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:
- 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!
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?
- We want to buy one: Yes, there is growing number of people seeking out time capsule houses to buy for themselves.
- See all 100+ Time Capsule houses in the RetroRenovation.com archive here.
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.