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Spec Houses from the 1940s

When Kim was attempting to buy her first house in Seattle she found houses in the 1940-era suburbs, still close to downtown, were much more affordable than ones in the earlier streetcar suburbs. Upscale neighborhoods like Queen Anne and Ravenna Park had the more coveted Craftsman and pre-1930 period-revival houses.  

The problem with the 1940s houses was most were built on speculation and they looked it. Exterior designs were often a peculiar mix of traditional and modern details, yet the houses themselves were well built. They were also on larger lots than ones platted earlier or later. These neighborhoods now with mature trees and landscaping are some of Seattle’s most desirable. 

The housing market after the war was uncertain. Developers were not sure what designs would sell. Modern-lite expressed optimism while "Old World" period-revival designs implied traditional comfort. They hedged their bets by offering a little of both. Realtors could tell people looking for a traditional cottage, "See, it's a classic (sic) Cape Cod (sic)." For those leaning to Modernism, they could point to streamlined corner windows, modern kitchen and bath, and an attached garage.  

Designs for spec houses were muddled and weak and owners tried to improve their curb appeal. They were susceptible to bad advice. During the 1950s it was popular to paste a thin masonry veneer called "Rocky Mountain Stone" over the exterior; it was not very convincing. In the 1970s they tried diagonal wood siding and that was followed by flimsy wood-grained vinyl. 

When Kim found this house, it was sealed in blue vinyl siding. Most of the windows were swollen shut and the front door was placed just off-center as if to annoy everyone. Otherwise, the house appeared to have good bones and was worth buying. Kim hired us to create a master plan for its renovation. Finding an affordable house in a quiet, close-in neighborhood was a relief for her. Others might consider this a starter home to live in just long enough for inflation to create some equity, and then do a "fluff and turn." 

​The good news for owners of 1940s spec houses is the designs can be improved! The key to is to find a plausible historical tradition for the house and develop it. Find suitable models to emulate and make every change consistent with the vision. Whatever is removed or added should enhance its overall character.

Kim wanted a "Cape Cod" design, and that was how realtors identified houses like hers. Technically, a Cape with front-facing gable is Greek Revival, but let's not quibble. In creating a renovation master plan we looked to other designs from the 1920s and 1930s when Capes and Colonial Revivals were at their peak. Both the popular and architectural press featured lots of great examples. 

Disputed Territories of Historic Preservation

Alas, this is where we entered the disputed territories of historic preservation. Orthodox preservationists insist: Thou shalt not look unto earlier periods of design or create "a false sense of historical development." Really, what could be worse? This view emerged from the National Park Service "Secretary of the Interior's Standards for Rehabilitation" adopted in 1977 for "designated structures," meaning landmarks on the National Register of Historic Places.

We concede that designated landmarks should be protected intact to experience in as close to original condition as practical. The problem was when the Federal guidelines were adopted by local agencies and architectural review boards for the purpose of asserting legal authority and precedent, i.e. "If the Feds can do it, so can WE!" When local jurisdictions adopted the guidelines they did not limit them to designated landmarks but usually included ALL buildings over fifty years of age, regardless of their quality or historic significance. 

Buildings with little significance that do not meet landmark criteria should not be held to landmark standards. Preserving them as historic artifacts frozen in time is actually detrimental. They cannot be improved or adapted and their weaknesses become permanent. Nothing is more fundamental to life than adaptation based on experience.  

​The Secretary's guidelines inform us that "new work shall be differentiated from the old and shall be compatible." What does that mean? Authorities interpreted this as new work shall not replicate existing features and details. For example, a new window cannot match existing ones. Even the trim must be different. This weird obsession with differentiation supposedly protected the public from architectural deception, suggesting “a false sense of historical development.”

Historic districts suffered the most. New buildings and changes to historic ones had to contrast the original character and be dressed in whatever was currently fashionable to make them "of our time." Every change undermined the character for which the district was actually designated. Additions to historic buildings had to be contemporary (read Modernist) and preferably with a little link to visually separate the new and old. We were supposed to be grateful the historic building was saved and ignore the Modern tumor. 

Modernist architects like to claim they are “referencing” or “paying tribute” to an historical setting with their contrasting design. Excuse me, but who gave them authority over history and architectural precedents? When they look at generations of development and see an “historic jumble of buildings” it only means they can't read the city or understand how pre-modern ones evolved.  

​In fairness to the Secretary of the Interior Standards it was adopted in the 1970s when few architects could design competently within historic building traditions. The problem was that generation was trained only in Modernism. For decades traditionalist design was not taught or considered relevant. Modernists of the early 20th century saw as their purpose the conquest of "eclectic and derivative styles" which were holding back progress. Freed from this melodrama today, many architects work competently within historic building traditions and have recovered lost knowledge. A much more nuanced approach to differentiated-yet-compatible is surely possible. 

Architectural historians were advocates of the current policy against seamless additions since they saw their role as defining historic periods, dating buildings and assessing original construction from later additions. But those things are amply recorded in building permits and most people prefer well-integrated buildings and coherent places. Wherever design remains unregulated, most people will opt for integration of old and new-- continuity, not contrast-- and see this as common sense.

