When most people think about the post-World War II era of the 1950’s, among the things they think about are iconic TV shows like “Howdy Doody” and “The Ed Sullivan Show,” presidents Truman and Eisenhower, Rock-n-Roll, the emergence of teen culture, James Dean and Marilyn Monroe movies, and the Cold War. But historical preservationists equate the ’50’s with Mid-Century Modern architecture.
WHAT INFLUENCED MID-CENTURY MODERN DESIGN PHILOSOPHIES?
Escaping Nazi oppression, founders of the 1920’s Bauhaus movement, such as Mies van der Roche and Walter Gropius, brought their concepts of clean lines, angular compositions, and simple forms with them to America. The basic tenets of the Bauhaus movement blended with American architectural traditions, particularly Arts and Crafts and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Prairie School designs, and evolved into what is called Mid-Century Modern Architecture, which extends beyond the contraction of houses to furniture and interior design and is characterized by the use of modern materials, horizontal composition, large expanses of plate glass (including sliding glass doors), open floor plans, and are typically one-story residential buildings. Often there are changes in elevation within the home design that make it distinctly different from ranch-style homes, creating a fresh new architecture that didn’t harken back to the past.
MID-CENTURY MODERN DEFINING CHARACTERISTICS
Classic modern houses are one story, spread out, and horizontal
Flat, sometimes slight single pitch, often asymmetrical
Floor to ceiling glass in living sections, horizontal strips in less public areas of the house
STRUCTURAL & FACEWORK MATERIALS
No character defining material … stone, brick, wood siding (both vertical and horizontal clapboard) were all used … possible decoration: larger chimney made of brick or stone
SPATIAL DESIGNATION & FLOOR PLAN
Very open plans, usually with kitchen, dining area, and living room as one continuous space … carports are common with the roofline acting as an extension of the main horizontal roof … basements and attics are rare
Substantial and made of stone … often appears at the peak of the roof
Somewhat formal main entrance with decoration limited to a floor to ceiling glass sidelight … often enters directly into the kitchen or utility room from the carport
White initially, with warmer and natural colors introduced later in the period
PRESERVATION CHALLENGES: MID-CENTURY MODERN ARCHITECTURE
Mid-Century Modern Architecture is characterized by its progressive designs and minimalist aesthetics that became popular in the post-World War II era, and contrast with their ranch-style counterparts, due to the fact that the designs make no reference to earlier building styles, like the Colonial Revival. The goal of Mid-Century Modern designers was to create a look that broke with the past, which often lent itself to outlandish details and futuristic elements that might appear more at home in science fiction.
The way things were built, including houses, changed after WWII. There was a demand for new construction for returning GI’s who needed housing for their families. Prior to the war, during the Great Depression (1929-1939), there wasn’t much new construction outside of public works projects that were created as part of the New Deal, and in the early 1940’s all resources were devoted to the war effort. Due to the housing demand, a system was developed to create housing fast and economically, as expansion into the suburbs, a phenomenon that began in early 1900’s, continued.
GI’s not only needed housing, but also jobs, which increased the existing labor force. Materials were made to be installed by less skilled labor. Manufacturers began making building materials that were meant to be replaced rather than repaired, which created a workforce of product installers rather than skilled craftsman (a trend that continues today).
The modern construction techniques allowed architects to experiment with forms and materials. Steel framing, first used in Chicago skyscrapers at the turn of the century, was used in Mid-Century Modern buildings, and enabled architects to create the walls of glass and open floor plans that characterize the style. Open floor plans were designed to promote more casual and integrated living spaces that could accommodate a variety of uses. Large expanses of glass framed by thin structural elements allowed for more contact with nature.
So, you own a Mid-Century Modern house, how can you tell if it’s considered an historic structure?
A building older than 50 years (or newer building if a historically significant event took place there), is eligible for the National Historic Register. Of course, there are other criteria, which you can find by visiting the “Eligibility” page at:
and the “How to Apply the National Register Criteria for Evaluation” page at: