Mid-Century homes are recognized now for their architectural charm, but during the 1950s when they were created they were known for the building concepts of Cliff May, Joseph Eichler and others.
Those concepts came about largely because World War II had ended. New materials were available because they were no longer needed for the war effort. The streamlined building concepts of contemporary architects and builders could now be brought to reality.
Most importantly it was a time when a grateful nation was offering low-interest loans to veterans, and many of the returning warriors were moving to California, lured by the benign climate and the indoor-outdoor lifestyle. Add the rich opportunities for jobs provided by companies that relocated here to take advantage of the growing labor pool and you have the perfect framework for an idea whose time had come.
Many of the vets who brought their families to live in Southern California were motivated by the temperate climate. They were receptive to an architectural style that brought the outdoors in and were ideal settings for the activities that came from year-round good weather.
Locally, the aerospace industry was just – well, taking off, and the combination of jobs, manpower and weather clicked into place just as May began to promote the lifestyle that his homes offered to those farsighted enough to chose them over the more traditional homes being built in the area.
California’s innovative builders took advantage of the fact that the heavier architecture necessary to withstand the harsh climates in the Midwest and on the East Coast was simply out of place in Sunny California.
May’s homes were partially inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright’s innovative designs, but they are uniquely his own, derived from his upbringing in a Spanish hacienda-style ranch house in San Diego.
“The early Californians had the right idea,” he said. “They built for the seclusion and comfort of their families, for the enjoyment of relaxation in their homes. We want to perpetuate these ideas of home building.”
May created an innovative construction technique that included building the homes in increments and shipping them to the site for a fast build-out.
Eichler was a social visionary and commissioned designs primarily for middle-class Americans organized in diverse and idyllic planned communities featuring integrated parks and community centers. And he was a generation ahead of his time when he established a non-discrimination policy and offered homes for sale to anyone of any religion or race.
Both builders’ designs emphasize livability rather than façade, and the resulting homes are in harmony with the way people like to live. Homeowners are able to give parties, prepare meals and use patios for entertaining. Large expanses of glass and sliding glass doors were incorporated into their designs the month they became available. Reinforced concrete slab foundations are set at ground level, so that passing from inside to outdoors is almost unnoticed.
Even the position of the home on the lot was innovative, set near the back property line, providing more open outdoor space and an enhanced relationship between the home’s interior and yard. Often the homes feature two or three small yards in place of the traditional front and back lawns.
Floorplans are usually L- or U-shaped, and construction elements include post and beam design that is relatively easy to refurbish or renovate, wide expanses of glass doors and clerestory windows that make the most of the California sunshine. The open design of the interiors seem to beckon visitors from one room to another—and, ideally, there is a garden view from each room. Many of today’s design-savvy homeowners have removed walls, making them even more open in the interior as well as the exterior.
Both builders had unprecedented success as homebuilders and designers, and their ideas encouraged a new lifestyle. The indoor/outdoor life began to define California and the area enjoyed an equally unprecedented housing boom.
Returning vets were eager to leave the misery of combat for good, and it seemed California was the place to live. Foxholes gave way to swimming pools. Field rations were a thing of the past, replaced by barbecues and outdoor grills. The creature comforts that were impossible to obtain during wartime were as abundant as the oranges that grew in the yard.
The California Rancho homes were gems of Mid-Century Modern design and they personified the good life for generations of Americans who were blessed with peace and prosperity.
Today these sparse, elegant homes attract a new generation of buyers attuned to the aesthetic of form and function with a little bit of patio-party sociability blended in. The good life, it seems, is here to stay.
Article written by our contributing writer: Cheryl Scott
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