The term “vintage” has gained such common currency these days that it seems as though anything that makes even the vaguest reference to any style or design that predates the millennium can be described using “vintage” as a qualifier. Let’s examine this. Popular interest in the visual culture of decades past continues to rise, partly owing to hit television shows like Mad Men and Netflix’s peculiar obsession with overproduced historic programming. It has come with the commodification of all things “vintage” in tow. However, using “vintage” to describe, well, any old thing, has led to the word holding far less meaning and value. Used to label poorly-made, poorly-designed replicas, or to inflate the online sales of what is likely junk from someone’s basement, not to mention knockoff bric-a-brac from China, “vintage” has now become a word with an identity crisis. Even worse, for some it is associated with cheapness or “kitsch.”And while it cannot be denied that kitsch happens, and that one can enjoy it, its link with vintage is dangerous. As kitsch makes reference to mass-manufactured and cheaply-produced material goods, crossing wires between “kitsch” and “vintage” can lead to an undervaluing of the material and design quality of products from the past. This is especially troublesome for historic buildings. When it comes to homes, vintage means different things to different people. A Queen Anne Revival house with asymmetrical facades and picturesque massing would fall into the category of “vintage” for some, where as another might only think of a mid-century modern ranch. These variations of interpretation can make describing a historic home with the word a little ambiguous, but the greater challenge is emphasizing that vintage means quality and integrity. This is why the language and marketing used to promote a historic home requires the knowledge and expertise of someone who understands and appreciates these unique buildings. Someone that understands the value of the intact millwork still in place on that Queen Anne porch, or the pink bathroom fixtures in the mid-century modern ranch (which is totally back in vogue).
The variety of styles, design and craftsmanship of buildings from earlier eras represent textured histories as well as a consideration for the quality of materials and construction that is unparalleled today. However, when poorly or inappropriately maintained, historic buildings can all too easily adopt a fun-house aesthetic. Enjoyed by few, offensive to the rest of us. This insensitive treatment of historic buildings, described here as “Kitsch Vic,” contributes to the confused and muddled understanding of not only the word “vintage” but the beauty and integrity of vintage homes.
Beyond the “radically-restored” vintage single family home or historic building, as cities and towns continue to develop and modernize, a prevailing attitude towards demolition over reuse also puts vintage buildings and mature neighborhoods at risk. As a result, landmark district neighborhoods have become safe havens for historic homes and properties. The security and stability of landmark district neighborhoods have produced areas of handsome, older building stock that maintains the original character and preserves the vintage buildings within. In cities like Chicago, there are criteria that need to be met in order for a neighborhood to become a landmark district. The criteria allows unique patterns of history and design to be defined and protected through designation. As a result, no two historic neighborhoods are alike, each representing the distinct character of the district.As we discussed previously in our Stability and Longevity From Historic Designation and Million Dollar District; How Landmark Designation Pays posts, value is established through more than a dollars and cents approach. And understanding the value of vintage homes and historic neighborhoods is vital in getting the most out of your home. How does historic status give a property value, you may ask? Property-rights enthusiasts lament the restrictions put in place through landmark district designation, citing a “highest-and-best use” concept as the ideal status for every property. This viewpoint, however, is prime example of placing quantity over quality. Though landmark district preservation does place some restrictions on home-owners, the stability and longevity of the neighborhood increases the value of the property. Not to mention, the quality of the materials and craftsmanship contained within a historic home, when properly maintained, will outlive much of today’s new construction shelf life. From vernacular workers’ cottages or high style Victorian era mansions, to Eichler modernist designs, living in a historic home or within a landmark district brings assurance and certainty, qualities that appeal to any homeowner. Vintage absolutely has value. And until “vintage” is once again synonymous with “quality,” I’m going to keep fighting the good fight to advocate for the beauty, integrity and value of historic, vintage homes.
In honor of last night’s Oscars, let’s talk Hollywood. It’s not very often that architecture gets the movie treatment (unless we’re talking about the occupation of the male love interest of seemingly every rom-com made in the 1990s). And it’s even rarer to see a Historic-with-a-capital H property as the subject of a feature film.
That’s why I was so tickled when I saw that the story of the Farnsworth House, a glassy Mid-Century Modern dream tucked in its own rural riverside clearing, is rumored to be the subject of a big Hollywood picture. It will supposedly star Jeff Bridges as architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, one of Chicago’s best-known residents and the father of modern architecture. Maggie Gyllenhaal will play opposite Mr. van der Bridges as Dr. Edith Farnsworth, the Chicago-based nephrologist who commissioned the exquisite structure as her weekend retreat.
Those are just about the only details; we don’t even know when this film might be released. I, for one, can’t quite imagine quintessential “dude” Jeff Bridges playing an uptight, demanding, brilliant, rotund German architect, but maybe that’s just me. I also kind of suspect this will be total Oscar bait – Bridges’ and Gyllenhaal’s last venture together, Crazy Heart, earned Bridges the 2009 Academy Award for Best Actor.
