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

  1. 1940sCrazy says:

    Hi, I’ve been reading your site for the last few days and love it. My grandson is 25, a single dad, and I’ve been helping him raise my beautiful great-grandson. He’s in the process of buying a 1941 half cape/bungalow (the only way to describe it!) with a half-finished basement (which he wants for his BR/entertainment center) and a finished attic with dormer windows and hardwood floors and cute little storage cubbies, but, alas, w/no heat or A/C we could see, so I know it was done yrs ago. The original house is about 950 sq ft with a small addition on the side for dining and laundry w/stairs to the basement. Alas, only a pull down for the attic, but he intends to remedy that so it can be utilized as a loft space for the 5 yr old w/stairs. He loves the house, even though it’s the same age as his granny.

    This house has been pretty much preserved, in the original part of the house: hardwood floors, brass and glass doorknobs and original doors, light green 4×4 tile and medicine chest in the bath, although a half bath was added to one of the BRs, shrinking it so that only a twin bed can go there (for the 5 yr old now). Otherwise, it’s 4 main rooms around a small square hall. The kitchen has the original wood cabinets and there is lino on the floor ( not original) and someone put in a SS sink (horrors!). I think there was a gas stove in there originally, but over the years, it’s been changed to electric (has one of those horrid ceramic tops now). The addition and half bath were sort of kept to the style, with a pedestal sink in the bath, and wallpaper in both rooms. There is also a sun room added later, with, of all things, parquet wood flooring and tall windows on 3 sides that slide open side to side (that will be my lair!).

    But, we both love the house for its small footprint, even though we may never get it back to all of its originality. I’ll try to do that through decorating, etc, just to create the effect. I find lots of interesting stuff in the thrift stores, such as ReStore and expect to find even more in the new location, since it’s a small city with an aging population and sadly, a lot of flipping going on (imagine putting in granite and stainless steel double fridge in a 1000 sq ft or less house!). My decorating style tends to the eclectic/homey and I’ve collected some decent items over the years, including some from my mother and grandmother. No MCM in this house, though, it’s more of a holdover from the late ’30s, I think, when the economy was finally picking up a bit, and built just before we went to war. On the same street, closer to downtown, there are the 2 story, large older houses of the wealthier of the day, all very well preserved. The current mayor lives on that street.

    For those who like the 50s, this little town is awash in 1,000 sq ft little brick ranchers, since it was once an active industrial center and had a population boom in the 50s with people looking both for work and for housing.

  2. Victoria says:

    Hi Everybody!
    I just found you, and I feel like I have come home to Mid- Century heaven! … Lost in a sea of granite counter tops and everything
    H U G E! I stumbled onto your website by trying to find where to buy a Formica counter top, in particular, an Irish Linen, tan, Wilson Art, Formica counter top. I was thrilled to find you and a site that sells retro style Formica. I wrote and asked about the Linen Formica, but unfortunately they stopped selling it in the 80’s.
    I grew up with a red linen shiny countertop, and later, built a house with the tan linen…. But that’s just one thing, We live in an old house and were fortunate to find the old kitchen still in tact with a gray and white Formica countertop.
    There were about 4 layers of replaced flooring, we couldn’t find linoleum, so ended up using alternate black and white tiles, We are now in the process of trying to find another old house, one that hasn’t been flipped… It breaks my heart to see all of the fine old fixtures, tile, knotty pine, radiators, and built -ins, torn out and replaced with granite, aluminum fixtures, and cheap looking plexiglass windows.
    I am so excited to know that mid century is becoming more popular! Somebody, please tell the realtors and the flippers!! Realtors give me a strange look and think I am crazy when I tell them I am looking for an old house that hasn’t been updated…. I really can’t understand this trend of having kitchens with stainless steel appliances that look like something you would find in a morgue.
    Maybe if we can keep building up “Mid – Century” it will become a “new trend” that catches on and people will treasure these old houses as they are, and more manufacturers will then begin to bring back the old products like shiny Irish Linen Formica….
    I am so excited to find you and hear about what you did and are doing to preserve and restore these wonderful houses!
    Thank You so much!
    Sincerely,
    Victoria

  3. Amy says:

    We bought a mid-mod (late ’60’s) rancher that had NO upgrades – thank goodness! We bought “vintage,” but the real estate agent and owners apologized for the “dated” look. Tee-hee – we got a lower price – and less to do/UN-do! We love our Formia countertops, colorful tile bathroom and low horizontal lines. What a gem we got!

  4. Leslie Booth says:

    Oh my goodness!!! I have gone to heaven!! I just bought a 1959 “Eichler”-roofed mid century modest (1150 sf) that is a dream come true! And now to have found you! Perfect! Barbie, my home, and I were all born in 1959.

    Since I was a child I have been in love with this style, my aunt was prof of art at Hardin Simmons and had a home like this in Abilene, Tx and I was smitten even way back then. Now I am an art teacher and own my own quite similar to hers!

    I looked 18 months before I found this jewel in a small town about an hour north of Dallas, and as far as I can tell there is not another like it in this town anywhere. I did see one very similar in another town about 60 miles west, and I’m pretty sure it was built by or at least designed by the same, Palmquist and Wright. I am thrilled to have the original blueprints and paperwork so that I would know that!

