Resources for Modern Homeowners

Split-
Typical ranch-style house that is characteristic of post-war residential development in Chicago Heights, IL.

Credit: Midwest Office, National Trust for Historic Preservation

Modernism is not limited only to architect-designed homes and iconic buildings. Hundreds of thousands of small-scale vernacular house were constructed in new subdivisions and suburbs across the country in the period following World War II, ranging from the simple Cape Cod-inspired homes to the ubiquitous "Ranch" house in all its forms. Many of these homes are nearing, or have passed, fifty years of age. As a result homeowners sometimes find themselves struggling with issues of maintenance and repair for homes with innovative materials, or unusual styles and details.

Working in close collaboration with the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency and other preservation organizations, we have compiled information and designed tools to raise awareness of these important resources, help homeowners better understand the significance of post-war housing, and provide recommendations for appropriate treatments.

What Is a Ranch House?

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A typical split-level ranch house in Edina, MN with a high degree of material integrity.

Credit: Midwest Office, National Trust for Historic Preservation

The Ranch House is one of a handful of typical house forms that appear in many variations in American Suburbia following World War II. Though accompanied by split levels, Cape Cods, and two-story Colonials, it is the Ranch House--whether architect-designed, prefabricated, or stick-built--that has come to symbolize Mid-Twentieth Century America. 

Their plans were much more open and less formal than the previous generation of suburban housing.  Family rooms became integral to their rambling plans, with kitchens opening into ever-decreasing dining rooms, and multiple bedrooms and baths with capacious storage.  More receptive to technological advances than more traditionally styles homes, many Ranches featured telephone wiring in every room, central heating and cooling, low-voltage lighting systems, full-house vacuums, and low-slope roofs. 

The Ranch offered a plethora of imagery for the new suburbanite, from rustic and informal to sophisticated and progressive, while its very name implied that its residents were pioneers of a new and untamed landscape. Though these impressions and associations many be somewhat different today, the Ranch still offers convenience, open plans, single-level living, quality construction, a division of public and private space,  and integrated multi-use spaces that we continue to favor in the early 21st century. 

To these associations we can now add "historic." The Ranch house, accompanied by the many other residential styles and types that populated the post-war suburban landscape, are increasingly recognized not only as critical parts our history that reflect major social, economic and demographic shifts, but also for their role in the introduction of new methods and materials for construction, and new approaches to planning and transportation in our nation’s rapidly expanding suburban areas.   

Maintaining Your Post-War House

The care and maintenance of a post-war house is little different from that recommended for any other style or period of historic housing. A house, is a house, is a house, regardless of when it was constructed, by whom, and from what materials. The systems and materials are similar to those used for more traditional historic homes, and the recommended treatment for these properties will be largely the same.

Like all houses, post-war homes are composed of dozens of systems and thousands of individual components constructed from a wide range of materials. It seems like a huge and daunting task to keep track of all of them, where they are, and what condition they are in. To help owners of post-war houses conduct a assessment of their home, its condition, and maintenance needs, we created a Post-War Housing Inspection Checklist to guide you through the process.

The Checklist is not intended to substitute for a thorough inspection conducted by a qualified home inspector or a professional, such as an architect or contractor. But it will help you take a hard look at your house and the different key systems to determine where there might be existing problems, or possible future problems. Then you can prioritize the results and target your repair efforts and dollars to those areas that are most in need of repair, or that will require professional inspection and assistance.

Repairing Your Post-War House

When considering repair options, owners of post-war houses may find that some that some important materials or systems have failed over time or been replaced. The post-war period witnessed the introduction of a wide variety of experimental materials, innovative systems, and new applicances, many of which made their way into homes. These often represent critical features that define the character of the post-war home. Replacement with inappropriate or incompatible new materials should be avoided, whenever possible.

As architecture from this period becomes increasingly more popular, and preservation professionals gain a better understanding of these features and materials, an expanding number of suitable products and methods are becoming available for restoration purposes. Our Resources for Repair of Post-War Housing provides a solid starting point to help homeowners identify appropriate materials for the repair, maintenance, and restoration of important features in their post-war houses.

Designating Your Post-War House

Property owners, local communities, and preservation organizations around the country are recognizing the importance of their post-war housing stock, and starting to grapple with the sheer number of houses constructed during this period. Several are organizing surveys of their mid-century residential neighborhoods to identify their resources and prioritize their efforts for advocacy and and landmark designation. In the process they have created tools and methodologies that can guide the efforts of homeowners and communities interested in documenting their own mid-century heritage.