The last hope for humanity: the Mid-Century house?
By Michael Good | HouseCalls
Some things — usually the wrong things — tend to stick in one’s mind. In the early 1980s, my college poetry professor said in passing that the 1960s were the last flowering of mankind. This was in a class about the drug-fueled literature of an earlier era, the 18th century pleasure-palace poetics of Samuel Taylor Coleridge (“It was a miracle of rare device, a sunny pleasure-dome made of ice!”).
Not much else from that class stuck with me, other than the unintended lesson of “Kubla Khan” — basically never answer the door when you’re in the middle of writing something (Coleridge lost his train of thought when a visitor came to his door, and never finished the poem). “Kubla Khan” remains one the greatest examples of a lost poem in English literature, a reminder that, through inattention, something fabulous can be lost forever. As for the idea that the ’60s were the last oasis of enlightenment before we descended into our present state of Internet-fueled anxiety, what had once seemed like the wacky musings of an inveterate hippy began to seem almost prescient recently as I was contemplating the current exhibit at the La Historical Society’s museum on the disciples of Frank Lloyd Wright.
Poetry — and mankind — may rise again, but it’s beginning to look like residential architecture may never regain the enlightened status it achieved in the ’60s. This was a time when a house was defined by something other than the need to impress guests with the immensity of your square footage. The Mid-Century Modern and its cousin the California Ranch were hopeful and open-minded, democratic and accessible, full of integrity and invention; houses that testified to the triumph of technology, the value of a well-educated citizenry and the possibility of progress — for everyone. They were built of low-cost, mass-produced materials — that was part of their DNA. But the reason for using these inexpensive materials was to free up the budget for innovative design. The emphasis was on style and function, not square footage. No wonder most builders stopped making them in the ’80s.
Between 1940 and 1980, millions of Mid-Century houses were built in Southern California, often in housing tracts, but also on vacant lots scattered throughout Mission Hills, Point Loma, North Park, Talmadge, Mt. Helix and La Jolla. Today, like the bungalow in the 1980s, their very ubiquity threatens their survival. How could they be endangered if there are so many of them? But the Mid-Century house, particularly the Ranch, hasn’t gotten much attention — or respect — from preservationists, and few have been designated as historic. So they’re fair game for house flippers and home-gutters.
As for the Mid-Century Modern, it’s being loved to death by Internet-educated buyers, who have adopted the open-it-up/brighten-it-up mantra, tearing down walls and slapping white paint on everything in sight before stopping to consider what is original and what is worth saving. As a result, there aren’t as many intact Mid-Century Moderns in San Diego as you might be led to believe by all those real estate listings. And once a redwood wall has been painted over, or outdoor patio has been enclosed, it’s hard to convince the Modern owner to return to the past.
The Mid-Century Modern and California Ranch houses share a common heritage — and some common features — but can be starkly different in appearance and philosophy. The Mid-Century Modern presented an opportunity for architects to design imaginative, artistic houses that were also affordable. They accomplished this by using innovative (and inexpensive) materials such as plywood, tongue-and-groove siding and roof decking, concrete block, aluminum sliding doors and plate glass. They also employed modern building techniques — post-and-beam construction, concrete slabs, mass-produced hollow core doors and flat roofs that didn’t require trusses and used less roofing material. The effect was completely modern, forward-looking and unconnected to any previous historical style, creating an open appearance and blending the indoors and outdoors into a nearly seamless experience.
The California Ranch shared the Modern house’s low-slung appearance and broad floor plan. But it was based on an historical precedent — the ranch house of the Californios, the early settlers of 18th and early-19th century California. This connection was somewhat fanciful, as the adobe houses, like the missions, were extensively remodeled over the years. San Diegan Cliff May, a descendent of the Estudillo family, created a very contemporary reimagining of the Mexican Hacienda in Mission Hills and Talmadge in the early 1930s. Over the years he modified his Ranch house, eventually producing a wood and stucco version that barely resembled his earlier haciendas. But many characteristics remained, including the single story L-shaped plan, oriented around a courtyard patio. May’s main contribution might have been to turn the house around and wall it off, focusing family life on the backyard.
Those who subscribe to the Great Man Theory of Everything often credit Frank Lloyd Wright or Mies Van Der Rohe with the invention of Modernism. But it was really a group effort, a case of great minds thinking alike. (Same goes for the Ranch, despite May’s outsized contribution.) Modernism was on everyone’s mind 100 years ago. Writers, painters, dancers, poets, musicians, filmmakers, artists and architects — everyone was trying to break from tradition. For architects, all of this would have been nothing more than idle musing if it wasn’t for a series of massive cultural shifts that took place between the 1930s and 1950s. (After all, Frank Lloyd Wright was able to build only four houses during the 1920s.) These four events made Mid-Century Modern possible:
The Federal Housing Administration: In 1934, the Federal Housing Administration created a booklet of guidelines that dictated how a house could be built if the buyer wanted to get an FHA loan. The first page of the booklet used the word “simple” five times to describe the government-regulation house. These guidelines killed the bungalow, with its elaborate built-ins and highly detailed wooden exterior. In the 1950s, builders were still following those guidelines, and the FHA was still denying loans for houses that were too elaborate.
The 30-year mortgage: Previously, homeowners saved until they could buy a lot, and got a short-term loan to pay a builder to build a house. The long-term mortgage and the GI Bill made the American dream possible. The FHA favored large builders and told them how to design housing tracts, with the arterial road system, shopping malls and freeways.
The automobile. Big developments such as Clairemont wouldn’t have been possible without the automobile. Same goes for all the custom Ranches and Moderns dotting the hillsides of Mt. Helix, La Mesa, Point Loma and La Jolla. The automobile changed the way ’50s houses were designed, too. The garage or carport was moved front and center. There was no longer any need for an alley. There was no longer any room for a porch. And America turned inward.
The television: The “front room” moved to the back of the house, where the TV, fireplace and sliding glass door leading to the patio resided. The television also invited Americans into the living rooms of their role models, the imaginary characters on situation comedies that became their friends. The nation was introduced to Mid-Century design by Rob and Laura Petrie. In the sort of weird twist that only happens in television, architect Craig Ellwood’s family played his ideal family in photo shoots and ads for his home designs. And in an alternate universe, his wife, an actress, played the mother of a different family, on television in “Dennis the Menace.”
In the early 1960s, as freeways and apartments began replacing bungalows, architectural historian Robert Winter began his campaign to bring respect to the all-too-familiar bungalow. He wrote books, he lectured to homeowner associations and historical groups, he even purchased and restored the bungalow of famed tile maker Ernest Batchelder. In San Diego, we have our Modern version of Bungalow Bob — Keith York, a Mid-Century fan who manages a website devoted to the subject (“Modern San Diego”) and lives in a house by Craig Ellwood.
York has curated a show for the La Jolla Historical Society called “Frank Lloyd Wright’s Legacy.” Through his apprenticeship program, Wright influenced many Modern architects, including five who worked in San Diego. The exhibit at Wisteria Cottage, 780 Prospect St., includes period photographs, models, and furniture by these Modernists. There also is a self-guided automobile tour, which you’ll find online as well. Like the Mid-Century Modern, the show won’t last forever. It closes Jan. 17.
—Contact Michael Good at firstname.lastname@example.org.