'50s homes are now historical treasures

Published May 25, 2002|Updated Sept. 3, 2005

Your 1950s ranch house may be a historic treasure.

And those jalousie windows that make remodelers cringe? Hands off. They're original building material, as worthy of saving as hand-hewn clapboards on an 18th century residence.

Buildings at least 50 years old become eligible for designation as historically significant structures, based on the National Park Service's guidelines for preservation. So just as baby boomers become eligible for membership in AARP, the homes they grew up in the Leave It to Beaver years are eligible for historic designation.

That provides an opportunity to look back at the economic and government forces that shaped postwar housing.

"Advances in materials and technology, new attitudes about housing and significant government intervention" were the major forces that created the built environment 50 years ago, said Sherry Piland, a historic preservation planner with the city of West Palm Beach, at the Florida Trust for Historic Preservation's annual conference last week in St. Petersburg.

Plywood lap siding, plywood roofing, Celotex wallboard (made from Florida sugar cane) and artistic wall products, such as synthetic stone or brick and decorative concrete block, may have fallen from favor, but those materials of the time are worthy of preservation as examples of our recent past, Piland said.

"In the prewar decades, home building was the work of the craftsman," she said. "In the postwar years, it became more mechanized, with an emphasis on prefabricated elements" and a push for speed and productivity.

European architects exiled to the United States during World War II _ Walter Gropius, Richard Neutra, Marcel Breuer, Rudolph Schindler _ changed our notions of what a house should be, designing homes with open, modern floor plans and industrial materials.

The huge postwar demand for housing _ all those returning troops wanted to marry and start families _ created a building boom, spurred by government incentives that encouraged construction and created housing loans.

What did those houses look like? Look around you: the ranch, the contemporary home. They were essentially horizontal and flat-roofed, with big walls of glass that brought the outside in, carports or garages, sunken living rooms, terrazzo and Formica, clerestory windows, narrow Lally columns, and the emphasis turned inward, on a courtyard, patio or pool, rather than outward, to the street. The triumph of modernism is the interior layout, with open floor plans and few walls.

Piland listed some things she urged preservationists to keep in mind as these homes become eligible for historic designation.

Educating the public and local officials, who don't understand or appreciate the 1950s.

"So much of the '50s was cheap," said Bob Jeffrey, manager of urban design and historic preservation for the city of St. Petersburg and one of the Florida Trust for Historic Preservation conference's organizers. Distinctive details and craftsmanship often got lost in the rush for more, better, faster, which dumbed down architects' original designs into featureless, stultifying boxes. No wonder people hated them.

"People were not in love with the details and the materials," Jeffrey said. "As they become better educated, they see that there was a rhyme and reason, and they become aware that there's greatness among all that cheapness."

Not long ago, people looked at homes of the colonial and Victorian eras and wondered why those old wrecks were worth saving. That attitude has changed, and the hope is that similar thinking about the 1950s will evolve. People have begun to appreciate and value mid century modern furniture and original Formica patterns, which are still reasonably affordable to collect. It's no accident that Armstrong has reintroduced genuine linoleum in patterns that were popular in the 1950s.

All those are a start, Piland said: "If you start collecting that sort of thing, you'll want a 1950s house to put it in."

"People who grew up in this housing don't consider it historic, because then they'd have to consider themselves historic," she said. "Our typical historic districts in Florida are full of 1920s Mediterranean Revival and Spanish Mission housing. It takes a new mindset to look at a group of 1950s houses and consider that they have their own history and style."

The need to "take 1950s style seriously on a national level" and decide what and how we preserve, and how we survey and describe it. Though preservationists have agreed-upon vocabularies and standards for much older homes, they are struggling with what to call more recent structures and how to determine what's worth saving. "We may lose buildings before we recognize their significance," Piland said.

Making tough choices. Piland showed a slide of a 19th century building in New Orleans that was covered with a metal screen facade in the 1950s. Which do you save? "That '50s facade is now a historic element," she said. "Do you rip it off to preserve the 19th century building underneath, or do you maintain the facade as a sample of the 1950s commercial approach to architecture?"

A similar example stands at Fourth Street and Central Avenue in St. Petersburg. Here, the First National Bank, built in the 1920s, was covered in aluminum screening during the 1960s. The original concrete facade stands largely intact underneath. Should the screening be preserved to show what commercial architecture was like in the 1960s? Or should it be removed to reveal the original building?

Piland showed a slide of a classic 1950s motel that has been turned into migrant-worker housing. "It's a small building, it's very representative, but it's not lovely," she said.

She also showed a slide of a row of Quonset Huts, which were used by the military for storage or housing troops and later served commercial, industrial and agricultural uses. Some, she said, are on the National Register of Historic Places. "I'm looking forward to a whole Quonset Hut historic district in West Palm," she said. "We've got a whole street of them!"

Just as many people are only now acknowledging the value of '50s architecture, another neighborhood is seeking a place in the preservation spotlight: the African-American community.

"This community needs, more than anything, to be preserved," said Ralph Johnson, professor of architecture at Florida Atlantic University in Fort Lauderdale. But instead of being developing communities, he said, all too often communities of color are "a developing void."

Residents who left for the suburbs now want to move back to escape long commutes and sprawl, "but when they try to come back to town, where is anything left? There's just that void. What was once a thriving place is disappearing," he said.

Typically in an African-American community, Johnson said, there would be "the most substantial and impressive house" belonging to "the great doctor" but little else of acknowledged architectural distinction or substantial building quality. We can romanticize shotgun cottages as "timber vernacular," he said, but they likely were undistinguished, not built by name architects or builders, and not significant in style. "Not too many people could write," he said, so the communities had no written history or documentation of structures. The result: no incentive to preserve them.

The exceptions, he said, are churches and schools, the communities' most important institutions. The school's role was unique, Johnson said, "because we knew the one thing that would get us out of the ghetto was education."

Now the simple, classic residences of the African-American community are winning respect for historic value and design, Johnson said. A cottage in Key West on masonry-block piers with signature louvered shutters would sell now for $500,000, he said. The bright green and blue colors that symbolize African tradition and spirituality are acknowledged as important design elements.

Annette Howard, past president of the 22nd Street S Redevelopment Corp. in St. Petersburg, showed slides of structures in that community that have survived, such as the Manhattan Casino and the Royal Theater. "There was no better place than where we were," she told the audience. "We were just living. We didn't know it would be history to other generations."



The Florida Trust for Historic Preservation has a Web site at

The National Trust for Historic Preservation's Web site is at For information about its Main Street program, which revitalizes downtowns, visit

St. Petersburg Preservation Inc. can be reached at (727) 824-7802. Tampa Preservation Inc. can be reached at (813) 248-5437.

What should preservationists retain? For example, beneath its 1960s-era aluminum grille, the 1920s First National Bank, at Fourth Street and Central Avenue in St. Petersburg, retains its granite arches, dentil molding and window hoods. Yet both architectural styles speak to the preferences of their time.