Selling the Minimal Traditional Style to 1940s America

01
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Minimal Decoration After the Great Depression

Small, white house with front gable on right and centered front door entrance under pediment overhang
Minimal Traditional Home, White With Black Shutters. Photo by J. Castro / Moment Mobile / Getty Images (cropped)

Chances are good that many Americans lived in a "minimal modern" style of house at some point. Displaying little decoration but traditional in design, these inexpensive but basic homes were built in great numbers throughout the United States from America's Great Depression to the end of and recovery from World War II. Described in McAlester's Field Guide to American Houses as Minimal Traditional, the architecture was practical, functional, and no-nonsense.

As Americans became more prosperous, this "plain vanilla" style lost its popularity. "Minimal" died out while more ornate designs became affordably popular. Developers tried enhancing this "starter home" by adding more and more architectural details—seen here are shutters and a pediment overhang on the front door. The house plans on the following pages, particularly "Panarama," "Colonial Heritage," and "Contemporary View," show how 1950s developers attempted to market these plain houses to a more modern audience.

Sources:

  • Martin, Sara K. et al. Post-World War II Residential Architecture in Maine: A Guide for Surveyors. Maine Historic Preservation Commission, 2008–2009. PDF accessed February 7, 2012.
  • McAlester, Virginia and Lee. Field Guide to American Houses. New York. Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. 1984.

02
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"Nosegay" - Completely Symmetrical With Attached Garage

1950s floor plan and rendering of Minimal Traditional modern style house called Nosegay
1950s Floor Plan and Rendering of Minimal Traditional Modern Style House Called Nosegay. Photo © Buyenlarge / Archive Photos / Getty Images (cropped)

A "nosegay" is a small bouquet of flowers, which aptly describes this compact home design. Minimally decorated with sculpted trim along the cross gable, all 818 square feet of this expandable home would make a good start for any family.

Why is this a Minimal Traditional Design?

  • small (under 1,000 square feet), one story with an attic
  • minimal decoration
  • low or moderately pitched roof, with minimal overhang
  • side gable with a front-facing cross gable
  • front door entrance under the front cross gable
  • shutters on windows
  • chimney not prominent
  • exterior siding of wood, brick, or a mix of siding

Marketing This House Plan:

Attached garages were modern additions, but more often they were truly "attached," as in Floor Plan for a Small Cape Cod Home. Symmetrically Incorporating a garage into the design appeals to a post-WWII audience. Compare this garage design with the Neocolonial "Camalot" House Plan. The Neocolonial is larger with more decoration. Minimal traditional promotes growth—expansion to the attic second floor makes this design a very affordable starter home, similar to the Larchwood home design.

03
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"Sweet Neighbor" - A Petite Modern Bungalow

1950s floor plan and rendering of Minimal Traditional modern style house called Sweet Neighbor
1950s Floor Plan and Rendering of Minimal Traditional Modern Style House Called Sweet Neighbor. Photo © Buyenlarge / Archive Photos / Getty Images

Except for its small size of under 1,000 square feet, this design looks nothing like a typical American Bungalow. The word "bungalow" may be a more popular and inviting word than the not-too-sexy "minimal traditional."

Why is this a Minimal Traditional Design?

  • small, one story with an attic
  • minimal decoration
  • low or moderately pitched roof, with minimal overhang
  • side gable with a front-facing cross gable
  • front door entrance under the front cross gable
  • shutters
  • chimney not prominent
  • exterior siding of wood, brick, or a mix of siding

Marketing This House Plan:

To attract an upwardly mobile population, this design was sold as "basically Colonial in architecture" instead of architecturally "minimal." Compare the more Colonial sculpted porch posts with the more minimal port posts of the Nosegay home design.

