What is a Mid-Century Modern Home?
A half-century after their initial heyday, mid-century modern homes are once again all the rage. Typified by clean angles, bold rooflines, and large windows, these iconic structures blazed a new path through traditional and sometimes staid architectural styles.
The trend had its roots in the European Arts & Crafts era of the late 19th and early 20th centuries and Germany's Bauhaus School formed in 1919. The new vogue soon hopped the ocean and was embraced by American architects—most notably Frank Lloyd Wright who led the Prairie Style movement with low-pitched roofs and overhanging eaves.
From the late 1800s to the 1950s, Wright continued evolving his designs as well as influencing numerous other architects. Other pioneers of the day included George W. Maher, Philip Johnson, and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, just to name a few.
The mid-century modern movement ran from around 1945 to the early 1970s as a seamless extension of earlier modernism but gained so much momentum that it became its own vanguard. Wright’s “Usonian” houses of the 1940s and 1950s were especially influential for emerging designers who embraced the notion of cost-efficient yet high stylized homes for the middle-class.
While often associated with the west coast and southwest, mid-century modern homes can be found throughout the country. The affordability of these post-World War II homes combined with a new sense of suburban culture, lent to developers popping the low-profile homes with floor-to-ceiling windows, in increasing numbers. From upstate New York to New Mexico, Arizona, California and the Pacific Northwest, a sea change was happening.
The Washington Metropolitan area was also taking part in the new craze with modern homes for sale emerging as well as larger commercial buildings. The new fashion certainly wasn’t limited to the District itself, making its impact throughout Alexandria, Fairfax County, Montgomery County and many other areas and subdivisions.
Perhaps the most prolific contributor to the mid-century movement was Joseph Eichler who built more than 11,000 homes, primarily on the west coast, with prices averaging around $12,000. Often known simply as Eichler Homes, these distinctive subdivisions from Palm Springs to Palo Alto, were and still are, the epitome of California cool.
Also working on a large scale was Robert F. Lusk and Lusk Corporation, founded in Tucson, Arizona and then spreading through Nevada, Texas, the mid-west and even as far as New York. Lusk was the fifth-largest home builder in the country during the 1950s, often using limestone and other indigenous materials.
Of course, no chronicling of futuristic design concepts would be complete without mentioning Frank Gehry whose work in the Los Angeles area pushed the boundaries to new heights, from single-family residences to highly ambitious skyscrapers.
Meanwhile, groundbreakers in the Washington area were also getting busy. Famed female modernist Chloetheil, Woodward Smith created the large-scale Harbour Square project in DC’s Southwest Waterfront, working with other noteworthy architects such as Arthur Keyes, F. Donald Lethbridge and Nicholas Satterlee.
Other significant mid-century modern developments included the Wessynton neighborhood near Mount Vernon, Virginia; the New Rock subdivision near Silver Spring, Maryland; and Carderock Springs near Bethesda with 400 homes—the latter project from builder Edmund Bennett and designer David Condon.
But perhaps the best-known of the mid-century Washington architects was Charles Goodman who worked with developer Robert Davenport on the iconic Hollin Hills neighborhood in southern Alexandria. Initiated in 1949, the project ultimately resulted in 450 homes set into ungraded woodsy terrain with either flat or butterfly roofs plus 24 giant windows placed side-by-side. The acclaimed neighborhood continues to thrive and is a now national a national historic district.
Goodman was also responsible for a slew of other developments, including the futuristic River Park Mutual Homes cooperative with metallic barrel-shaped roofs in the Southwest Waterfront; the Hickory Cluster townhomes in Reston, the Hammond Woods and Rock Creek Woods subdivisions in Montgomery County and many more.
While the mid-century era may have ended decades ago, bold design experimentation is still alive and well in DC and surrounding counties. But that's a story for another day.