homeprojectsabout usCottage Classicsnewsopinioncontact us

Spec houses from 1940s

Kim was looking to buy her first house in Seattle.  She found houses in the 1940-era suburbs, still close to downtown, much more affordable than those in the earlier streetcar suburbs. Queen Anne, Ravenna Park and Wallingford held the coveted Craftsman and period-revival houses built between before 1930.  

The problem with 1940s houses was that most of them were built on speculation and look it.  Many exteriors are an odd mix of traditional and modern details, yet the houses were well made.  Another benefit was that they were built on larger lots than earlier or later suburbs. Seattle's 1940s neighborhoods today with mature trees and landscape are comfortable and desirable places to live.  

When these suburbs were developed after World War II the housing market was uncertain.  In design, Modern-lite seemed to express optimism while period-revival designs homey comfort.  Developers could hedge their bets by offering a little of both. Realtors told clients looking for a traditional cottage, "See—classic (sic) Cape Cod (sic)." For those attracted to Modernism, they pointed to the streamlined corner windows, modern kitchen, bath, and attached garage.  

Over time spec house owners tried to improve curb appeal.  Some were susceptible to bad advice from remuddlers who offered easy fixes like Rocky Mountain Stone, a 1950s masonry veneer to cover the walls. In the 1970s diagonal wood siding was popular, soon followed by flimsy wood-grained vinyl. 

When Kim bought her house, it was sealed in blue vinyl siding, most windows were swollen shut and the front door was placed annoyingly off-center.  Otherwise, the house appeared to have good bones and worth buying.  Kim commissioned our firm to create a master plan for renovation.

For her, finding an affordable house in a quiet close-in neighborhood was a big plus.  Many buyers viewed such houses as a starter home. They planned to live there long enough for inflation to create equity, and do a fluff and turn.  Some buyers were surprised to discover that once they settled in they enjoyed living there. 

The good news is their ugly duckling can be seen anew!  The key to improvement is to find within the design a plausible historical tradition, and then develop it.  Create a vision for the house, and make every change consistent with it. Whatever is taken away or added should improve the overall character.

Kim wanted a "Cape Cod" house and that is how Seattle realtors pitch houses like hers.  Technically, a Cape with front-facing gable like this is Greek Revival.  In creating a renovation master plan we looked to other designs from the 1920s and 1930s when Colonial revivals were at their peak.  Popular and architectural press featured many Cape revivals. 

Disputed territories of historic preservation

This is where our project entered the disputed territories of historic preservation. Orthodox preservationists insist thou shalt not look into earlier periods of design and create "a false sense of historical development."  Horrors.

This view emerged from the National Park Service "Secretary of the Interior's Standards for Rehabilitation" (1977) for designated structures. That means landmarks on the National Register of Historic Places.

Okay, we agree designated landmarks should be protected intact for future generations to experience close to their original condition. The problem came when the Federal guidelines were adopted by local agencies and architectural review boards to justify their authority and claim legal precedent: "If the Feds can do this, so can we."  Where adopted the guidelines were not limited to designated landmarks, but became the authority on the treatment of all buildings over fifty years of age, regardless of their quality or historic significance. 

Buildings with little significant character that do not meet landmark criteria should not be held to landmark standards. Preserving them as historic artifacts was detrimental.  It meant they could not improve or adapt and their weaknesses became permanent.  What could be more fundamental to life than adaptation informed by experience?  

The Secretary's guidelines instruct designers that "new work shall be differentiated from the old, and shall be compatible." This innocuous statement was interpreted by review boards and agencies to mean new work must not replicate existing features and details.  A new window could not match existing ones-- even the trim must be different, but compatible.  This strange obsession with differentiating new from existing features supposedly protected the public from architectural deceptions and suggesting a false sense of historical development.

But additions to historic buildings and districts have been the worst consequence.  Developers were actually encouraged to contrast the historic setting with new buildings in the current fashion.  Review boards declared additions must be contemporary and "of our time," and preferably with a little link to visually separate new from old.  We were supposed to be grateful the historic portion had been saved and ignore the modern intrusion.  Like most forced marriages, the unwilling partners would have been better off alone. 

When arrogant architects claim to “reference” or “pay tribute” to a historical setting with their modern designs they are patronizing us. Who gave them authority over the historic context and architectural precedent?   When they look at generations of development and see a “historic jumble of buildings” it only means they can't read the city, or understand how pre-modern ones evolved.  

