What Realtors Need to Know About 1950s Housing Styles

Housing in the 1950s is characterized by a homogenous style and post-WWII family sensibilities, wealth and size. Broker Gerard Splendore offers insight into the historical and architectural roots of home styles of the decade as part of his Circa series

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American housing styles have changed and continue to change across the country and as homeowner tastes and lifestyles have evolved. As the country has undergone industrial and economic changes, both good and not so good, housing styles have adapted out of necessity.

In this new series, I’ll walk you through the predominant housing styles of the past 12 decades, starting in 1900. A basic understanding of each architectural style that defines a decade will position you as a knowledgeable agent with your clients and facilitate finding a home with your buyers easier for everyone.

Realtors who can recognize a home built in the 1950s when they see an exterior listing photo, or as soon as they arrive home with their buyers, have an advantage over agents who aren’t as visually astute .

This period of architecture and furnishings has become even more sought after since it became known as “mid-century modern” in Cara Greenberg’s 1984 book. Mid-Century Modern: Furniture from the 1950s. The television series Mad Men popularized this period of architecture and design. Highly sought after by millennials, any agent familiar with this style will do well.

While 1950s urban architecture was characterized by glass curtain walls and exposed steel, the city’s apartment buildings featured dramatic multi-level lobbies, amoebas, tree-shaped seating space age and ceiling cutouts. American homes of this period were primarily built in the Colonial Revival and Cape Cod styles. Our country’s gross national product rose dramatically during the 1950s, and the size of housing grew in proportion to America’s prosperity.

This period spawned a new vocabulary for describing the features and types of houses that became available. Ranch houses, or houses with no basements or second floors, became known as ranchers.

The open sheds to house cars, attached to the house, were known as carports. Living rooms featured floor-to-ceiling windows, though the views were only to the backyard. And the play spaces or lower-level basements of these homes were called “playrooms,” short for recreation rooms.

The 1950s were known for their carefully designed homes that catered to modern sensibilities, neither too big nor too small, neither too formal nor too casual. The houses were built for two-parent families with children and the space for entertaining was a given. Patios and porches have been added to floor plans.

Women, who entered the workforce in record numbers during World War II, are now stay-at-home moms and housewives, with few exceptions. The result was the colorful and modern kitchen, no longer sterile and all white, in which the hostess used all her modern appliances to take care of her family.

Not only kitchen appliances have become available in a rainbow of colors, but also bathroom accessories and tiles. Paper products, including paper towels and toilet paper, soon followed, with multiple colors and patterns available.

Pent-up demand and the economic boom of the 1950s influenced housing styles. They included adequate closets and family rooms, playrooms, and recreation areas that housed the television (which became standard in almost every home). Some wealthy owners had more than one television, more than one telephone, and several cars parked outside.

Housing developments sprang up across the country as an expanding network of thoroughfares led to suburban growth. The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 helped expand more housing options in several locations. Railroads were no longer required to ship produce from farm and factory to market, as trucks became the chosen standard of transportation.

Another factor driving suburban sprawl and more elaborate housing was the steady growth in family income, which was at the highest level in American history. Billions of federal dollars became available for housing when Fannie Mae and the Federal Housing Authority (FHA) took off.

Diversity of housing styles was neither valued nor encouraged. When arriving at a suburban development, as few as two different frontage and floor plan options and up to five options may be available to the buyer. This homogenization has enabled contractors and promoters to quickly erect houses built on standard modules.

Plasterboard replaced wet plaster, which took time to mix, apply and dry. Pre-built roof and stair trusses, as well as standard-sized windows and doors, have accelerated construction in all parts of the country.

Crawl spaces under homes were an inexpensive and popular alternative to a basement or cellar, which required expensive and time-consuming excavations. Lacking a basement, the furnaces and water heaters were moved above ground to another newly added space named after the 1950s house, the laundry room. This room also housed electrical panels and water shut-off valves.

Contributing to uniformity, television programs depicted, almost without exception, two-parent families in nearly identically decorated suburban homes. The four million babies born in 1954 (surpassed by the peak of 4.3 million babies in 1957), all aspired to live like the families they saw on television.

Housing from the 1950s is still widely available across the country and highly sought after. A time of prosperity and hope, post-war American housing sends a positive message to buyers nostalgic for a time before they were born that they may not have known until cinema and television late at night. The real estate agent who can recognize this style and appeal to the innate desires of their buyer will be sure to succeed in the market.

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