In my 10 years of blogging here on Retro Renovation, the stories 100% guaranteed to grab folks’ eyeballs are: Time Capsule Houses. I now have more than 100 time capsule houses documented in my archive, and they get lotsa love here and on our 107,000-friends Facebook page. Because of my early and ongoing reporting about time capsule houses, I’ve been interviewed about time capsule homes for pretty big newspaper stories by biggies the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. A while back, another media outlet asked to interview me on why people love time capsule houses so much. They did not end up running the interview, so I did more work on my Q&A and here you go: Why do we love looking inside time capsule houses so much? 

 1. What do you think the appeal is of “time capsule homes”?

Let me count the ways:

  1. We’re nosy: We humans are such social creatures. It’s always fascinating to look inside other people’s houses. And to look inside houses that have been unchanged for 40 or 50 or 60 years – even better. Not only are we able to see the interesting vintage decor, but we also get to imagine the back stories about the people who lived there so very many years without changing much. Decades lived in one house! Those houses meant a lot to their owners!
  2. We’re nostalgic: Lots of these houses remind us of… grandma’s house and the most carefree days of our childhoods — a warm and fuzzy for a lot of people. I also think there’s nostalgia around the idea that in previous generations, you could actually expect to live in one house most of your adult life. That is not as possible today, when so many of us are forced to move fairly often because of job changes. 
  3. We want to copy: If you are the owner of a vintage house that has been changed over the years, original time capsule homes are great resource to “see how it was done”. I inspect all the photos of time capsule houses that I feature very carefully, to look for ideas that can be replicated — architectural trim, decor, kitchen layout, all kinds of ideas jump out, whether the house is middle-class mid-century modest or a more expensive, architect-designed model.
  4. We’re visually smarter than ever: I also think that the internet has made many people much more visual. That is, by seeing, online, so many more images of so very many things, we learn to see the beauty in more, different things. Visually, we no longer live in design and decorating “bubbles” predetermined for us by just a few magazines or television stations. A great big, messy, beautiful world of design is literally at our fingertips. Time capsule houses capture real-life design history at a given point in time — and even if we don’t “love” the look initially, by learning where it came from, we can learn to appreciate it. No single era has cornered the market on what is beautiful, in terms of interior design. Decorating trends grow out of technology combined with marketing (fashion) and even some sociology/social history thrown in.
  5. Weird is wonderful: Today, so many people feel like they can’t personalize their house too much, in case they need to put it up for sale. Back in the day, though, this did not seem to be so much a worry, so people did some wild — and highly personal – things in their houses. The time capsule houses that … pushed the envelope in terms of the design and decor often are the ones that go viral-crazy.
  6. We’re cowards when it comes to color: and time capsule houses make us brave. That exciting paint color Gray has been the #1 paint color for like 10 years now. News flash! It’s now being replaced by … white. Has there ever been a period in American life so devoid of colors in our interiors? When a time capsule house shows us flamboyant green flowered wallpaper on all four walls and the ceiling, we see: Yes, it can be done. They did it. And they survived. Okay, so maybe we won’t go that far. But maybe just maybe: Green paint?
  7. We want to buy one: Yes, there is growing number of people seeking out time capsule houses to buy for themselves. 

And, there were more questions about time capsule houses:

2. What kind of a home shopper seeks out one of these homes over, say, new construction?

Time capsule house hunters are, I think, highly visual – they have very keen design sensibilities. They can see past any worn surfaces, for example, to see the gorgeous architecture and original features of a time capsule house. They also recognize that many of these old homes have been built with very high quality and craftsmanship that could be very expensive to replicate in new construction today. Finally, we would prefer to buy a house with its original features, rather than one that’s been “remuddled.” We don’t want to pay for other people’s renovations that have not been done in harmony with the home’s original architecture. Better that the house is untouched, we will do the rest. 

3. What are the hallmarks of a time capsule home?

There was just one owner or set of owners, and they were so happy with their house and its original decor that they changed very little over all the succeeding years. What we love: Original kitchens, bathrooms, floors, lighting, and I am the world’s largest lover of original vintage wallpaper no matter how ‘crazy’ it might seem today. We also love it when a time capsule house has rare features, like a Hall-Mack recessed bathroom scale or “Relaxation Unit.” There was a lot of inventiveness during the midcentury housing boom – lots of fun things to find in these houses. Note, time capsule houses can be either “midcentury modern” or “midcentury modest.” Modest as in, like your grandma’s house. Many of these mainstream middle class tract houses were kind of… unpretentious on the outside… but on the inside, they could be just as well built — with features as fancy — as architect-design moderns – we’ve seen some gorgeous midcentury modest time capsule houses over the years. 