Lacking any more information about the film, I got to thinking about its three main characters: Mies, Edith, and the house. There had to be something good and juicy in the Farnsworth story that they just don’t cover in grad school Modernism lectures if they’re going to make a very expensive movie about it, so I got to Googling. And now I can’t wait. to see. this. movie.
First, it’s worth noting that architecturally speaking, Farnsworth House is sexy enough to carry a movie on its own. It’s a tiny thing, with two massive white-painted horizontal slabs forming the floor and ceiling of the residence, with all 1500 square feet of living space sandwiched in between and wrapped in floor-to-ceiling glass. The cantilevered floor slab rests on eight delicate steel columns, making the house look like it’s floating serenely in the middle of the clearing. This isn’t just for effect, as the adjacent Fox River was and is extremely prone to flooding. Mies put the house on stilts to allow the floodwaters to pass right under the structure.
The house was commissioned by Miss Doctor Edith, who seems very much like the kind of gal who would object to being called “Miss.” She was a high-powered, smart-as-hell doctor who met Mies at a dinner party in 1945 and was lounging in her glassy vacation home by 1951. It’s been rumored (and is likely true) that she and the architect also had an affair somewhere in there, and I’m sure that the upcoming film with dramatize this to great effect. Our two probable lovers didn’t have such a happy ending, though, and this is where it really gets juicy.
Mies ended up taking Edith, his former lover, to court in 1953 for unpaid fees related to the construction of the house. He claimed that Edith owed him about $3,000 in outstanding construction costs, plus an additional $27,000 in architect’s and supervisory fees. That’s quite a chunk of change for the time, especially when you consider that Edith maintained that Mies’ original estimate was $58,000, and she’d already paid that plus an additional $33,000 when the project went way overbudget. Edith countersued Mies for malpractice, but ultimately she lost both cases, and was forced to pay Mies his due. The two never spoke again.
Not only was Mies overbudget, he was overbearing, too – insisting that Edith maintain the home in an an incredibly austere way. There could be no furniture other than that which Mies had designed or approved, no site improvements, and no clutter whatsoever. The stress of adhering to these demands likely negated the house’s original purpose – a place to escape from the anxieties of Edith’s Chicago life.
And while we now look at Farnsworth House as the paragon of Modernist living, the truth is that Edith wasn’t all that jazzed about her new home, in the end. She was essentially living like a fish in a meticulously-designed bowl. In a profile that appeared in House Beautiful in 1953, Edith had this to say about Mies’ creation:
“Do I feel implacable calm?…The truth is that in this house with its four walls of glass I feel like a prowling animal, always on the alert. I am always restless. Even in the evening. I feel like a sentinel on guard day and night. I can rarely stretch out and relax…
What else? I don’t keep a garbage can under my sink. Do you know why? Because you can see the whole ‘kitchen’ from the road on the way in here and the can would spoil the appearance of the whole house. So I hide it in the closet farther down from the sink. Mies talks about his ‘free space’: but his space is very fixed. I can’t even put a clothes hanger in my house without considering how it affects everything from the outside. Any arrangement of furniture becomes a major problem, because the house is transparent, like an X-ray.”
Still, Edith continued to use Farnsworth House as her weekend home until 1972, when she retired to her villa in Italy. How hard for her. Peter Palumbo, an eccentric British architectural aficionado, purchased it and made alterations that Mies, now three years deceased, would not have enjoyed. In 2001, Palumbo transferred the property to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which has been its steward ever since. You can drive on out to Plano and see it for yourself on a guided tour.
Over the past few years, preservationists have been concerned about the Fox River’s rising levels, which threaten to overtake the house each year (despite its stilts). The house was damaged by flooding in 2008. Various solutions have been proposed and designed since 2014, the most interesting among them a hydraulic jack system that would raise the house skyward during a major flood.
Hopefully, the film will raise awareness to these preservation challenges, but ultimately it’s nice just to know that architecture is taking center stage. Taking bets on what architectural subject is going to get the film treatment next – my money’s on Frank Lloyd Wright, his mistress, and the devastating arson that killed her. But that’s a story for another day.
Recently, I toured a house as a potential listing and I was blown away by the interior design. This was a historic home, and a lot of its original wood work, windows, and other architectural details survived. The furniture, however, was strikingly modern. Not only did it “work,” but it really looked great. The clean lines and the simplicity of the furniture allowed those one-of-a-kind historic details — which I thought were the main selling points of the home — to stand out. It seemed like a real win-win. The unique woodwork, high ceilings, and original elements were certainly on display, but so was the homeowner’s great modern taste.