The Secretary of the Interior Standards adopted in the 1970s appeared when few architects could design competently within a historic building tradition. That generation was trained only in Modernism.  For twenty years traditional styles had been derided as retrograde, inappropriate for the times.  Modernists presented their work as a heroic conquest of "eclectic and derivative styles" that held back progress.  Absent this pumped-up drama, many architects today work within historic building traditions, and extend them in new work.  A much more nuanced approach to differentiated-yet-compatible is surely possible. 

Architectural historians were the primary advocates of the current policy against seamless additions, since they saw their job as defining historic periods, dating buildings and determining original construction from later additions.  Yet most people prefer well-integrated buildings and coherent places.  Wherever design remains unregulated, most will opt for integration of old and new-- continuity, not contrast-- and see this as common sense.

The insidious effect of legislating against common sense is a loss of legitimacy and community support. When we sense the law has been manipulated to serve special interests we withdraw support. Creating historic districts, once favored by local residents, is now resisted. 

Fortunately, Kim's project was not subject to design review.  Kim had attended college in New England, and the historic small towns and colonial revival houses resonated with her. Even though her architect recommended color-coding exterior materials to emphasize detail, she insisted the house be painted all white with Essex Green windows. That was her vision of New England, and what she intended to have.

The Secretary's position also implied architectural history was simply a progression of styles, one after another, along a time line. Taking a broader view of architectural history that includes evolution of styles and continuities across time things are not so tidy. Classical traditions in architecture extend over two thousand years.  Many understandings are recalled after periods of drift.  Revivals and cultural narratives can also be prompted by social conditions.

Period revivals

The timing of popular revivals is revealing. They can signal changes in a society's perceptions, attitudes and alliances. Consider the late 1940s.  After World War II the U.S. emerged from fifteen years of trauma the last industrial nation standing.  Renewed optimism and confidence led to a baby boom, which led to more demand in housing.  Developers found that the least expensive land to acquire and develop was marginal farmland close to town.  The Detroit automakers had greatly expanded capacity for the war effort, and now intended to consolidate their gains by shifting production to private automobiles. Gasoline was cheap.  New FHA mortgage requirements favored suburban over urban development.  It is not difficult to see why automobile suburbs flourished and traditional cities contracted.  

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

One of the most popular architects of the 1940s was Boston's Royal Barry Wills.  An astute promoter, his Cape Cod revival houses were
seen in Sunday supplements and popular magazines all over the countryHis firm claimed to have designed over one thousand houses. While Wills was one of the best-known architects of the period he received little recognition from critics.  His obvious preference for traditional over modern design revealed an unforgivable weakness--middlebrow taste.   

Sadly true, Wills loved American Colonial houses and furnished his own home with colonial antiques.  He was seen attending local auctions to bid on historic house parts like salvaged columns or a ship's lantern to be incorporated into one of his designs. 

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

Historian Lewis Mumford wrote, "Every culture lives within its dream."  Americans of the 1940s were more than ready to leave the Depression and WW II 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 postwar recovery was shoring-up a suitable cultural myth. New Englanders continued to value the Yankee narrative of independence, self-reliance and practical thrift-- all qualities seen in a modern Cape. The popular Colonial Revival supported the story of resourceful pioneers who survived years of deprivation to prosper and flourish and it was a self-perception this generation shared.

Wills and other Colonial Revival architects embraced the useful myth and gave it fresh expression. Americans sensed something timely and reassuring in this work. They were not subdued by modern critics who dismissed it as nostalgia and misguided escapism. Critics did not notice the Colonial Revivalists were building a bridge to the18th century.  By connecting to the Founders' building traditions revivalists imagined Americans might find within these precedents ideals worth preserving. 

Tim Andersen

My view of historic preservation law was tempered by being on both sides of the issue. As an architect who specialized in renovating and restoring historic buildings our projects were often subjected to the judgment of authorities. But I also served five years on the Pasadena Cultural Heritage Commission, a citizen commission whose members were appointed by the City Directors to advocate for preservation of historic buildings.  The Commission was advisory had little real authority over demolitions--the primary reason for their loss. As developers submitted their projects for review our task was to persuade them to preserve historic resources and include them in their plans. The efforts were often too little and too late, but maintained 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 October 2019
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, WA
Same view after renovaton
Royal Barry Wills study in his home, Winchester, MA