I will add, though, that there are certain things that are not desirable in old houses — namely, materials and products that may contain hazards. Be sure to Be Safe/Renovate Safe!

4. Why are time capsule houses so trendy right now?

With each passing year since I started my blog in 2006, I’ve seen interest grow in midcentury homes and décor. There are a number of reasons for the revival. First, enough time has passed that we can now look back and recognize the best design features of these homes. There always seems to be a gap period about 30-40 years after a home style is popularized when it falls out of favor. Then, our vision clears, and the best of the old, discarded era is re-popularized. Time capsule houses, if they have been well-maintained over the years, allow us to see how real people lived. They also are a whole-house parallel of what the Keno Brothers on Antiques Roadshow taught me when I first started watching many years ago: Original patina rocks. Mess with it at your own risk. 

5. What has been your favorite time capsule home so far?

I didn’t have to think more than a second to come up with this answer: Early in the blog’s history, Meredith, a reader, alerted me to a 1955 time capsule bungalow in St. Louis. Not only was it an original owner property, but the original owners had never lived in the upstairs. Original story here. Following up on our story, I contacted the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and they also did a story about the house. I love this time capsule house the most, because it was among my first, but moreover, because it indicates just how very much their houses meant to people of modest means. 

6. Is there something to be said about keeping one’s home decor for so long that it actually becomes stylish again?

Yes, especially if you are not made of money. In days gone by, when we were much less affluent as a nation, folks would save a long time (remember ‘lay-away’?) to buy quality pieces of furniture — which were quite expensive compared to today — that they would expect to have the rest of their lives and pass down to their children, too. 

Today we move a lot more — so we may change our decor to better suit the next space. Changing things up also is made more possible because we are more affluent, and many products also cost much less, in real terms, often because they are imported from countries where labor is much less expensive. So, it seems “easier” to keep changing out your decor.

Heck, it is not a pathology to keep your decor for years and years. Clearly, some people will use their discretionary income to change up their interiors more than other people do. But, that does not mean that people who stick with their first choice decorating for decades are misguided. 

7. We’ve seen great time capsule homes right up through the 70s. But it seems that no one really wants a completely intact 1980s home. Do you think that’ll change? Or are the 80s just beyond hope for any comeback as far as decor goes?

If it’s harmonious, appropriate, quality design, it will come back. We just have a few decades to go on these style revivals.

What do you think, readers?
Do you love looking inside time capsule houses — and if so, why?

time capsule houses

  1. Jill says:

    Pam, I’ve always been nosy about houses! Probably that’s how I found your blog! I’m a baby boomer and have that special place in my heart for mid century homes. When I was a kid I dreamt of living in an ultra modern ranch. Wow is the term ultra modern dating me or what? I grew up in a tract post WW 2 cape and admired all sorts of house styles. My grandparents had a gorgeous two story with plenty of built ins and a laundry chute that entertained the kids when we visited. Right now I’m in a 50s L shaped ranch complete with knotty pine kitchen and bathroom!
    My neice lives in one of the original Mr. Blanding dream houses that were built in 1950 after the movie was such a hit. It’s an absolute stunner of a house.
    I read an interesting article a few years back that chronicled styles from the 1890s until the 1990s. Ironically, each decade had easily recognizable styles in all areas homes, cars, clothing etc. But since the 1990s we’ve been in a holding pattern. The last three decades haven’t produced the innovative design changes the previous century did at almost decade length regularity. So where will we go after our return to the 1980s?
    Thanks for your wonderful blog! Can’t wait to see the final shots of the tiki lounge!

  2. kt2le says:

    In the late 1980s, we had friends who bought a large 1954 Dallas home and, immediately after closing, had us over to look at it. It was an amazing one owner, one story ranch style with 4,000 sf of all original everything – and all in perfect condition. All tile bathrooms, wood floors under all the carpeting, huge rooms, bedrooms with built-ins galore, and a kitchen with two – yes TWO – original built-in pull-out stainless steel dishwashers and side-by-side stainless steel wall ovens with porthole windows. There were 4 bedrooms and 3.5 tile baths on one side and another bedroom and full bath on the other side off near the kitchen and laundry room (probably originally for the maid). We were slack-jawed as we roamed around that place and practically giddy with excitement over all the original everything.

    THEN they started talking about the planned remodeling that was going to occur. Everything except the wood floors was getting ripped out because it was so OLD. I was heartbroken. I’ll admit they had excellent taste (she was an interior designer) and it was absolutely gorgeous when it was completed….but the soul was gone.

    They sold it a few years later at a tremendous profit.

  3. Lisa Compo says:

    This article tickles me to death because we are days away from closing on a time capsule home. ???? 1970 all original, foil wallpaper, shag carpet in good condition, the real deal.

