Guide to Mid-Century Homes, 1930 to 1965

Housing for the American Middle Class

Aerial View of Suburban Homes in Texas, outline of streets and cul-de-sacs, identical lot sizes
Suburban Homes. Robert Daemmrich Photography Inc/Getty Images

Architecture is a picture book of economic and social history. The rise of America's middle class during the mid-20th century can be traced in the movement from 1920s-era Bungalows to the practical homes that evolved in rapidly expanding suburbs and exurbs, especially in areas with a high population density. Mid-century modern became a style not only of architecture, but also of furniture and other design. This guide to single-family homes describes an American middle class as it struggled, grew, moved, and built. Many of these dwellings changed the face of the United States and became the very homes we occupy today.

Minimal Traditional

white house, minimal windows, front gable, door tucked in corner
Post-Depression Minimal Traditional House. Jackie Craven

America's Great Depression brought economic hardships that limited the types of homes families could build. The stark design of the Post-Depression Minimal Traditional house highlights the struggle. The simple architecture is often called "Colonial" by realtors, but the McAlesters' Field Guide best describes the home as minimal in decoration and traditional in style. Other names appropriately include "Minimal Transitional" and "Minimal Modern."

Minimal Variations

small side gable home with steep front gable, gable with rounded bottom over door
Minimal Neo-Tudor Style Adaptation. Jackie Craven

As the middle class became wealthier, ornamentation returned in a restrained way. The Minimal Tudor Cottage is more elaborate than the Minimal Traditional house style, but not nearly as elaborate as the "Medieval Revival" Tudor house style of the late 1800s and early 20th century.

Exposed half-timbers, stone, and brick detailing were expensive, so the Minimal Traditional style turned to wood construction. The mid-century Minimal Tudor Cottage maintains the steep roof pitch of the Tudor Cottage, but often only within the cross gable. The decorative arched entry reminds neighbors that these occupants may be slightly better off financially than their Minimal Traditional neighbors. The practice of "Tudorizing" was also common for Cape Cod style houses.

Cape Cod and Other Colonial Styles

simple white houses with roof dormers under construction
Cape Cod Houses in 1940s Suburbia. Charles Phelps Cushing/ClassicStock/Getty Images (cropped)

A small, functional house style suited the British colonists of 1600s New England. As the post-war American middle class grew in the 1950s, regions of the U.S. revisited their colonial roots. Practical Cape Cod houses became a staple in U.S. suburbs — often updated with a more modern siding, like aluminum or asbestos-cement shingles. Some people began to proclaim their individuality with unusual installations of common exterior siding, such as the diagonal siding on the facade of this otherwise commonplace mid-century Cape Cod.

Developers also embraced simplified versions of Georgian Colonials, Spanish Colonial, and other American colonial styles.

Usonian Houses

American architecture legend Frank Lloyd Wright was a well-established, elderly architect (in his 60s) when the stock market crashed in 1929. Recovery from the Great Depression inspired Wright to develop the Usonian house. Based on Wright's popular Prairie Style, Usonian homes had less ornamentation and were a bit smaller than the Prairie homes. Usonians were intended to control the cost of housing while maintaining an artistic design. But, although more economical than a Prairie house, Usonian homes proved to be more expensive than the average middle class family could afford. Still, they are functional houses still privately owned, lived in, and loved by their owners — and they are often on the open market for sale. They inspired a new generation of architects to take seriously modest but beautiful residential designs for the middle-class, working family.

Ranch Styles

horizontal oriented typical ranch style house, dominant chimney and garage
Midcentury Ranch Style Home. Jackie Craven

During the dark era of America's Great Depression, California architect Cliff May combined Arts & Crafts styling with Frank Lloyd Wright's Prairie architecture to design what later became known as the Ranch style. Perhaps inspired by Wright's California Hollyhock House, early Ranches were quite complex,. By the end of World War II real estate developers seized on the idea to build a flurry of simple, affordable homes that could be quickly constructed in America's rapidly expanding suburbs. The one-stoy Ranch quickly gave way to the Raised Ranch and the Split Level.

Levittown and the Rise of Suburbs

Vintage illustration of a fashionable housewife standing in front of her new pink kitchen, 1957
Typical Midcentury Kitchen. GraphicaArtis/Getty Images (cropped)

At the end of World War II, soldiers returned home to start families and new lives. Nearly 2.4 million veterans received government-backed home loans between 1944 and 1952 through the GI Bill. The housing market was flooded with opportunities, and the millions of new Baby Boomers and their families had places to live.

William J. Levitt was also a returning veteran, but, being the son of real estate investor Abraham Levitt, he took advantage of the GI Bill in a different way. In 1947, William J. Levitt joined forces with his brother to build simple homes on a large tract of land on Long Island, New York. In 1952, the brothers repeated their feat outside of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Mass-produced tract housing developments called Levitttown welcomed the white middle class with open arms.

The Levitts offered six models for their Pennsylvania Levittown. All models freely adapted ideas from Frank Lloyd Wright's Usonian vision — natural lighting, open and expandable floor plans, and the merging of exterior and interior spaces. A common feature of all midcentury housing was the modern kitchen, complete with pink, yellow, green, or white appliances and decor.

Other developers adopted the idea of tract housing, and suburbia was born. Suburban growth contributed not only to the rise of middle class American consumerism, but also the rise of suburban sprawl. Many people also suggest that the Civil Rights Movement was advanced by the struggle to integrate the all-white neighborhoods built by Levitt & Sons.