    I have clerestory windows, a salmon Cinderella tub in a bathroom full of tan and salmon tiles and sink and toilet. It will require some love, it has been “generously” lived in but only cosmetic-type fixes for the most part (regrouting, re caulking, etc), and I will be looking along the way for original replacements for certain things (exhaust fan over cooktop, etc), but this is something I have dreamed of for forty years!! I wish I knew how to send you pics, I want you to see what deliciosity I am living in, but for now I will just have to describe it.

    It is a 2 bed, 1 bath with a sun room off the living room and a room at the back of the attached carport with a slider looking onto the back yard. There are 3 sets of sliders (sliding glass doors) in the sunroom, one in the dining room going out to the carport, and one as I said in the “bonus room” looking onto the back yard.

    The fireplace is in the center of the house rising to a 14-15 foot vault. The wall dividing the kitchen and living room is open above the door height, as it is between the kitchen and dining room. The walls throughout are painted (sadly) paneling with at least the trim (another of the small things needing addressed-the trim is a mess with paint all over it, but I will eventually get that cleaned up) in original wood.

    My front door is solid but there is a side light as wide as the door made of textured glass. I hope to do the DIY door lights I just read about on here some day! Love that! All the closet doors are louvered and the laundry is a stackable in one of the three louvered closets in the bathroom.

    Sadly, the appliances are not originals, nor I’m guessing is the countertop (looks like Corian?), but they aren’t horrible and until/unless I can find out more about the originals I’m not really sure what to look for anyway.

    The flooring is wood-look laminate throughout the house but for 12″ ceramic tile in the kitchen and bath, again, likely not the originals. Oh what I would do for some affordable retro Vinyl floor tile! Some day I think…

    I plan to make the sunroom my art studio. I have no idea what to do with the room at the back of the car port. I call it the cabana room. My mom suggested I make the cabana room my art studio and just use the sunroom as an extension of the Livingroom. Makes more sense I’m sure but I do a lot of drawing and painting and it makes more sense to me to keep that close.

    There is also a built-in barbecue made with the same brick around the rest of the house to the side of the cabana room. I love that but I will want to have my chimney sweep peeps take a look at it before I try it out? The cabana slider opens to a covered patio with an outdoor ceiling fan. Very cool for hot Texas nights!

    I am just so thankful to be in this forum getting to share with you what is yours and is becoming my passion! I even have a bumper sticker “I Brake for Breeze Blocks”! I love that rare occasion when someone gets it!

    I will be writing again when I get stuff done. Please let me share pics!

    Thanks,
    Leslie

  5. martee99 says:

    I just purchased a 1600 ft. rehabber outside of Cincinnati. Built in 1966. I was planning on scrapping the kitchen cabinets until I decided to do an internet search on the nameplate. Scheirich cabinets. Now I’m debating whether or not to replace the cabinets. The cabinets are in very good condition. Can anybody advise me on their value? I’d be willing to entertain offers as well. My email is martee99@yahoo.com.

  6. Lynn says:

    HGTV can have that effect. Their talk of “dated” this and “got to go” that can make you feel like your house, with its wonderful original features, is unattractive. I just saw them take a sledge hammer to a Mamie pink bathroom and original cabinets. Thank goodness for this site that keeps it real.

  7. Rachael says:

    We bought our small, suburban 1950s white brick ranch, so I could afford to stay home and raise our kids. It was amazing what a fresh coat of paint and new light fixtures did to spruce it up inside. We see many of our friends purchasing huge new homes, with a huge new mortgage to match. We may not be living the high life here, but we are living our own dream and that’s what matters. Thanks for the new term I will proudly use to describe my home: “Mid-century Modest.”

  8. Al says:

    Just found this site. It’s great.

    My first house was a large rambling brick ranch built in the early 60s, in what is now known as Mid Century Modern style. It had birch carpenter built kitchen cabinets, a pink and brown bathroom, a sea mist green bathroom, and a pinkish half bath. Lived in it for 5 years. A great house. Then I built a large Georgian Colonial (4300 sq ft.), because that was the thing to do in the 80s. Lived in that for 20 years. Now I’m finding myself buying out my brother’s half of our childhood home. It was built in the very late 50’s. A Mid Century Modest house, small. It has always been in the family. It is original except for newer appliances and a long ago bathroom remodel. The oak floors are pristine. It has the original knotty pine carpenter built cabinets in the kitchen which I helped my Mom and Dad refinish about 20 years ago.

    It is hard for me to go full mid century (furniture), but I do want to preserve its character and even bring back some of it (bathroom and maybe removal of the aluminum siding). This website is going to be a great resource.

  9. Pam Kueber says:

    Welcome! Get to know all the categories and subcategories — we have lots of stories, research, and surprises.

  10. Carol says:

    My husband and I recently purchased a not-modest 4,700 square foot, formerly swanky 1955 home. All of the 4 1/2 pink bathrooms are intact, although in need of refurbishing. The kitchen is also pretty much original. There are two built-in Thermador ovens which are no longer working. We aren’t sure if they are actually broken or if the problem is related you short in the wiring that we discovered in the basement. My husband doesn’t believe that anyone would want the ovens. I would love to see them restored. They are way too cool to throw in a landfill. It doesn’t seem that I can persuade him to keep them, so I am wondering if there is some way to connect with people who do this type of restoration and may want these ovens. Thanks!

Comments are closed.