New historical ranch
About seven years ago, I had my first encounter with a midcentury housing development that was officially designated a historic district when I visited Arapahoe Acres in Englewood, Colorado, south of Denver. What I remember most is the surprising beauty of the ingenious little houses—some just 900 square feet—designed by the development’s original architect, Eugene Sternberg, a Czech émigré who died at the age of 90 in 2005. Sternberg intended the homes to sell for $10,000, which, in 1949, made them affordable on a schoolteacher’s salary, and outfitted them with sliding walls and built-in storage to make the most of limited indoor space.
The fact that such a development existed was a revelation to me. Here was an entire neighborhood of architecturally radical homes, which, unlike the famous Case Study houses built one by one in southern California from 1945 to 1966, were erected en masse by a commercial developer, Edward B. Hawkins. I began to realize that the suburban building boom that followed World War II, fueled by an incredible demand for housing and shaped by a wave of confidence and optimism, was not a simple story about the spread of banal tract houses. Instead it was a more complex narrative in which an important idea associated with the Bauhaus—mass-produced housing for everyone—was adapted to the American landscape.
In 1998 Arapahoe Acres, with its 124 homes, became the first postwar subdivision to find a berth on the National Register of Historic Places, the master list of cherished Americana. Since then, another ten postwar housing developments have been added to the register, including two Palo Alto, California, subdivisions—Green Gables and Greenmeadow—developed by legendary builder Joseph Eichler; the Acres, a Frank Lloyd Wright–designed neighborhood outside Kalamazoo, Michigan; and Winterhaven, a cluster of simple ranch houses in Tucson, Arizona.
While the western cities that were profoundly shaped by the postwar housing boom are leading the movement to recognize the historic significance of the subdivision, landmarking efforts are also under way in other parts of the country. Perhaps the most surprising hot spot is Maryland, with three communities on the National Register. In late 2008 Carderock Springs, a leafy 1960s cul-de-sac development in Bethesda, was added to the National Register, although it wasn’t even 50 years old. Carderock Springs consists of 275 homes with pitched roofs and clean, Asian-influenced interiors by developer Edmund J. Bennett and the architecture firm of Keyes, Lethbridge and Condon. According to Douglas Soe Lin, an architect who has lived in Carderock Springs since the early 1980s, it was deemed significant because it was an early example of “situational modernism,” meaning that the houses were gently sited in the existing hilly, tree-studded landscape.
A couple of years after my Arapahoe Acres experience, I explored Los Angeles’s Mar Vista Tract, a magnolia-shaded enclave of 52 sweetly boxy homes designed in close collaboration by architect Gregory Ain and landscape designer Garrett Eckbo. In 2003 this late-1940s development became the city’s first modernist Historic Preservation Overlay Zone, a designation that had been used mostly to preserve neighborhoods of Spanish-style homes or Victorians. Again, my visit was a powerful reminder that there was once room in the commercial home-building industry for experimentation. These 1,060-square-foot, flat-roofed homes—”Modernique” said the newspaper ads—used accordion-style folding walls to allow homeowners to reconfigure the space, had kitchens that opened onto the living room (then a new idea) and employed a sophisticated color palette.
Arapahoe Acres, Carderock Springs, the Mar Vista Tract and Joseph Eichler’s developments of sophisticated contemporary homes are all exceptional examples of America’s brand of midcentury modernism, clearly deserving landmark status. But since the late 1990s, as the great expanses of single-family homes that changed the landscape of America have begun turning 50—the magic number for historic preservation—a movement has emerged to recognize the historic significance of ubiquitous, more ordinary tract-house developments.
According to architect and historian Alan Hess, the author of many books, including The Ranch House (Abrams, 2005), those well-loved Eichler and Ain homes are “the easy ones.” He argues that unsung tract-house communities are equally important repositories of innovative architectural ideas and building techniques. “They had real impact on real people,” Hess points out. “Far more people were in ‘ordinary’ ranch houses than in Eichlers. There’s more to the history of suburbia than we have recognized so far,” he says.
Another major repository of surprisingly innovative housing can be found in the Phoenix metropolitan area. Phoenix, even more than L.A., is a product of postwar planning. Because the mostly flat desert terrain offered developers few obstacles, the city reads like a sprawling open-air museum of production home building methods. “We were a little ahead here,” says Debbie Abele, a historic preservation consultant to the neighboring city of Scottsdale. “In the mid-1990s, I realized by using crude census data that over the next five years we were going to have 400,000 homes becoming 50 years old and we needed to get on top of that, because they weren’t all going to be designated.”
When asked why something as commonplace as a 1950s tract house deserves the protection that historic status ideally offers, Abele points out that early in the 20th century, bungalows, which we now cherish, were the tract houses of their day. “Nobody really cared anything about bungalows until they were almost decimated.” In Scottsdale, Abele and Don Meserve, Scottsdale’s preservation planner, commissioned a study that examined 103 subdivisions and some 14,000 homes. Ultimately, two communities were anointed Neighborhood Historic Districts.
One of them, Village Grove, is a ranchhouse subdivision developed in the late 1950s by Allied Construction, among the area’s largest builders. It consists of modest, low-slung brick houses, typically painted white. The other, Town and Country, was built by a smaller outfit belonging to developer Fred E. “Woody” Woodworth, and the houses were designed by Ralph Haver, a notable area architect. His Town and Country houses, circa 1959, feature a gently angled gable roof covering a long interior span with an open floor plan and floor-to-ceiling glass. “Everyone knows a Haver house,” says Abele. They typically come with what Abele calls a “carpatio.” The idea was that the carport and patio were combined. “You’d sit by your car,” she explains. “We loved our cars.” In May 2009 Town and Country was nominated for both the Arizona State and the National Register of Historic Places.
Once you start paying attention, it becomes clear that the houses of the postwar building boom, despite their role as progenitors of sprawl, were wonderfully progressive when compared to the typical output of today’s home builders. For one thing, it’s surprising the extent to which talented architects lent their best ideas to the developments of production home builders, something that happens very rarely today. Also, even the most ordinary tract houses, the “little boxes made of ticky tacky,” were sane and sustainable compared to today’s suburban palaces. The building methods pioneered during the postwar period used economy of scale and mass-production strategies of which today’s fashionable prefab architects can only dream. Right now, at the bottom of the housing bust, home builders would do well to learn from our newest historic districts and to emulate the sophistication of the homes at Carderock Springs, the efficiency of the Mar Vista layouts and the simple modesty of the ubiquitous ranch house.