Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch
My family and I recently paid a visit to the DeKalb History Center, a 10-minute drive from our home. Housed in the historic courthouse on the square in downtown Decatur, Georgia, the center features a small museum with rotating exhibits. We were there to see "Mid-Century Ranch House: Hip and Historic!"
I was pleasantly surprised to learn that we live at the epicenter of the post-war housing boom, in the very place where prototypically mid-century architecture took off. Who knew? The display text accused us locals of being so accustomed to seeing the single- and split-level ranch homes ubiquitous in our area, we probably don't realize their historical and cultural significance. Guilty as charged. I live in one.
What defines a mid-century ranch house? A few key features:
The charming exhibit featured displays of full rooms and collections of household objects typical of the era, along with period photographs and advertising. Most interesting, it explained how and why this area came to be at the heart of the post-war construction boom.
The population of DeKalb County grew 500% between 1940 and 1970. Post-war prosperity meant home and automobile ownership. The ranch house design, with its attached carport or garage, was the first to take the automobile into consideration. One by one, what had been rural dairy farms became commuter neighborhoods. Mom stayed at home with the kids, while dad drove the short distance to work in downtown Atlanta.
My own neighborhood, "The Ponderosa" (yes, an homage to the 1959-'73 TV series "Bonanza"), is one of several featured on a map showing the building spree that took place in DeKalb County from the late 50s through the early 70s. (Believe it or not, other nearby subdivisions have even more embarrassing monikers, with streets named for brands of cigarettes and Chrysler cars).
This prototypical mid-century ranch living room could be a copy of our own, prior to its recent remodeling. Tired of the gloomy dark paneling, we had the walls smoothed over and painted light blue. We left the brick hearth in its original, unpainted state.
Similarly, had our own master bath been the lovely shade of pink shown in this exhibit, rather than a terrifically unpleasant salmon (with mismatched salmon wall tiles), we'd surely have left it intact. Our other two tiny baths remain unchanged, as their tile is an inoffensive speckled white.
Interesting to me was the exhibit's description of the changing role of women, reflected in the placement of the kitchen at the front of these mid-century homes. After WWII, women were expected to return from their brief stint in the working world to their rightful place in the home.
In what appears to be an effort to keep them from losing their collective minds by providing the semblance of legitimate options, women were given lots of choices -- not of careers, mind you, but of appliances.
In this advertisement showing a range of available designs and colors, the bottom-left image is identical to the original kitchen in our home. We remodeled in 2008, knocking down a wall to increase the space. The five of us could not fit in the room at the same time (and three of us were very small, indeed):
With little in a woman's control outside the home, domesticity became somewhat of a competitive sport. Stay-at-home wives outdid each other with their decorating and culinary skills, supported by the best modern gadgets their husband's salaries could afford. Cooking, cleaning, and child-rearing can be glamourous. See? You just need the right appliances.
This display explained the era's fascination with all things futuristic and modern, typified by anything related to space, speed, and science. I liked the added touch of illuminating the case with a period lamp:
The exhibit reinforced my decision to leave in place the 1964 atomic-print Formica countertops and space-ship shaped light fixtures in our playroom -- originally a "rumpus" or "rec(reation)" room on the lowest level of the house.
In the past I've complained that our modest house makes me claustrophobic. Now I can boast that it's vintage. As the exhibit informed us, humble mid-century ranch houses, now more than 50 years old, are eligible for the historic register. Endearingly, the presenters made a point of asking us to value and preserve these homes.
As happens with each generation, especially in a culture as youth-obsessed as ours, the old and outdated are quickly replaced with the next big thing. By the time we begin longing for what eventually becomes "hip and historic," it has been irretrievably lost. Our kitchen may have been upgraded, and the den lightened and brightened. But the atomic countertops will stay.
This exhibit got me thinking beyond architecture and design, about what makes each generation unique. Every era, including our own, thinks of itself as thoroughly modern. But how quaint and antiquated our own of-the-moment designs and devices will surely seem to our children's children. More important, I wonder which of today's accepted norms and mores will seem so outmoded in 50 years that people will cringe and say, "What were they thinking?" I have a few guesses. I'd love to hear yours.