June 28, 2016

Intermittent clouds

Post-war housing styles

Medina Community Design Committee

In 1946, nearly 13 million people returned from active service, anxious to start a new life in their own little house. The booming post-war economy and a generous program for vets — the Servicemen’s Readjustment Art (G. I. Bill) provided federally insured 30-year mortgages with no down payment and low interest rates.

There had been a housing shortage before the war, due to the Depression. Housing starts fell from 937,000 in 1925 to 93,000 in 1933. By the end of the war, 3,600,000 American families needed homes.

Although money was available, first-time homeowners were not looking for large homes. Inflation was high, there was a shortage of materials and contractors with so many customers preferred to erect many small houses rather than fewer large ones. The average post-war house was smaller than that prior to 1940.

Builders weren’t content to put up a house here or there on a vacant lot. Fields and pastures sprang into instant neighborhoods, the birth of the “tract” or “allotment” house. Distance was not a problem. The popularity of the car meant that homes no longer had to be near towns or bus lines.

Post-war families also wanted to streamline and modernize their lives. Houses could be small, but essential conveniences included a built-in range, washer and dryer, a utility area, a garage or carport, and all on one level with no stairs. Family life was informal, so the interior space was open with multi-purpose rooms flowing into one another. The kitchen/dining area was open to the living room, but the loss of privacy was offset by the illusion of space. A bathroom and two to three bedrooms completed the interior. Non-essentials like fireplaces, front porches and built-ins were abandoned and closets were tiny, rarely more than 3 feet wide.

Often the basement was omitted in favor of an economical concrete slab. The long end of the house faced the street, making it seem larger and providing backyard space for the kids and leisure activities. The front porch became a little slab or a bit of overhang as porches and patio moved to the back. This created a boxy rectangle known as the ranch house — perfect for the modern look and compact spaced preferred by post war homeowners. The new American invention TV was responsible for the “rec” room or family room that soon became the most important space in the house.

New materials utilized in the war were adapted for construction. Plywood, thermal glass and construction glues were used. Concrete block replaced tile or stone basements. Hollow core slab doors and long, high bedroom windows completed the modern look. Garage doors were showcased at the front of the house and diamond and chevron shapes decorated the doors. A picture window highlighting the small but formal living room became standard. Construction was standardized on an assembly line to speed up the building process.

In the most famous examples, the Levittowns of New York and New Jersey, a new house of 800 square feet was completed every 15 minutes. Options were priced at a premium to discourage them and assembly-line production resulted in speed and economy. This led to a few standardized models built throughout the country regardless of regional design traditions and materials.

While these houses were seen by the critics as “tacky” and were not embraced as good design, they served the needs of the young family. The split-level arrived about 1950 and allowed more living space on a smaller lot. The formal areas (living and dining room), family areas like the kitchen and family room and private rooms such as bathrooms and bedrooms were separated by levels. A central stairway led conveniently to all levels. These compact houses were roomy for their size, easily added on to, and individualized by surface decorative details. Shutters flanking the picture window created a Colonial version. A flat roof, earth-toned colors and large chimney individualized your home into a western ranch. Brick or vertical siding or paint colors could differentiate your house from your neighbors’. Or you could turn one room perpendicular to the body of the house and create an L-shaped model.

As a perfect fit for the needs of young families these “constructor modern” houses were immensely popular and are still built today.

McKiernan may be reached at medinacdc@zoominternet.net

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