18 April 2018

Things You Should Know If You Own, Plan to Own, or Plan to Renovate A Mid-Century Modern House

Part I: What’s So Great About Mid-Century Modern Houses? Everything!

The first in a five-part series of guest posts. 

The Jon Condoret House in Chapel Hill, North Carolin

By Arielle Condoret Schechter, AIA


Mid-Century Modern – I’m tied to the era and its architecture down to my core. 

I grew up in that beautiful modernist house (above) that my Dad designed. It was a great place to be a kid.  

But my parents, including my brilliant Dad, sometimes went off on “country style” decorating tangents. (It’s true!)  One time when I was a teenager, my parents took it upon themselves to redecorate my bedroom as a surprise gift for me after summer camp. So when I came home, I found a fluffy floral lampshade resembling a giant poufy bonnet in a Laura Ashley fabric by my bed. It had ruffles. Ruffles

As if that were not enough, I also found a new, strange, shiny brass fixture with floral engravings on my ceiling. For one second, I gaped in horror. By the next, I’d burst into tears and hurled myself across my bed. Today the memory makes me laugh. But I still relate to the horror I felt at the time.

I’m a modernist to the core.

Mid-century modern design is a particular sensibility that I understand very well, which is why I enjoy helping people renovate, remodel, and generally update their mid-century modern (MCM) houses. I certainly don’t do it for the money, as these renovations are not big income generators. I do it for the love of the design and to feel connected with the living, breathing ideas with which these houses still pulse. In fact, I often feel I can “talk” with the original designer and understand what he or she was thinking.

The former Paschal House (1950) in Raleigh, NC,
designed by James Fitzbibbons.
Now, not all MCM houses are wonderful. The ones actual architects designed are certainly the best. But I’ve also worked on several self-designed and “builder” houses from the era, correcting spatial flow issues and updating kitchens and bathrooms. It’s very satisfying to help a vintage MCM become a valuable, inspiring “new” home again for another 50 or 60 years while preserving the integrity of the original design.

Created by forward-thinking men and women who believed design could improve people’s lives by improving the way they lived, architect-designed MCM houses represent the optimism of the era. Those architects believed in the power of design for the greater good. They emphasized simplicity, modernity, and open interior spaces that welcomed natural light and connections to the outdoors, both visually and physically. They brought families together in those big open spaces and acknowledged that exposure to the natural environment is soothing and vital to human wellbeing.

Mid-century modernist architects used materials in their natural, honest state. They often stained wood instead of painting it so that the grain and character of the wood would be maintained. Brick or stone patio floors, which flowed into the same brick or stone floors inside the house, further emphasized the connection between indoors and outdoors in MCM houses.

That said, remodeling MCM houses isn’t the same as remodeling any other old house. Their characteristics are unique, and the materials and construction methods of the 1950s and ‘60s were distinctive. Understanding these characteristic, materials, and methods must inform any remodel or renovation of an MCM house.

I was asked recently how I evaluate these special houses before I begin a renovation project. That’s what I want to share with you here.

In this MCM by Brian Shawcroft, one space flows
easily into the next.
The first thing I study is the flow. One of the hallmarks of a good MCM house is the fluid, seamless flow from space to space, as in this house (left) by the late Brian Shawcroft, FAIASometimes a mid-century house doesn’t have good flow. If so, that’s the first thing I will try to correct. 

Also, Ill-advised modifications over the years can disrupt the serenity of an MCM house with inappropriate details, such as crown moldings added by other owners in an attempt to make the house feel more traditional.

To recapture the original intent of the floor plan, these houses must be stripped of cumbersome modifications. The crown moldings must go!  That also applies to other strange decorative features I have seen:  gaudy door handles, gold floral wallpaper, 1980s light fixtures…The list goes on.

Believe it or not, a true MCM can often benefit from being made more modern -- by opening up a closed-off kitchen, for example, to the living/dining space. In the 1950s and ‘60s, the ladies of the houses didn’t want company to see them cook or clean up afterwards, so kitchens were kept behind closed doors. The transition to an open kitchen is a natural correction that’s more conducive to the way we live today.

In the 1940s, the great American industrial designer Russel Wright and his wife Mary wrote a wonderful little Guide To Easier EntertainingTo truly understand the spirit of the era, with its more open spaces and good connections, read this little book.

I also look to see if the house has “good bones.”  In MCM houses, that means:
  • Clean lines and (mostly) flat planes
  • An open floor plan
  • A close visual relationship between indoors and outdoors through the use of expansive glazing and sliding glass doors that open onto patios, terraces, and private courtyards
  • Deep roof overhangs to shade all that glass.
  • Often changes in elevations: split-level, split foyer, “sunken” living or dining areas, partial walls, and cabinets of various heights
  • Flat, shed, or “butterfly” roofs, although many low-pitched gable roofs are also appropriate to the era.
  • The presence of exterior materials (brick, stone, wood) on the interior. This was another way to bring the outdoors inside. 
  • Elevation changes. In the Taylor House in Chapel Hill (below), architect John Latimer located the dining room, kitchen, and children's bedrooms* on the lower level. The main living space, library, and master bedroom are on the upper level.

The Taylor House's dining room, a level below the
main living space.
(*By the way: One of the Taylor kids whose bedroom was located on that lower level was recording artist James Taylor. This was his childhood home!) 

In Part II, I’ll address what you can expect to find in a mid-century modern house that hasn’t been renovated at all.


ARIELLE CONDORET SCHECHTER, AIA, is a licensed, registered architect based in Chapel Hill, NC, who specializes in Modernist, energy-efficient buildings with a focus on passive houses, NET ZERO houses, her new tiny-house plans known as the Micropolis Houses®, and mid-century modern renovations, remodeling, and additions. A founding member of the non-profit organization North Carolina Modernist Houses, she met Tobias Kaiser through NCMH and shares her five-part series on mid-century modernist houses with him for The Modernist Angle.  For more information: www.acsarchitect.com.

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