    I have been reading RetroReno since my first spine surgery went poorly in 2010 and Pam’s articles have helped me pass many hours of long, painful days and nights. I have always loved retro things and all of this new knowledge made it a MUST for me to find or build a retro home. After 7 years I have collected a bunch of Geneva cabinets to install, appliances, furniture, kitchenwares etc…

    Even though it’s a true time capsule, I want to Retro It Up even more…YES, there will be a pink bathroom. They are all blue now, so I can change a few and have more fun colors. I am so happy to have this resource to help me make wise choices and where to find things.

    Yes, time capsule homes are enchanting. This one has changed my whole life. Already trying to talk Mom out of 1/2 of her old stuff. Can we have an end of Summer uploader? LOL

  4. June says:

    I was looking for these houses last week. I’m so glad it was in the blog this week. I have two favorites: The Better Homes and Garden House and the Totally tiled house in Mn with 8 bathrooms. I like this website and I’m like a kid in a candy store looking at these houses. When I can’t sleep I always go back to these houses and dream. I used to love to do to home Reno but after having several back surgeries I can no longer do this. Being a kid of 60s and 70s I’m a mid century modern freak. I especially love the houses before the 1960s because we never really knew anyone with these type houses. Your website also has so many historical elements. I have mentioned several times I wish you had a show on Tv. I think it would be very popular with us baby boomers. Can’t wait to see your lounge finished. Thanks for such a wonderful site.

  5. Carolyn says:

    I can’t add anything to the list but I, too, am nosy. Growing up in the ’60’s in small-town WI, most of the homes (usually farmhouses) I was in were from the 1910’s to WWII. Then, going to the new ranches (1950’s), it was pretty much run thru the K to the kid’s bdrm and back outside again. I saw blonde wood and round drawer pulls. Our neighbors DID have a cool house because it was a ranch over the garage and built into the hill! And their bathroom sink was in a cabinet (vanity)! Both sets of grandparents first got indoor toilets in the ’70’s.
    In the ’70’s family friends built new and one was really into the Colonial(?) – red-brick ranch, fireplace, and Early American furniture. Another had the paneling with a wooded scene and a deer in the DR.
    There were houses that made big impressions on me – the farmhouse with well-thought out additions (except the awful fluorescent light in the LR – ?!) – a powder room! The Cape Cod with a wall range and counter cook-top. We THINK this is the same house with the poodle toilet seat but I can only say for sure the downstairs bath was gray and the upstairs startled your eyes so it could’ve been pink.
    PrimroseRoad – really! when did we decide we didn’t need attics?! Even if it was only big enough to put the tangled Christmas lights and ornaments.
    We all have ideas of how a mansion should look like but when we snoop in MCm houses, we’ve got the big eyes – “ooh, look at this!” about cute or clever features. My absolute favorite is bridge hands in the basement linoleum – too funny!
    Like the rest of the commenters, I could go on for hours about this and that. My hope is that new home owners look at the special features and decide a little Spic’n’Span is all their “new” house needs.

  6. Zann Gates says:

    I live in an Eichler home (1955 MCM) in California, but I grew up in a 1944 Colonial in the midwest, furnished with early 20th century antiques and low-end “colonial” furnishings, which were popular from the 1950’s right up through the Bicentennial years. (And now in revival.) The comment above about “duck or goose in bonnet” style makes me laugh & cry – that is my mother to a T! She is going on 92 with dementia. I may have complicated feelings about the bonnet-wearing poultry, and also the 80’s, but I love my mom, and nostalgia and the other 6 of Pam’s reasons are the pond in which I swim, for sure!

    I love any time capsule. I am *so* tired of gray & white flips. And this was a wonderful article!

  7. PrimroseRoad says:

    There’s one more reason people like them — they are built amazingly well. Go into a post-70s house and noise travels like crazy. My 60’s era home (basic/boring Dutch colonial) is plaster over drywall and each room is its own little capsule. Studs are closer together than current building codes and the attic is so overbuilt I decided not to renovate because there were just too many beams to deal with. Not to mention that there IS a full attic.

    Am working on a 50s time capsule home that is built like a bomb shelter. Plaster over metal grid over lathes. Sadly the master bath and kitchen were too far gone to save, but am using vintage sinks, vanity, wallpaper and tile to keep the feel alive. We refinished the paneling that had been covered with mold and it gleams. Two bathrooms are untouched and no significant structural changes to the house. There’s a lot of stone and each piece of paneling was cut to exactly follow the contours of the stone, all the way to the ceiling. This wasn’t some wildly expensive home, either — two bedrooms and a semi-finished basement (with tiki bar).

    Nothing new can touch this sort of construction — the fact it survived more or less intact (including being empty for 8 years) is a testimony to good, solid construction. They don’t make them like that any more.

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