Mid-Century Modern, Recalled.

Loathe to admit, though I must, because true, hos epi to polu: I am a Mid-Century Modern-Man.  Yes, among my early memories, mother’s hair big in curlers, father in a hipster shirt, cigarette easy on the fingers, eloquent on the strong lips; the RCA’s, both the big-box black & white, snowed and rabbit-eared, and the console, woody-elegant sounding of easy, grown-up tunes.  Yes, my world was peopled, as was yours — if born before 1,965 years after Christ — with plastic of space-age forms and modish colors.  Even the davenport and the heavy drapes silently screamed, “new”.  And yes, all was improved, or so we thought.

The first Curtis-Family Atomic Ranch; Grand Blanc, Michigan, circa 1960.

That first house in Grand Blanc, suburb of Flint city, founded by my father’s people — though then, I had no idea … not sure he did — was, well, an Atomic Ranch, curious child of the low ranch of the prairie, and F.L. Wright’s high-minded ranch of magazine covers, Los Angeles to Amherst.  That ranch was home to mom, dad, we four before the youngest outgrew us from sleek modernity into a box house formed traditionally, stamped by the thousands on the street grid of muscular Detroit.  In Detroit: Reader’s Digest, milk and bread delivery, shining finned cars, Chesterfield’s, Dina Shore and Frank Sinatra — can hear them yet — Sorgies Bar, martini’s and Stroh’s for the parents, Boone’s Farm for the sneaking 14-year-olds, white-gloved Mass on Sundays, et cetera.  If born after 1965, picture the “Jetsons” in “Little House on the Prairie”, and you will know us, then.

Kathy barrel racing in California’s Coachella desert, circa 1967.

The California family … what best to admit … Uncle Richard was city manager of Sacramento, some twenty years; uncle Polly was a restaurateur, horse rancher, lassoing champion, cowboy, and aunt Helen was a starlet, even in her 90’s (everyone agrees), and their children, champion Western riders all.  Where once that dusty horse ranch was, is Mid-Century Modern far as the eye can see, Mecca to the Palm Springs Movie Colony … where, many years ago, I updated a few movie star mod-masterpieces for a quick, smart developer.  Those Palm Springs moderns were the epitome of who once we were, when yet the modern was wholesome, smart and strong, American and good, hos epi to polu, before the progressive regression.

Expect you know, “modern” is of Latin coinage, popularized in the 18th Century by the satirist, Jonathan Swift, a word meaning, “just now”.  Curious about the just now: the “just now” has just now passed into the past where it shall always be.  The only “modern” is the moment we are in.  That moment next, the moment last is old fashioned.  Always shall be.  The modern is nostalgic, sweetly safe, sentimental, that place we most like to be.  The “Modern” is a historical period of the old 20th Century … as “20th Century Fox” is an old thing, as “21st Century Fox News” is a new thing, as I’ve no need of telling you.  Times change and we change clothes, gadgets, opinions, points of view, as in the changing fashions of shoes, Birkenstock to Santoni.

 

Typical Mid-Century Modern “Ranch”.  Nine of ten houses built between 1950 and 1960 were “ranches”.

 

Mid-Century Modern: Recalled

The last of the Mid-Century Mods I called, “home”, was a suburban, split-level “A” Frame, that curious hybrid of obscure modernists, builders and pattern-book house-plans.  This home, in Rochester Hills, Michigan, was hand-built by the previous owner from a plan-set, alike some pilgrim might hew his family’s house from the surrounding wood, or as some spirited Wrightian Usonian might reconnect with the land, in this case, a former apple orchard, Judson Park.  The home, a young, forward-looking room-to-room speakered Mid-Century Mod, was not prepared to met my mom, a daughter of “Michigan Nice”, a sentimentalist with a liking of precious things, family, holidays, gift-shop treasures, those tchotchke that embarrass, that challenge a Mid-Century Mod.  Two decades of challenge from mom were followed by two decades of Mod surrender.  In the end, the Jetsons were absorbed into the Ingalls, and the Mid-Century Mod forgot who it was.

 

Mid-Century Modern, Palm Desert; “The Wave”, 1955; Miles C. Bates, architect.

 

Lately, neighbor Mods, here in Virginia, just to my south, are friended by eager boosters, preservationist, enthusiasts who occasionally drag in Mid-Century Mod costume, who jealously protect the period, with integrity.  These are happy homes who recognize themselves, who are rooted into the old century’s soil, who seasonally bring forth fresh, Mid-Century Modern fruit.  True, as my scholar friends will insist, “The Mid-Century Modern is not an architectural style, but a fashion.”  Well, yes, of course, as the Palladian is fashion that weaves itself through Classive Civilization’s history, Homer to me, to you.  And, I will grant, as scientific fact, the architects who early spawned the Modern style suffered post traumatic stress (PTSD) which caused aesthetic dysfunction, a clinical dysfunction mirrored in the autistic spectrum.*  How the mechanic, International Mod style yet survives in the cannon, and in the lugubrious universities of architecture, is rather more a question of tenure, of politics, than of excellence, than of firmitas, utilitas, venusts, “firmness, commodity, delight” … the Vitruvian triangle of humane building.

 

Typical Mid-Century Modern “A-Frame”.

 

I should say: The Mid-Century Modern is earnest, is in liberty, American, for all the good America suggests.  True, the Modern is another colonial style, a style born-in and brought-from warring Europe after WWI and WWII**.  Even so, as with all colonial styles, we Americans reformed old tortured and angry Europe into a healthful, hopeful, happy America, confident and good, and friendly, hos epi to poluThis October, The Beautiful Home befriends the houses, the inhabitants and habits of the Mid-Century Modern home.

 

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*Ann Susman, “The Mental Disorders that Gave Us Modern Architecture“, published at Common Edge.

**European architects fleeing WWI & WWII brought with them Expressionism, Constructivism, the Bauhaus, Functionalism, Minimalism, Internationalism, Brutalism, et cetera.