Monday, September 17, 2018

A FORGOTTEN SOLDIER: The Postwar Home Styles of the 1940s

In 1947, builder William Levitt got the postwar
housing ball rolling with his first mass-produced tract
at Levittown, New York. This is a later
and more ornate example of a Levitt home of the 1940s.
Author's note: This is another in series of occasional overviews on home styles of the past 120 years.

A half-century ago, in the gray no-man’s-land between the end of World War II and the heart of the Fabulous Fifties, there arose a humble little home style that’s been all but forgotten by three generations of buyers. For lack of a better name, we’ll call it the Postwar Tract. Over the span of barely a decade, it formed the stylistic bridge between the bolt-upright look of prewar homes and the racy, low-slung lines of the Rancher—a neat delineation in the change from prewar to postwar sensibilities.

Typical 1940s-era elevation, with close-cropped
roof overhangs, hip roof, and horizontal siding.
Architecture in transition is, in fact, is the overarching trait of Postwar Tract homes. They embody many construction firsts, most notably the introduction of drywall—originally a wartime expedient for military housing—as a replacement for labor-intensive lath and plaster interiors. Other firsts include the appearance of the much-despised slab floor in place of wood (though not all Postwar Tracts sit on slabs), as well as the first widespread use of steel windows.  
Stylistically, the Postwar Tract made do with less. Walls were thinner, overhangs shorter, detailing sparse—perhaps a bit of a Depression Era/War Shortage hangover. No matter, the flamboyant Rancher would cure that a few years later.

How can you tell if you own a Postwar Tract, or are about to? If the house was built between 1945 and 1955, case closed. If you’re not sure, look for stucco or horizontal wood siding, or a combination of these, as an exterior finish. Inside, expect to see drywall or, in early cases, gypsum lath (as opposed to wood lath). Steel casement or wooden double-hung windows having only horizontal muntins (dividing bars) are another unmistakable trait. Hardwood flooring (possibly concealed by wall-to-wall carpet, single-panel doors, and a low-pitched hip or gable roof with composition shingles are three more easy clues.

A larger, gable-roofed variant of the decade's aesthetic.
Note the oh-so-skinny 4x4 porch columns.
As with every style, the Postwar Tract has its good and bad points. Here are a sampling, with the good traits first:

•  Postwar Tract homes aren’t on anybody’s “hot” list—yet. Their spartan detailing and modest scale doesn’t garner the sort of press that Bungalows and Ranchers receive, and this anonymity in turn keeps sale prices relatively reasonable.

•  The Postwar Tract floor plan, while not exactly roomy, is simple and practical. Many examples also have generously-sized windows and hence good daylighting—a trait that many earlier styles can’t lay claim to.  

•  Postwar Tracts are less susceptible to the plumbing and wiring infirmities that plague prewar homes with more primitive technology. In general, they also have better foundations than their predecessors.  

Now, the bad news:

Another hip-roofed version. This example features a
common detail of the era, windows with horizontal
•  Perhaps due to lingering postwar material shortages, combined with the urgent need for housing, many Postwar Tract homes have a lower finish quality than their prewar brethren. Lumber sizes in porch structures, roofs, and even door trim were held to an absolute minimum.  Inside, the early fumbling attempts at the newfangled drywall finish often left much to be desired as well. Still, for the most part, the shortcomings of the Postwar Tract are aesthetic, not structural.

•  The small scale of the parts often extends to the whole house as a whole; there’s usually little room to spare, especially in kitchens, baths and closets. One bright spot: Postwar Tracts were  built on very generous lots and are relatively easy to expand.  So if room is scarce, you can always add more.

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