Prefabricated Houses

Ohio-made Lustron prefabricated homes resemble one-story Ranch style houses. Visually and structurally, however, Lustrons are distinct. Although the original steel roofs have long-since been replaced, the two-foot-square panels of porcelain-enameled steel siding is characteristic of Lustron. Colored in one of four pastel shades — maize yellow, dove grey, surf blue, or desert tan — Lustron siding gives these houses their distinctive look.

The idea of prefabricated housing — factory-made mass-produced parts shipped like self-contained Erector Sets to a construction site — was not a new idea in the 1940s or 1950s. In fact, many cast-iron buildings were produced this way in the late 1800s and shipped all over the world. Later, in the mid-twentieth century, factory-built mobile homes gave rise to entire communities of steel housing. But the Lustron Corporation in Columbus, Ohio put a modern spin on the idea of prefab metal homes, and orders for these affordable houses poured in.

For a variety of reasons, the company could not keep pace with the demand. Only 2,680 Lustron houses were manufactured between 1947 and 1951, ending the dream of Swedish inventor and industrialist Carl G. Strandlund. About 2,000 still stand, marking a significant moment in the history of American residential architecture.

Like the Lustron home, the Quonset hut is a prefabricated, steel structure of distinctive style. Romney huts and Iris huts were WWII modifications of a WWI British design called a Nissen hut. By the time the U.S. entered WWII, the military was building another version at the Quonset Point Naval Air Station in Rhode Island. The U.S. military used Quonset huts for quick and easy storage and shelters during 1940s wartime.

Because these structures were already familiar to returning WWII veterans, Quonset huts were converted into homes during a post-war housing crisis. Some may argue that the Quonset hut is not a style but an anomaly. Still, these oddly shaped but practical dwellings represent an interesting solution to the high demand for housing during the 1950s.

Dome-Inspired Homes

Visionary inventor and philosopher Buckminster Fuller conceived the geodesic dome as a housing solution for a struggling planet. Other architects and designers built upon Fuller's ideas to create a variety of dome-shaped dwellings. Los Angeles architect John Lautner may have apprenticed with Frank Lloyd Wright, but the space-age house shown here, designed in 1960 for aerospace engineer Leonard Malin, was most certainly influenced by geodesic dome engineering.

Domed structures are amazingly energy-efficient and hold up especially well during natural disasters. During the 1960s and 1970s, custom-designed dome homes sprouted in sparsely populated areas, like the American Southwest. Still, domes remained more common in military camps and outstations than residential neighborhoods. Despite the need to economize and conserve natural resources, American tastes have run toward more traditional housing types and styles.

A-Frame Houses

interior space, angled ceiling, wall of windows, stone fireplace, clerestory windows
Living Room in A-Frame House. Alan Weintraub/Getty Images (cropped)

Several mid-20th century architects experimented with triangular shapes, but until the 1950s tent-like A-frame homes were mostly reserved for seasonal vacation dwellings. By then, mid-century modernists were exploring all sorts of unusual roof configurations. For a brief time, odd-looking A-frame styling became popular for upscale houses in trendy neighborhoods. Adopting Craftsman-like decor, the interiors of A-frames are filled with wood beams, stone fireplaces, and often floor to ceiling windows.

Mid-Century Modern

modern house, flat roof, overhang beams, flor-to-ceiling windows, palm trees surround
Frank Capra's Fabulous 1950s Midcentury Modern Home Designed by Architect A. Quincy Jones. George Gutenberg/Getty Images (cropped)

The post-war ranch house was freely adapted and modified in the 1950s and early 1960s. Developers, building suppliers, and architects published pattern books with plans for one-story homes. Frank Lloyd Wright's Prairie Style design quickly became a prototype for mid-century modernism, as seen in this Modified Ranch. International Styles found in commercial buildings were incorporated into residential construction. On the  West Coast of the United States, Mid-Century Modernism is often referred to as Desert Modernism, and two developers dominated.

Joseph Eichler was a real estate developer born to European Jewish parents in New York — like William J. Levitt. Unlike the Levitts, however, Eichler stood for racial equality in home-buying — a belief that some say affected his business success in 1950s America. Eichler designs were copied and freely adapted throughout the California housing boom.

In Southern California, George and Robert Alexander's construction company helped define the modern style, especially in Palm Springs. Alexander Construction worked with several architects, including Donald Wexler, to develop prefabricated, modern home styles constructed with steel.

In the 1960s, American ideals began to change again. Modesty went out the window, and "more" became the operating system. One-story ranch houses quickly became two-stories, like the 1970s-era ranch shown here, because bigger was better. Carports and one-bay garages became two- and three-bay garages. A squared-bay window one might have seen on a Lustron home decades earlier is added to the once-simple ranch design.

Sources

  • Levittown Historical Society (New York), http://www.levittownhistoricalsociety.org/
  • Levittown Owners (Pennsylvania), http://www.levittowners.com/
  • Lustron Preservation. Lustron Company Fact Sheet, 1949-1950, www.lustronpreservation.org/wp-content/uploads/2007/10/lustron-pdf-factsheet.pdf
  • Lustron Preservation. Lustron History at www.lustronpreservation.org/meet-the-lustrons/lustron-history
  • McAlester, Virginia and Lee. Field Guide to American Houses. New York. Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. 1984, pp. 478, 497
  • U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. "The GI BILL's History," http://www.gibill.va.gov/benefits/history_timeline/index.html

Architecture has always been a visual representation of a society's economy. Taste and style are the architect's domain.