04
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"Quiet Space" - Charm and Economy Combined

1950s floor plan and rendering of Minimal Traditional modern style house called Quiet Space
1950s Floor Plan and Rendering of Minimal Traditional Modern Style House Called Quiet Space. Photo © Buyenlarge / Archive Photos / Getty Images (cropped)

Not all Minimal Traditional designs have front-facing cross gables, as seen in the Nosegay house design. "Quiet Space" could easily be categorized as a modern ranch style, much like the Tranquility house plan sold by the same company. The modern windows, wide front porch, and prominent fireplace and chimney create a simple or "minimal" ranch. At this time in American architectural history, residential designs and styles were being mixed to appeal to a growing and diverse population.

Why is this a Minimal Traditional Design?

  • small, with or without a basement
  • minimal decorations
  • low or moderately pitched roof, with minimal overhang
  • side gable
  • exterior siding of wood, brick, or a mix of siding

Marketing This House Plan:

This is a very small house with or without the optional basement. Providing a utility room in place of basement stairs is an interesting option for the future homeowner.

05
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"Sportsman" - Minimal Colonial-Like Tradition

1950s floor plan and rendering of Minimal Traditional modern style house called Sportsman
1950s Floor Plan and Rendering of Minimal Traditional Modern Style House Called Sportsman. Photo © Buyenlarge / Archive Photos / Getty Images (cropped)

This 795 square foot "five room home" includes a front-facing dinette. Other Minimal Traditional designs of this era also have street-side dining areas, including the Sweet Neighbor, Quiet Space, Panarama, and Larchwood floor plans.

Why is this a Minimal Traditional Design?

  • small, one story with an attic
  • minimal decoration
  • low or moderately pitched roof, with minimal overhang
  • side gable with a front-facing cross gable
  • front door entrance under the front cross gable
  • shutters
  • chimney not prominent
  • exterior siding of wood, brick, or a mix of siding

Marketing This House Plan:

Look closely at the illustration. Who can resist a child with a Hula Hoop®? She must be the real "Sportsman" of the house.

06
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"Birchwood" - A Small, Brick House

1950s floor plan and rendering of Minimal Traditional modern style house called Birchwood
1950s Floor Plan and Rendering of Minimal Traditional Modern Style House Called Birchwood. Photo © Buyenlarge / Archive Photos / Getty Images (cropped)

At a mere 903 square feet, this floor plan adds an illustration of a built-in storage wall, "for Orderliness in Limited Space."

Why is this a Minimal Traditional Design?

  • small, one story with an attic
  • minimal decoration
  • low or moderately pitched roof, with minimal overhang
  • side gable with a front-facing cross gable
  • front door entrance near the front cross gable
  • shutters
  • chimney not prominent
  • exterior siding of wood, brick, or a mix of siding

Marketing This House Plan:

Marketed as a "five room brick home," the street-side bay window maximizes this Minimal Traditional design. "The simplification of its Colonial exterior," says the copy on this design plan, "definitely follows the modern trend."

07
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"Larchwood" - Minimal Cape Cod Charm

1950s floor plan and rendering of Minimal Traditional modern style house called Larchwood
1950s Floor Plan and Rendering of Minimal Traditional Modern Style House Called Larchwood. Photo © Buyenlarge / Archive Photos / Getty Images (cropped)

Some might call the "Larchwood" home plan a modern Cape Cod style, similar to the Cranberry home design sold by the same company. Minimal Traditional design incorporates traditional styles. The name larch is a type of conifer tree, so larchwood is a type of common pine. With only 784 square feet, the house could use that pine to enlarge the tiny attached garage. This garage is a foot more narrow than the garage of the Panarama plan, but both designs use the breezeway / garage combination to create overall visual width.

Why is this a Minimal Traditional Design?

  • small, one story with an attic
  • minimal decoration
  • low or moderately pitched roof, with minimal overhang
  • side gable with a front-facing cross gable
  • front door entrance under the front cross gable
  • shutters
  • chimney not prominent
  • exterior siding of wood, brick, or a mix of siding

Marketing This House Plan:

Residential designs were created to appeal to wide variety of America's booming aflluent population. Like the Nosegay design, expansion to the upper floor is promoted as an option. The attached garage was a popular addition for a post-war population—even if you didn't own a car, the neighbors would think you did.

