Smart Mid-Century Houses
Optimism and hope were dominant features of Post WWII America. There were GI benefits to be had and the country welcomed veterans back to work with extended arms. Industrious developers set about satisfying the huge demand for housing as millions of young people busily started families of four, five and six kids. Women went back to staying at home after spending their war years substituting for men in factories and plants, trying to like being June Cleavor. Some social scientists even propose that the little-woman-staying-at-home syndrome was in part popularized by American culture as a response to men actually feeling threatened by the short-term independence that women experienced while the men folk were away at war. Guys wanted their wives pregnant and safely tucked away at home during the 1950s.
The homes that were prepared for these families were designed to be an affordable reward for service to one's country. You could afford one of the 900 to 1,000 square foot houses on a school teacher's or milkman's salary. Houses built in 1947 in Levittown, New York originally sold for under $8,000 and were designed based on extreme economy. In part this was achieved by eliminating basements and garages and for the first time, laying plumbing pipes right into the cement slab foundations.
This concept spread across the country. Arapahoe Acres in Englewoood, Colorado, south of Denver, was the brain child of a Czech emigre Eugene Sternberg who intended to sell his little homes for $10,000 in 1949. His designs were clever and he outfitted them with sliding walls and lots of built-in storage to maximize efficiency of limited space. Los Angeles's Mar Vista Tract, a shady enclave of 52 little homes was designed by architect Gregory Ain and landscape designer Garrett Eckbo. The houses were 1,060 square foot flat roofed structures that used accordion folding walls to encourage homeowners to re-configure space according to needs.
Phoenix, Arizona reflects even more innovation postwar planning because of the mostly flat desert terrain. Builders had few obstacles and could build forever. Now on the Neighborhood Historic District lists is Village Grove, a ranch style subdivision built in the late 1950s and Town and Country that featured something called a "car-patio". The ideas was for the carport and patio to be combined.
The houses were modest and not grand palaces. They were adequate and not outrageous, yet new concepts were introduced like the idea of a kitchen opening right into the living room and flexible accordion-like walls. Truth is: We cannot afford the McMansions of the last twenty years. We need our own version of the small, smart houses of the 1950s.