Tuesday, May 1, 2018

sneakers, cars, and a vintage house

pontiac ad, 1962 "suburbia"

Vintage suburban house design reminds me of car design. In fact, we all know that historically the design of the American suburban house, in many ways, grew from the accessibility of the automobile, increases in leisure time, and the growth of the middle class after 1945. Consumerism is shaped by patterns in culture, as is comfort and form. The ranch house style in American design is associated with the boom years after World War II through the late 1970's. In general, historic ranch design combines sleek modernism with an idealized idea of relaxed American living. The manicured yard and lawn represent vacation, weekend play and a small "oasis" at home. Boasting independence and casualness, yet sharing a commonality, ranch houses were often initiated in tract-developed communities, based on sameness of design, landscape, space, and socio-economic class. 

The ranch neighborhood's collective form assumes a homogenized community; a ranch house adjacent to another ranch house, and so on. During this period of American Expansion, it is hard to find a ranch house inside an old major city in the Eastern section of the USA. (I've seen a couple in Brooklyn.) But right outside the perimeters of large cities like New York, Detroit, and Chicago, these houses are in abundance, located within tightly designed communities formed mainly due to leisure and the automobile as mentioned above, but also because of white flight and the racial politics of the post war period. Mass-housing tracts also developed out west, and certainly in Atlanta. The term "ranch" was eventually coined to mimic an ideal of shangri-la dreams, and the pastoral grandeur of a homestead of one's own. 

Yet, the most famous of the ranch house tract-house development is Levittown in Long Island.

Levittown, 1940's (for anyone interested in the racial and economic underpinnings of these communities I recommend reading The Powerbroker, by Robert Caro.)

Form always has an underwritten power politic, and I can certainly go on about this at length, but for now, back to our little project:

Recently we received a commission to update the exterior of an interesting 1962 transitional ranch in  Connecticut. The house is surprisingly a bit cottage-like in detail. Painted in light and neutral colors, it's doesn't fit the spartan style of the more ubiquitous ranch homes of 1962, which were streamlined like the cars of the time, nor does it fit within the typology of the 1940's and 1950's houses of the famous Levittown development.

Advertisement for a typical 1962 ranch. streamlined, like a car.
pontiac ad, 1962
our project: existing house, Connecticut

This 1962 house has a few 1950's features. It's not spartan. It's much more playful, with sharp horizontal lines, but it is hard to notice at first glance. So how does an architect bring all the nuances of a special design back to life using only color? Often, updating a vintage house requires a bit of detective work, especially if the house is transitional. I like to research ads from the years around the time a structure was built. I look to them for form, color and layering of materials, but also for clues about design, politics, culture and image. Often when I think of car design, I think of sneaker design too. Sneakers, cars and the house; all luxury items. We wear each one in fashion. 

converse ad, 1980's

Popular colors of an era too often follow automotive trends, and of course fashion. Have a look at this Coke ad, a Ditzier template for Ford's T-bird, and a Keds Sneaker ad.

coca-cola, 1962
paint sample, ford sports cars, 1962

keds sneaker ad, 1962

suburbia, 1962

Naturally, it was interesting to us to find this little gem of a house mixed into an eclectic street in an old village in Connecticut adjacent to Danbury. It is not a tract house, or part of the greater housing march of the post war boom. One can walk to the town and all the shops. The houses around it are from different eras. We started to doubt it's true "suburban" ranch heritage, and assumed it was not built by a tract house developer, but by someone with specific design skills, who wanted to build a ranch house. Upon visiting, it seemed to be designed with love and artfulness. I call it transitional because it references some qualities of late 1950's house architecture.

realtor ad, 1950's, see the apron trim.

The Connecticut house has all original exterior materials: wood grooved siding, wood shutters, wood apron trim around the porch, square post columns with a minimal base trim, a diamond cut front door with raised circles in the panel, and wood flower boxes. This house has a dimensional depth that is missing from the flat, streamlined ranches of 1962. Surrounded by a tall pines in the back, and a lush green lawn in the front, the house in it's current state did not look vintage. It just looked cute. But we knew it was more. Here is what we did.


After conducting our research, inspecting the integrity of the existing materials, noting the sophisticated and sharp lines of the roof and porch transition, we looked at paints. We looked at the orientation of the house, the angle of the sun's trajectory during the day, and throughout the year. Light changes the appearance of color all day long. We picked a color for the body of the house that would also change throughout the day; we wanted it to glisten. Cars glisten, and it is fitting that a ranch homes should glisten just like a car. The historic grey we picked has a larger percentage of blue than red or yellow in it's RGB composition. Throughout the day the house alters in vibrancy, fluctuating like sunlight through leafy green trees. At times it is more gray, other times it is a vibrant rich blue with purple undertones. In the summer, the house nestles down into the woods like a shadow. In the winter, the brightness of the gray-blue adds a clear color under blankets of snow. We also added four additional colors, as old houses should be painted with a minimum of four colors: a base warm grey for the concrete porch pad, a wheat cream color for the shutters that becomes more yellowish in sunlight, a crisp white with a high reflectivity and a cool base sharpens the trim and porch, and a periwinkle for the door that warms up the porch. 

When we are lucky enough to get a vintage house, we look not only to the form itself but the culture that existed around it, both in pop-culture and history. We look at the world.