what counts as an 'old house'

nesting12April 12, 2009

I've been lurking here for awhile and really enjoying learning about everyone's houses, and just picking up the lingo and ethics of owning/restoring an old house.

I have a question for folks here-- is a post-war 1947 blah ranch house an "old house"? I really love my house but I am pretty sure it wasn't anything special even when it was built. Houses just like it are being torn down right and left because they have really weird layouts (as mine does) and are hard to work with.

On the other hand, there are cute little details to my house that I love, and the floors are gorgeous. I sort of want to preserve the house because of its history, but no architect or designer I have over here seems to be remotely interested in the house. They just want to "freshen it up" and all of them say it is "just a tear down."

Is this just because right now newer "tuscan" homes are the rage? Will these 1940's houses be more valued later? Or are they not valued because they are not... valuable?

And (enough questions for you?) I wonder what responsibility I have to the house? Does a house like this have the same integrity as, say, a beautiful 1900 house with beautiful woodwork? Or can I do anything to it and not feel badly about it? I know the truth is somewhere in the middle, but reading here has me wondering exactly what the rules are.

thanks! sorry this is so long!

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Interesting question!

I have no compunction in tearing down virtually anything, though I will retrieve what's salable/collectible.

What hits the bin here are most often 1940s-1950s houses. They're close to the downtown core but by modern standards woefully undersized for their lots. They have virtually nothing in the way of salvageable finishing details. At the most, a fireplace mantle or two. They're energy wasters, usually with no insulation and no place to put it. A thousand square feet, one small bath, a half basement and a carport do not make for comfortable family living in my neck of the woods. Even if 50 years ago they were the height of avante garde modernism, the apex of town planning, as was my own current neighbourhood.

Still, architectural historians, nostalgists and municipal officials aren't always on the side of change. Restrictive by-laws on coverage and height hamper new development. And there's always the chance that someday Levittowns will fall prey to preservationists.

If you've got art student sensitivities, and a knack for retro funkiness, there's no doubt you can recreate the 1950s. If it doesn't suit you, well, that's your choice.

I was recently sorting through family history after my Mom's passing and came across fresh-as-yesterday slides that I will turn into prints. My first thought: "Look at all this mint condition vintage furniture! And that perfect 1958 split-level with its pale green asbestos shingles!" I guess I'm not as immune as I thought to hanging onto the past.

    Bookmark   April 12, 2009 at 4:18PM
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I wonder if those angular unadorned '50s ranches were to be the last original North American home styles. After all, what they've been replaced with are large pastiches of forms centuries old. Consider the work of probably the most popular architect here amongst infill builders.

    Bookmark   April 12, 2009 at 4:28PM
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I am puzzled that so many people can afford these huge new style houses. One of the reasons that new homes have to be so big is the so called open floor plan. You can't get away from others by going to another room so you need the option of putting large distances between people.
I think a 1940s home qualifies as an old house, or at least an "older" home. What kills me is when they call a house old on hgtv cuz its 7 or 10 yr old. Anything less than 25 years is new in my book.

    Bookmark   April 12, 2009 at 5:32PM
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Cyndi Charney

That's a good question. IMO "old" is a relative term. In a community of turn-of-the-century and older homes, a 1947 house would probably be considered newer. In an area where new construction is the norm, a 1947 house would most likely be considered old. I think that your house is better classified as a "mid-century" home. It dates the era of construction without having to worry about it being old enough to be called old. :)

    Bookmark   April 12, 2009 at 9:15PM
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The thing is that although these houses are undersized by today's standards, and they are often "development" houses, they were still built at a higher level of quality than their counterparts of today. A client of mine tore down their 1947 split to replace it with a 4000 sq ft "Center Hall Bucks County Farmhouse" which although beautifully designed by an architect and well built by Amish builders--does NOT have some of the features of the development house it replaced. It is a custom house, but it has hollow core doors, the upstairs does not have hardwood floors, and it is drywall and urethane moulding rather than plaster on board. (and it is higher quality than most "builders" houses of its era.)