Fortunately for us Kim's project was not subject to design review! The insidious effect of legislating against common sense is the loss of community confidence. When citizens sense the law has been coerced to serve special interests they withdraw their support. Notice that establishing new historic districts, once advocated by residents and neighborhood associations, are now vehemently resisted by them. 

​Kim attended college in New England and loved the historic small towns and Colonial Revival houses she found. Although we suggested color-coding exterior materials to emphasize detail, she insisted the house be painted the classic scheme--all-white with Essex Green windows. It was her vision of New England and what she wanted.

The Secretary's stance also implies architectural history is simply a progression of styles one after another along a timeline. If we take a broader view to include the evolution of styles and continuities across time things are not so tidy. The Classical tradition is ever adapting and extends over two thousand years and vernacular traditions extend to the beginning of recorded history. Some understandings are lost but recalled after periods of drift and disinterest. Revivals are also prompted by a shift in perceptions.

Period Revivals

The timing of architectural revivals will parallel changes in perceived attitudes and alliances within the culture. Consider the late 1940s. After World War Two the U.S. emerged from fifteen years of trauma as the last industrial nation standing. Renewed optimism and confidence led to a baby boom, which led to more demand in housing. Developers found the least expensive land to acquire and develop was marginal farmland on the outskirts of cities. Detroit automakers shifted production from the war effort to making private automobiles. Gasoline was cheap. New FHA mortgage requirements favored suburban over urban development. It is not hard to see why automobile suburbs flourished and traditional cities contracted.  

The most popular suburban starter home, built either custom or in a tract development, was the Cape Cod cottage. It began as a plain rectangle with a side-facing gable roof. The front door faced the street with sash windows and a brick chimney that poked through the roof. Generations of Americans were imprinted with this image of home. For developers, the Cape was probably the least expensive house to build. Each one stood in a small, fenced yard, and was connected to everything else by the family car. 

Boston's Royal Barry Wills was one of the most popular architects of the 1940s. An astute promoter, his Cape Cod revival houses were seen by millions in Sunday supplements and popular magazines. Wills claimed he designed over one thousand houses. While he was one of the best-known architects of the period he was not so popular with critics. Since Wills preferred traditional over Modern architecture he could be dismissed as having only “middlebrow” taste. Sadly true, he loved American Colonial houses and furnished his own with Federal antiques. Wills could also be found at local auctions bidding on historic house parts like salvaged columns or an antique ship's lantern to include in one of his designs. 

The traditionalist houses Wills designed were not reproductions, but recreations of historic types and adapted for the present. Few people would confuse one of his designs for an historic building. They were too fresh and crisp. Composed of simple and balanced geometric forms they seemed modern too. Wills included the most up-to-date features in kitchens and baths, central heating and attached garages, but also historical references. He insisted on a huge brick chimney to project through the roof so his Capes looked convincing. Entries were given special attention. Even a small house would have a pair of slender fluted pilasters framing the six-panel door with a delicate leaded transom above.

Historian Lewis Mumford averred, "Every culture lives within its dream." Americans of the 1940s were more than ready to leave the Depression and war years behind. That generation could easily imagine pulling into the driveway of a Royal Barry Wills house to set up a new life. Implicit in the postwar recovery was shoring-up the Nation’s Foundation myth. The New England Yankee narrative of independent, self-reliant and practical homesteaders was compelling to this generation. They could identify with the story of resourceful pioneers surviving years of deprivation to flourish and prosper.

Wills and other architects embraced the National myth and gave it new expression in the Colonial Revival. Americans sensed something timely and reassuring in the work. Their enthusiasm was not subdued by modern critics who dismissed the architecture as nostalgic and misguided escapism. Critics had not noticed the traditionalists were building a bridge to the18th century. By connecting the present to the Founders' building traditions they encouraged Americans to find within these precedents ideals worth preserving. 

Tim Andersen


Our view of historic preservation law was tempered by being on both sides of the issue. As practicing architects who specialized in renovating and restoring historic buildings our projects were often subjected to the arbitrary interpretations and judgments of authorities. But I also served for over five years on the Pasadena Cultural Heritage Commission. Its members were appointed by Pasadena City Directors to create preservation policy for the city's remarkable architectural heritage. Its role was advisory and had little authority over demolitions. At the time there was tremendous pressure from developers to exploit Pasadena for its desirability and location. When their projects were submitted for review our task was to persuade them to preserve the historic resources and include them in their plans. This was futile of course since they required removing the existing buildings. Only rarely were they moved, but the Commission did maintain an appearance of civic concern.

Kim's Cape in Disputed Territories
Historic preservation and period revivals
Architect Royal Barry Wills
Kim's Cape before renovation

Kim's Cape, Seattle, WA
Kim's Cape prior to renovation
American Gas Association  ad, c.1948
Home from the office, a print ad for American Gas Association, 1948. 
Kim's Cape after renovation
8 March 2021
2,000 words
Our new colonial revival portico
Crisp new Cape Cod revival with attached breezeway and garage, Royal Barry Wills, c.1940
The Duxbury, 1950. Cape Cod house with suggested color scheme. Siding, sash and picket fence are white with green shutters. Cedar shingle roof has been stained red.
Promotional photograph for Rainier Vista, a typical 1940s subdivision in Seattle.
Same view after renovaton
Royal Barry Wills study in his home, Winchester, MA