 sf houses — that’s the size of most of the houses on the streets right around our house. But there are many larger houses within the Gardenside neighborhood.) These larger houses, ranches, split levels, Cape Cods, and two-story Colonials, were built in the late 50s to late 60s. We have crushes on several of these beauties. They still are built on a scale that seems right.

This shot shows a mix of styles as the mid-century neighborhood ends and the mega-mansions begin. You can see a two-story colonial, a stone-and-glass ranch, and in the background, a great big \'ol place. (While I think people should have the freedom to build what they want, I just wish they wanted something that didn\'t dwarf the existing homes. Sort of like getting your cake -- a many-tiered cake -- while everyone else has cupcakes...

THEN we can walk into a neighborhood of brand new homes — some over 6,000 square feet, with half-million to million-dollar price tags. We feel like the Monty Python knights approaching a castle when we venture into that neighborhood! We always are happy to walk back to our street.

Hope this extra information is helpful, and doesn’t bog you down. I know you are busy…. knowing you also have family, career, and your house to tend to. So, I am happy to pitch in with some material for you. Maybe you could start a semi-regular neighborhoods feature, and others can send in photos of their communities. I think it would be a hit. But you know, we love it all, whatever you do!

60s era house with a log cabin addition! Which came first? Maybe Abe Lincoln lived here!

I hope I got the right descriptions with the right photos — I’m having to hurry because I need to go get some pine mulch from a neighbor who offered it to me. Another reason it is nice to live here. I think because the place is on a nice scale, people actually see each other and visit and share things.


This post originally ran on April 28, 2008

  1. Alyssa says:

    Oh, I wish I could do this with my neighborhood. It’s falling apart, though, and is turning into a ghetto. A few older people who bought their houses with they were built in 1956-1958. It was a nice place when my great-grandparents bought this house. All the houses were carefully kept, kids could play in the front, you knew your neighbors. We’re trying to restore the house, last time it had so much care, my great-grandma wanted it updated to the 1970s. It’s been neat, though. The front bedroom was pink under the panelling, and had the outline of an extravagant light switch panel; the bathroom had floral wallpaper pushed in where Papa put a recessed toilet paper holder; mint green walls in the hall, middle and back room. We also found very rusted Falstaff Beer (a local beer that isn’t made anymore) cans between the walls from the original construction! I wish I could have seen all the rooms in their 1958 splendor, but most of the pictures are outside, or when they went home to Tennessee to see their family.

  2. madsarah says:

    Hi Pam,

    Sorry I’ve been so “quiet” these past few months–life gets in the way sometimes. Also, although I still love your site, the house I bought is in no way a time capsule, so I often have little to add to your lively discussions. Despite my home’s humble origins, all that’s left of the original design is the corner fireplace (which is actually open all the way around) in the living room, and the kitchen cabinets. The followup to the story I posted yesterday is that after the original couple moved out in the 1990s, the house was in terrible shape but it was snatched up by an architect with a vision to bring it gently into the modern age. I love it, but it’s now more of a hodgepodge of eras than a snapshot of any one point in time.

    Although the house doesn’t look much like it did in the architect’s original drawings, I am trying to maintain the spirit of simple living that prevailed when the first owners moved in after WWII–a returning soldier and his bride. And I have acquired some nice furniture pieces you’d appreciate–a Broyhill Brasilia dining set and a fabulous 50s daybed that still has the original fabric in perfect condition. I’ll try to send pictures when I can!