08
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"Contemporary View" - Modified Contemporary Design

1950s floor plan and rendering of Minimal Traditional style house called contemporary-view
1950s Floor Plan and Rendering of Minimal Traditional Style House With Modern Modifications. Photo © Buyenlarge / Archive Photos / Getty Images (cropped)

At 1,017 square feet, this floor plan is a larger design within the Mid-Century Minimal Traditional Floorplan series. Minimal Traditional style is sometimes referred to as Minimal Modern.

Why is this a Minimal Traditional Design?

  • small, one story with an attic
  • minimal decoration
  • low or moderately pitched roof, with minimal overhang
  • side gable with a front-facing cross gable
  • front door entrance near the front cross gable
  • mix of exterior siding

Marketing This House Plan:

Like the Quiet Space design, "Contemporary View" is a mix of styles, including ranch, modern, and minimal traditional. The roof and chimney are similar to ranch styles, such as those found in the "Gables" House Plan, but the use of glass block and corner windows provides a more "contemporary view." Modern modifications of minimal traditional design would make this a more popular choice for new homeowners in America.

09
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"Colonial Heritage" - Harmony in Brick and Frame

1950s floor plan and rendering of Minimal Traditional modern style house called Colonial Heritage
1950s Floor Plan and Rendering of Minimal Traditional Modern Style House Called Colonial Heritage. Photo © Buyenlarge / Archive Photos / Getty Images (cropped)

This small home of 965 square feet shows at least three bay windows in the plan—in the living area, the dining space, and in the master bedroom. Bay windows provide more interior space and create a more interesting exterior architecture. Bay windows tend to "maximize" minimal decorative design.

Why is this a Minimal Traditional Design?

  • small, one story with an attic
  • low or moderately pitched roof, with minimal overhang (except over the front door)
  • side gable, with a front-facing cross gable attached garage
  • front door entrance near the front cross gable
  • shutters on the upper floor window
  • mix of exterior siding

Marketing This House Plan:

Minimal decoration can be difficult to market, so architectural details often were added. In addition to the trio of bay windows, this house's oval window within the brick chimney promotes modernity within a "colonial heritage." A variety of windows, doors, and siding "maximizes" the decoration of this Minimal Traditional design.

10
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"Panarama" - Full Front Gables

1950s floor plan and rendering of Minimal Traditional modern style house called Panarama
1950s Floor Plan and Rendering of Minimal Traditional Modern Style House Called Panarama. Photo © Buyenlarge / Archive Photos / Getty Images (cropped)

Like the Colonial Heritage house plan, "Panarama" has details similar to ranch, colonial, and modern house styles.

Why is this a Minimal Traditional Design?

  • small, one story with an attic
  • minimal decoration
  • low or moderately pitched roof, with minimal overhang
  • front door entrance under the front gable
  • chimney not prominent
  • exterior siding of wood, brick, or a mix of siding

Why is this a Vernacular house?

"The architecture is basically Colonial" says the house plan's text, but from which colony? Developers sometimes call houses of mixed style "neocolonial" or "Colonial," because the style actually fits nowhere. Some have called these houses vernacular. One field guide describes vernacular houses as "those that are either so simple they lack enough detail to fit an architectural style, or that combine elements from so many styles the resulting house can't be categorized."*

Marketing This House Plan:

The breezeway with attached garage is used to create width to the design, similar to the Larchwood house plan. Depth is also incorporated into the 826 square feet by a "projecting front wing" made of glass. A similar technique is used with bay windows in the Colonial Heritage house plan.

*SOURCE: Martin, Sara K. et al. Post-World War II Residential Architecture in Maine: A Guide for Surveyors. Maine Historic Preservation Commission, 2008–2009, p. 34. PDF online [accessed September 19, 2012].