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. Suzanne says:

    I once went to a cat circus. Watching the kitties perform was glorious, but the best part was sitting in a theater, packed with a couple hundred other people who were wearing kitty ear headbands & grinning like the Cheshire cat- just like me!

    I feel the same way when I read your website. Ah, somebody who gets me!

  2. JulieAnn says:

    My parents built their first home in 1955. That was the home I was raised in. It was about a thousand square feet, had simple wood carpenter built cabinets, and a small pink bathroom. It also had Oak hardwood floors, and a picture window (which was a big deal back then). It was a little different because it was built of log and on a mountaintop. I loved that house and four years have wanted to buy it and restore it. Last year it burned down. Now I have inherited the second home they built in the early 1970s across the street from the first. It’s ranch style and bigger about 1500 square feet. It’s had a hard life with rough treatment. Appliances and flooring and such have been replaced repeatedly. In some ways, it’s still kind of 60s style. It has the flat wood Carpenter built cabinets like the old house. They’re big and roomy and go clear to the ceiling. People have pushed me to update them, but I love them. My grandfather built them. They stay. I’m trying to find my way through repairing and fixing up this house. It’s not a classic house of any particular era. It’s just a continually evolving home. I’d love to hear any advice of what to do.

  3. jacquie says:

    We just purchased a 1958 Don Drummond built, Jones Emmons designed Castillian mid century home. It’s pretty much original except the two bathrooms were granitized in the 1990’s and the kitchen remains except for the counters and appliances.. I’m so happy to find all your info on bathrooms and retro formica. We’ll take it one step at a time, but our plan is to make changes strategically and thoughtfully to enhance its original features and to add where we can to bring back the character of the home. Your site is a treasure. I’m going to spend lots of time here.

  4. Pam Kueber says:

    Hi Jacquie, thank you — congratulations — and welcome! Sounds like your house found good owners 🙂

  5. Kerri Stahl says:

    Maybe it’s nostalgia because I’m 54, but reading about this house history warms my heart. We did not have a mid-century modest home as my mother inherited a two-family from her great-aunt in Jersey City, NJ, but I love period history and I’m finding myself just obsessed with MCM and even kitsch. There was innocence and optimism in the 50s and 60s. We have a yellowish-tan and black tile bathroom with black and white small square tile and we’ve been trying to maintain it, but we can’t find a handyman who will touch up and clean the grout. I guess it’s too small of a job. Also, the owner may have done the job himself because the grout lines between the tiles are very tight. We hired a handyman who abandoned the job because he didn’t have a blade small enough to remove the grout.
    Any suggestions for how to remove it?

  6. Pam Kueber says:

    Hi Kerri,
    Thanks for your nice comments.
    I am not an expert on removing grout, though. On issues like this, I recommend to talk to professionals. Good luck, Pam

  7. LoveMyRanch says:

    I have a 1960 mid century modest ranch that’s under 1,000 square feet.

    I love it. It still has many of original features, including a brick fireplace and hardwood floors with the original finish that’s been worn thin.

    I also have what my contractor calls “low end” wood framing around all the windows, doors, baseboards, etc. He’s suggested I replace it all with “higher end” stuff. I said, “Noooooo!”

    I still have the original kitchen cabinets. They’re made from plywood and were built in.

    I did replace the energy inefficient windows / storms with upgraded efficient ones. Sorry — Northeast. Winter. Cold.

  8. Kerry Gonzales says:

    Hi All,

    Our house was built in 1953. We bought from the original owner. While most of the original decor was “improved” over time we have made improvements but have tried to stay with a more bungalow/cottage/eclectic feel.

    Tore out a wood burning stove that came out 4 feet into a very tiny living/dining room. It was sitting on cinder blocks, on top of plastic, on top of orange shag carpet! Removed some awful stone from the fireplace to reveal the original teal brick (and mortar!). Alas that fell down as one large piece. However, we did keep the original fireplace downstairs and the funky wood art paneling above it.

    Fast forward 15 years and we now have the inside how we like it. The exterior is vinyl siding from the 1980s which we’d like to take off. There are a few houses on the street with the same “weeping mortar” as ours. I know lots of people hate it, but the more we drive around the neighborhood, the more we like it.

    My question to everyone… do any of you have weeping mortar brick houses? And if so, could you post photos. We need some inspiration.

    Thanks!

  9. Risë Hardy Kwake says:

    Pam–I love your writing in your mid-century modest manifesto–it resonates with me and my family! Thanks for sharing it (again)!

  10. L Parker says:

    I own two modest midcentury homes and appreciate what was put into the building of them very much. By recent standards they are small. But many people raised families in them and with ease.
    They were built in 1955, solid brick ranches, with marble window sills, honey colored hardwood floors, solid basements and garages.
    The kitchens that were put in them at the time were considered state of the art, and both have colored ceramic tiles in perfect condition in the bathrooms….one pink and aqua, one green and yellow. Nice sized yards. Close enough to the city to be convenient. Far enough in the burbs to be safe and comfortable. I have noticed new owners buying these houses and appreciating them too. They are affordable, but like anything else, once the word gets out that they are coveted for what they offer, they are getting more and more expensive. Oh, and they are paid for, too, which I think is major. Big mini mansions, you got nothing on me!

  11. Sarah says:

    Did anyone post any pics of renovated “mid century modest” exteriors? We are in a 1959 split level. Honey colored hardwood floors, small garage, only one and a half baths. My husband thinks it’s too small (approx 1400 sq ft) but it feels fine to me!
    We have vinyl siding that desperately needs to be removed. Not sure what we will replace it with… ideas welcome.
    Sarah in NY

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