She has had to put the big house on the market (and is having trouble selling), and she bought the 1947 house next door. It is a fraction of the size, is not grand and has "no" detail, but it withstood Years of neglect by an elderly homeowner and has weathered two winters with no heat.

I wonder if the custom house she is giving up could withstand the same neglect.

    Bookmark   April 12, 2009 at 9:26PM
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For someone of my age, I will have to say pre-WWII; everything newer seems too "my generation". And I will never be old, so houses my age ipso facto will remain forever young.
The National Register of Historic Places was using a 50 year age criteria for a long time; do they still?.

    Bookmark   April 12, 2009 at 9:29PM
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50 year age criteria...do they still?


they were still built at a higher level of quality than their counterparts of today.

Depends on the comparison. Are plank subfloors and roof sheathing better than 3/4" ply. A half-inch of cement under ceramic better than two layers of 5/8" ply or 3/4" and Ditra? No insulation at all, (or a sagging bit of fg) better than mandated R-21. Double hung single-glazed windows better than double-glazed argon-filled e-coated casements? 60 amp electrical service better than 200 amps? two-inches of concrete basement poured directly on the soil better than 6 inches of gravel followed by reinforced 5 inches of concrete?

    Bookmark   April 13, 2009 at 9:39AM
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I agree that there are a number of construction practices that were common in American history that have been found to be inadequate. And in terms of efficiency, nothing beats modern technology.

In some ways it is like trying to compare an old car and a new car. There IS no comparison. However, an old car is more "adaptable" and one can work on an old car in the driveway. An expert mechanic doesnt even really "work" on a new car, he replaces components.

I live in a condo in a building from 1840. It started out with no electricity and it has been upgraded a number of times, and the windows could be upgraded as well. Insulation could be a problem. However, this building and the entire neighborhood survived over a half century of benign neglect all the way to abandonment. I can't foresee most modern houses surviving something like this.

    Bookmark   April 13, 2009 at 9:55AM
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I think of vintage houses as handcrafted works of art. New houses are comfortable, efficient machines.

The best house is a combination of both. It could be a vintage house retrofitted with modern technology, or an intelligently designed and built new house.

    Bookmark   April 23, 2009 at 8:05PM
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I live in a 1950's Campanelli-built slab ranch house and it's pretty much the same age as I. It is developing 'aches & pains' from normal wear and tear, but you know, these are hardy little homes. As for age, is 54 years 'old'? Am I 'old'? I guess it depends how you live your life/ how the house was treated over the years; what has been ripped out, glued on, and hammered in. ( yeah I'm talking about me, too...lol)
This is my second Campanelli, 25 years after the first one (6 houses in between) This one came so badly mangled, I felt it was my 'duty' to do what I could to fix it. They had left the original china /kitchen cabinets with sliding glass doors, some original windows, the original back door, the original kitchen cabinets, and the original bathroom fixtures, all in poor shape. Somebody had yanked out the whole brick fireplace structure, (you can be sure I put one back!) Being a big fan of the noble little Campanelli, I had my guys come in and remodel & restore, and now it has some of its' charm back again. The Campanelli house in general is not 'old', but old enough that the hardware stores in my town do a very good business. Sort of like my doctors these days!

    Bookmark   April 24, 2009 at 10:13AM
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Your post war house if absolutely an old house - specifically a 50s-retro house. There is a HUGE movement afoot these days to save and restore these houses. And undoubtedly it has a great location and many features worth saving. What it does not have is (1) a big enough kitchen (2) enough bathrooms and (3) large bedrooms. All this is fixable. But what is probably does have are hardwood floors throughout and thick plaster walls, lots of nice trim and one of the first of the actual modern kitchens. Save it if you can. For more information on post-war modernism and retro-50s houses see the web page below.

Here is a link that might be useful: Postwar Styles: Cape Cod, Colonial and Ranch

    Bookmark   April 24, 2009 at 6:21PM
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