  3. lady brett says:

    as a fairly young new homeowner, i just wanted to say that most people buying their first home are really excited about it (it’s really not something you can take for granted!) and perfectly ready to be invested. so i want to second your whole list, and especially say that having signs about neighborhood meetings is really helpful. our neighborhood has new reusable “meeting this saturday” signs that some people put out the week before – without them i would never have known when/where/how to get to the meeting, even though i was looking!

    also, while you are right that renters have a lot less investment in their house, i’d point out that landlords are often worse than tenants. the “for rent” sign went up in the house next door about a week after we moved in, and it makes me sad because you can tell that the landlord is putting the bare minimum into keeping the place habitable rather than keeping it in good repair (i used to rent from the same man elsewhere, so i know exactly how well he treats his rentals). at least the house might be “home” for some of the renters, whereas it’s just another property for him.
    (i know mine’s as broad a statement as ronns, but i wanted to toss out a second way to view it. i’m sure the truth is halfway in-between =)

  4. madsarah says:

    Wow, what a surprise to see an update from this post, a year later. I have now been in my modest little neighborhood for 10 months. The house purchase took a weird twist–the one I wrote about last year fell through due to problems with the appraisal, but I lucked into one that’s even more special. It was the first home built in the area after the war–a tiny cottage for a returning soldier and his wife. They lived here for more than 50 years, until the husband died and the wife had to go into assisted living. I have all the original drawings and have learned so much about them and the house from the neighbors.

    My neighborhood is the kind of place where people have picket fences and “welcome gnome” signs…where gardening is an art form…and where people seem happy to be riding out the recession in homes they can afford. I am very grateful to be among them!

    Thanks again, Sue!
    Madison Sarah

  5. kristin says:

    How inspiring!!!! I think I may have to do this walk of Sea Isle/Colonial Acres! We recently discovered we are in the Sea Isle neighborhood vs. the more “known” Colonial Acres of Memphis that we get lumped into…the demarcation line being 7 houses to our West. I honestly like the name “Sea Isle” better, but can’t for the life of me figure out the reason for this name! It is crazy how similar Sea Isle is to Gardenside, but being slightly more Southern, there are differences.

  6. sablemable says:

    Thank you, Sue for the “tour” of your neighborhood! I’m doing the same in my area, photographing the homes. The area in which we live was once occupied by fruit orchards. The developers came in about 1949 and started to build. There are several of the original farmhouses left. One nearby was built in the mid-1800’s, is still occupied and in great shape.

  7. Ronn says:

    Hi Femme 1,

    You better believe it. Lemonade, even Kool Aid (for which I lost my taste about 50 years ago).

    I’ll add:

    – Hire kids to mow your lawn.

    – Have neighborhood events just for them. (For example, we have an Easter Egg Hunt, a Xmas in the Park with Santa, Fourth of July cookout, National Night Out with the kids decorating their bikes for a parade and awards, etc.) Of course the adults are there, and end up mingling anyhow…


  8. madison sarah says:

    Thank you so much, Sumac Sue! Your neighborhood sounds a lot like the one I’m moving to (once my current house sells). It’s full of small, modest ’40s and ’50s houses that have been loved since they were built–oftentimes, by the original owners. Because the trees are so huge (they’re mostly huge old burr oaks and maples) and the houses are not, the neighborhood has an “enchanted” feeling that I really like.

    The one I have an offer on is from 1940 (Pam, how do you feel about “wartime” houses?!). It’s a style that I now know to be called Minimal Traditional. What a terrible name! Anyway, this link has a good description of this period of “plain Jane” architecture and a photo of a house that is more interesting looking than the one I am getting, but that’s OK.


    Of course, as in Sue’s case, the sum is more than the parts. I will be steps from a beautiful park with stone shelters, fire pits, and extensive trails through the woods; a short walk to all the shops I could possibly want, plus a brand-new library; and surrounded by people who are satisfied with things “as they are.” And as Pam’s latest post says, the “inner ring” of houses is holding or increasing in value here in Madison. (Why drive when you can walk, bike or take the bus?) Hopefully that same thinking will help me with the one I am selling, which was part of Madison’s first “suburb” serving the UW campus just after the turn of the last century. Now it’s considered “downtown”!

    Thank you all so much for your thoughtful comments! This site always makes my day (on the days I find time to visit it:).

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