And for my next move….
I’ve rented apartments and bought a condo. I never owned a house. Before I packed it up I wanted to buy a small midcentury modern ranch house. It was in my DNA. I grew up in ranch houses in Naperville, Ill. (built 1966) and Columbus, Ohio (1959?). My brother owns a midcentury modern ranch house in Nashville, Tn.
It was all a return to forever.
I’ve read the magazine “Atomic Ranch” for years, although I will never have the money to trick out a house like the dreamsicles in Palm Springs, Ca., St. Paul, Mn. and Los Angeles. I wanted to unplug from the noise, grow flowers and sit in the back yard and smoke cigars. I’ve had a rough few years. These ranch houses were part of the emerging American Dream. I wanted to see if such a thing even still exists. It feels like it is slipping away.
The midcentury modern experience speaks to a leaner time. Rooms were smaller and one-car garages were often attached to the ranch. Sputnik type light fixtures blended with lots of natural light. The Greatest Generation was emerging from World War II and the excitement of space age possiblitly collided with frugal ethics. Futurism bequeathed optimism.
A midcentury ranch house had been on my radar for a few years. My Tiki friends Dave Vasta and Dave Krys live in the near western suburbs. I was born in Berwyn and knew that was the bungalow belt. The Daves steered me to La Grange and Westchester for the strong midcentury stock.
Living alone, I wasn’t looking for a lot of space. I zeroed in on affordable tiny homes in La Grange Park and finally Westchester. I also timed the commute from Chicago—17 minutes one way in rare non-traffic situations. I live in Ukranian Village where I have become an old dude. Presto! In Westchester I’m one of the youngest guys in the neighborhood.
The fine 2006 book “House As A Mirror of Self (Exploring the Deeper Meaning of Home)” by Clare Cooper Marcus mentions a gentleman who grew up in a small town, lived in the city for a long time and was contemplating a move to Arizona.
Each setting represented a different stage of his life. He reflected on who he was in each house and he became comfortable in the “here and now.” I’m guessing there will be a lot of “now” in Westchester because there’s not a lot as much exciting “here” there as there is in Ukranian Village.
The ranch style was born in California in the 1930s and hit its peak from the 1940s to the early 1970s. America’s emerging dependence on the automobile led to the popularity of streamlined ranch houses on big lots. Streetcar suburbs of the early 20th Century featured smaller houses on narrow lots because people walked to streetcar lines. Westchester even had a streetcar line and was a CTA (Chicago Transist Authority) connector from 1926 to 1951.
Westchester (pop. 17,000) blossomed through rows and rows of midcentury ranch houses consisting of symmetrical one-story forms with low-pitched roofs. I adored the modest detailing of the houses that pay homage to Colonial and English influences. After more than a dozen trips to Westchester talking to neighbors, owners of Greek diners and the folks at Christopher’s Speakeasy, I discovered humility that is important to me. I went to the monthly Friday night fish-chicken fry at the Westchester Community Church. The old timers told me the village is so boring they call it “Deadchester.”
Westchester was founded in 1925 to recreate an English village. I found a red brick house with original decorative iron porch supports and matching shutters of the mid-1950s. The house was nestled back off the street to fit into modest landscaping.
I stumbled into a time capsule. I began researching the house. It was built in 1952. It was within walking distance of a grocery store, a neighborhood diner and a small bar, which is all I really need. The house’s street had an odd name. I mentioned to my brother that during the mid-1950s our parents lived on a similar odd sounding street in Westchester. They died in 2015 but our mom kept a meticulous typewritten diary of her life. I checked it out.
It was the same house.
It was hard to believe.
I had to re-read her passage. I have no memories of the house. Our dad worked for Swift & Company and was transferred out of Chicago to New Jersey around 1958. I was born in 1955. My brother pointed out, “You were probably conceived in that house.”
I haven’t shared this story with too many people. I still don’t know what to think. Emotion did not lead me into buying the house. I am not a fixer-upper and the house was in excellent shape. The modest house had about an amazing dozen closets which was a perfect fit for my books, files and bobbleheads. Midcentury style is framed by an organic spirit and minimalism. I can try to declutter. An open house leads to an open heart.
My excellent handyman Edmond Fernandez, Jr. was knocked out by the now and then coincidence. He’s repainted the rooms in bold mid century modern colors with Sherwin-Williams names I love. The living room was “Restless Olive,” the kitchen was “Pink Flamingo” and my office became an earthy orange “Carnival.” Actually, maybe that’s how I should have painted the bedroom. I’ve had a blast visiting mid- century modern stores like Dial M for Modern in Chicago, Pre to Post Modern in Nashville (long before I took this plunge) and the awesome bc modern in Milwaukee.
Of course 1952 is not all that has been built up to be. The United States tested the first hydrogen bomb at the Marshall Islands in the Pacific Ocean. More than 3,000 Americans died from Polio. And midcentury modern was not a better design in a black and white America. There is no Cinerama nostalgia for minorities and women.
My block is ethnically diverse. My neighbors are African-American, Hispanic and Italian. I recently moved a file from my book “The People’s Place (Soul Food Restaurants and Reminiscences From the Civil Rights Era to Today).” A plastic, typewritten file card tumbled out of a box. It was given to me by activist James Meredith at a restaurant in Jackson, Miss.
The card listed his ten commandments from the 1960s; “You shall not kill,” “You shall not steal,” but the last one was timely for the communities we live in: “Every church should take responsibility for each child within 2 miles of the church under 5 years old.” That’s imperative advice no matter where you live.
The house will take time to make it okay to live in. I forgot about those pesky village codes and for me, moving has always been like transporting the old Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. Even though I haven’t settled in, a test vinyl run sounded great in a low ceiling basement with a Nashville RCA Studio B checkerboard floor.
But my work has been framed by a sense of fascination. Was Westchester a far-away place in 1955? Our father always installed a manual wall pencil sharpener in the basement of every house we lived in. Did he install the vintage wall pencil sharpener I found in the basement of this house? Energy needs time to become focused, measured matter. In days past I retreated to the only chair in the living room.
Dusk became darkness with a turn of the page. I looked out the picture window at old trees on a quiet street. There were no shadows and I wondered if I was truly alone.