This really successful juxtaposition of modern furniture and historic details got me to thinking about historic preservation and the Standards for Rehabilitation, which are a guide for preservationists and planners who make alterations to historic buildings. But you knew that! One key part of the ninth standard is, “The new work will be differentiated from the old and will be compatible with the historic materials, features, size, scale and proportion, and massing to protect the integrity of the property and its environment.” Basically, if you’re going to add something to a historic building, conventional wisdom says it’s best to honor, but not mimic, what’s already there. While the Standards are usually used in a more architectural application, I think this line of thinking applies pretty readily to furniture, décor, and staging of historic homes.
Think about it — originally, these Victorian-era homes would have been overstuffed with tons of furniture, rugs, drapes, plants, crazy patterned wallpaper, you name it. Charles Eastlake, a 19th-century British architect, wrote a book called Hints on Household Taste in 1862 which basically advised stylish homeowners that when it came to decorating, MORE WAS MORE.
For a while, this knick-knacky, jumbled aesthetic became synonymous with the “restoration” movement of the 20th century, when people thought “restoration” meant “put up some cabbage rose wallpaper and fill the home with a bunch of old crap.” While it’s generally good to consider and honor the era of your home’s construction when you’re renovating or redecorating, it doesn’t have to be so literal. Or expensive — all those antiquey knick-knacks add up! Better to buy one gorgeous Scandinavian dining table that fills a space with style on its own than thirteen Jenny Lind end tables with hand-tatted doilies.
Adding sleek, modern furniture to a space that already comes with built-in texture in the way of historic millwork, plaster moldings, and ornate fireplaces brings those background elements out to play. These elements are now focal points in your home, not nice features that your guest will never notice because they’re hidden under seven layers of chintz.
Modern furniture, besides being objectively beautiful, lends itself to this application through its inherent simplicity. If Eastlake was all about “more is more,” the modernist aesthetic is absolutely “less is more.” Materials and characteristics of modern furniture, like laminated bent wood, steel, chrome, and the minimalist aesthetic lend themselves well to setting off the complex molding profiles, plaster, and floors of a historic character home. Modernist pieces in a historic room kind of do their own thing, in my opinion. They’re not competing with the historic space, but complementing its grandeur.
And minimalism isn’t the only brand of modernism. Bold colors and cool textures also do a lot of the same work in historic spaces. Take a tour of this historic apartment, featured in Design Milk, with modern style throughout. Apartment Therapy is another great resource for this kind of thing — they’re always posting inspirational “house tours” of homes with old bones but hip aesthetic.
While it’s no secret that a lot of today’s buyers might be repelled by a stately Victorian house decorated to the nines in the style of Charles Eastlake, a house with simple furniture, of the right scale, with clean lines, will show off the original features of the home and attract buyers to the character they originally wanted. It’s chic, sure, but it also makes historic buildings more accessible.
By the way, this trend isn’t just confined to residential spaces. In fact, commercial interiors get redecorated all the time. All the time. Think about all the historic office buildings in your city that have floor after floor of cubicles and commercial carpeting as far as the eye can see. But let’s not get too snarky – there are good examples, too.
Here in Chicago, we’ve got a bunch. One of the most recent is the Virgin Hotel, which opened last year inside the Old Dearborn Bank Building. I love that from the outside, it could very well still be a classic Chicago School office building, but the inside is a fun modernist surprise. And the juxtaposition of the sleek, spaceship-looking bar against that textural historic coffered ceiling is to die for.
All the cool kids are talking about Mid-Century Modern (MCM). It has become the coolest, the hippest and the most talked about. It’s totally a thing. Well, at this point, it has been a thing for the past few years. So be it. It comes up all the time when I am working with home buyers, so I thought a brief snapshot of MCM and why it finally gets the recognition it deserves as classic, quintessential American style was worth a few lines.
What’s the skinny? For years no one wanted anything to do with the low, linear roof lines, avocado green sofas, and the powder blue toilets had to go. The pink and tangerine sparkly Formica counter tops were the first thing to hit the dumpster. All that super cool Danish Modern design was kitsch. Yeah, well things have changed a bit. Starting in 2007, Mad Men’s Don and Betty Draper made MCM the hottest and hippest. Let’s roll with it.
Not only is the furniture and home decor of MCM now recognized as classic, but home buyers now appreciate the function and style of a Mid-Century home. These homes were designed with the needs of the average American family in mind. Not high style – simple form and function. Built at a time when the economy was flush, these homes were built with exceptional quality, character, and all the amenities that we still consider “modern.”
So, What is Mid-Century Modern?
This is not a scholarly or academic research piece. Just a quick down and dirty of what the MCM fuss is all about. Now recognized by scholars and museums worldwide as a significant design movement, MCM describes the design aesthetic, style, and components generally associated with the period between 1933-1965. These years were characterized by huge shifts in the American psyche. World War II, mass production, and the suburbanization of America among them. New building materials were available and city residents were running for the newly laid out suburbs. Thanks to the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, that move was increasingly more convenient. Americans also had cash to throw down.
