There is much truth to the old Japanese proverb “The nail that sticks up gets hammered down”. However, the phrase is far more descriptive of rural America than it is of Japan – especially when it comes to assertive examples of styled architecture. Victorian-era houses, for example, have been reviled, altered and toned-down for the past century in an effort to make them appear more modern. Ironically, actual modern houses – particularly those of the 1920’s, 30’s and 40’s – are facing a similar hostility.
When the modern movement began to gain more traction in the 1920’s, the forms and surfaces of buildings built in the Art Deco, Art Moderne (a.k.a. Streamline Moderne) and International styles must have seemed unorthodox and harsh to the masses; only the most avant-garde built in these styles. Sadly, their fan base does not seem to have grown much outside of major cities and even there many good examples languish.
All three styles are characterized by exterior walls of smooth stucco; other details (or lack thereof) help distinguish them. Their stark wall planes were typically painted plain white – it was an integral part of the style. Therefore, it is not surprising that when one wishes to tone down a modern house today, the introduction of color is the easiest and most popular weapon of choice. Color is also sometimes used to play up detailing, often with cartoonish effect (think Miami Beach hotels).
Let’s take a look at a few examples of how some of these houses have fared…
This Art Moderne house retains a high degree of architectural integrity – right down to the white stucco and black trim. The factory-sash windows, round screened-in porch and pipe balustrade are popular elements frequently associated with the style. This is how these houses are supposed to look!
Another former Art Moderne house was remodeled to suggest a vaguely Mediterranean origin. The curvy porch with pipe balustrade survives to betray the new identity. Principal changes include the addition of a pitched roof of clay tile, replacement windows and beige paint for the stucco. Note that the entry still retains its intended flat roof.
This example of Art Moderne , when photographed in the 1990’s, was still white. The photo below shows how it appears now:
The stark white has been muted with beige. Image courtesy of Google Street View.
In a rare reversal, this Art Moderne building, a former gas station, was rescued from a makeover which had imposed what appeared to be a cottage aesthetic. Today, thankfully, the building looks much as it did originally. Image courtesy of Google Street View. The “cottage” version can be seen below:
Green paint and a white vinyl fence failed to conceal the overt streamlined styling.
This Art Moderne house has seen better days. The second story appears to have lost its windows and the ground floor windows have been replaced with “greenhouse” units. The house features rounded corners.
This Art Deco house has been muted with a blue/gray color scheme, replacement windows and stylistically inappropriate shutters. Art Deco detailing includes tapered, chamfered, corners on the second story and numerous stepped surfaces. Very few houses were built in the Art Deco style; it was mostly used for commercial structures. Image courtesy of Google Street View.
The side elevation reveals more stepping, a rounded corner and horizontal banding. Image courtesy of Google Street View.
This vernacular interpretation of the International style, built in 1948, features a continuously cantilevered roof which is atypical of the style. It retains its intended white paint, but some windows are replacements.
The house, at the time of this post, is pending a sale. Call me jaded, but I’m betting that it will be painted a color (or colors) other than white within a year or two. Hopefully there will be no additional alterations. I’ll do a follow-up post when the inevitable occurs!