New architectural styles emphasized large windows – bringing the outside in, open floor plans, and the elimination of bulky support systems. This was but one vehicle in bringing modernism into America’s post-war culture. Function was key; the residential design movement focused on creating livable, functional homes for the average American.
MCM homes were designed to allow family life to unfold. The layout is generally open, with the bedrooms grouped at one end. A patio or outdoor area accessible from the main living space, with large windows or sliding glass doors to separate outdoor and indoor living while celebrating their union – a key component of the Mid-Century lifestyle. Overall, these homes were not large. The space was compact and manageable, but still open and seemingly spacious. Because the homes are generally on the smaller side, they are more cost efficient. They cost less to heat, cool, repair, and renovate. They also take less time and effort to keep CLEAN. Just saying.
Time Capsule Homes:
Because many MCM homes have had the same owner since they were built, you will find the occasional, completely original, time capsule home – offering a peek into a MCM lifestyle. Ten years ago, many of these homes would have been considered a gut job. Today, buyers appreciate the retro character and are restoring these homes. Thanks Don and Betty! These classic gems are just now hitting the 50 year mark, making them eligible to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places, allowing preservation efforts to take place. Not only are these homes starting to achieve some historic significance, they are just plain cool. I’ll say that again. JUST PLAIN COOL. The organic lines, bright colors, and open living spaces are huge selling points for the informed Mid-Century Modern buyer.
Here are some Time Capsule Homes for your viewing pleasure
Color & Decor:
“The colors in the mid-century were a reaction that went against what was there before,” says Brooke Schneider, owner of Source, Inc., a Long Beach-based design firm. “What was there before were very somber, subtler, quieter colors. Colors in the ’50s and ’60s became brighter and stronger — anti-establishment, but optimistic.”
New color fervor optimism showed up on the walls in striking shades, such as turquoise and flamingo, and abstract shapes in furnishings and accessories. The 1960s pushed color trends further, as acid green, blueberry, citron, and hot pink were the must haves for modern homeowners.
The post-and-beam architecture of MCM structures emphasizes windows and walls and the newly introduced open floor plans forced homeowners and designers to think in terms of complete home palettes that complement both the exterior and interior. Natural boundaries of color such as hallways, and millwork were far less important. As rooms flowed into one another, so too did color.
Kitchens & Bathrooms:
In MCM homes, the kitchens and baths can be downright frightening when it to comes to restoring or updating. How can you update, yet keep the original Mid-Century appeal? RetroRenovation has many of the answers, illustrating how to keep your bathroom retro, but still make a selling point of your home. Not everyone loves a pink and red bathroom, but the nice folks at RetroRenovation sure make it less nerve-racking.
Neighborhood & Location:
The single floor ranch style homes that are typical of the Mid-Century Modern style are also appropriate for aging in place. This allows the aging population of a neighborhood to stay in their homes longer. My parents dumped their Victorian era home and purchased a ranch when I was in high school. I know. Many of these homes have been owned by the same person or family since they were built, creating mature neighborhoods, stability, and longevity in the community. MCM homes were generally built in new developments just outside the cities. Ring suburbs, we now call them. Location, location, location! As populations shift back to urban centers, these neighborhoods are again appreciated because of their proximity to the cities, but with suburban culture and values. Take that any way you like.
This post could go on and on…and on and on. Especially if you are a MCM enthusiast. From mass production informing building materials and storage to new textiles, furniture and modern home accessories – but enough is enough for now. Just appreciate these designs, typologies and aesthetics for what they are. Fabulous!
Click HERE for resources the help with choosing bathroom colors, vintage appliances, and more.
Do you own a Mid-Century Modern home? Click HERE for some resources to update, preserve, replace, or renovate your home.
Folks ask me all the time about historic districts and what the big deal is about them? Well, here’s a quick snapshot of one of Chicago’s historic districts, listed on the National Register of Historic Places; Lakewood Balmoral.
What is a historic district?
ISV has written on this topic before but I still get questions about it. ALL THE TIME. Apologies in advance – this is a lengthy one with lots of live links for further context but it covers a lot of bases. Here we go…
Vernacular architecture. Architecture of the people, by the people. “Vernacular” is more than just a local spoken dialect. Let’s get this party started.
Have you ever noticed that in Chicago, no matter how interesting and high-quality the brick on a historic facade is, the brick that’s on the secondary elevations is kind of, well, not so interesting and high-quality? What you’re seeing is a, Chicago-specific brick type. DYSV could go on and on about proper mortar, pointing, reasons for color variation, etc., but we’re not. We’re gong to keep this one short and sweet – just a brief dispatch on what Chicago common brick is and how it came to be.