September 12, 2013
By Bob Kelley
For many baby boomers, conversations about the 1950s often evoke memories of hula hoops, poodle skirts or fin-tailed cars. The steadfast mid-century ranch house usually doesn’t merit a stop on memory lane, most likely because there are a number of them still around. But thanks to a new exhibit opening in September at the DeKalb History Center (DHC) in downtown Decatur, this oft-ignored style of architecture is finally given well-earned recognition within the realm of all things retro.
The new exhibit, entitled The Mid-Century Ranch House: Hip and Historic!, not only replicates rooms in a typical 1950s home, but shows visitors why this style of home, still somewhat commonplace, should enjoy “historic” status and why the style is growing in popularity among younger audiences.
Melissa Forgey, DHC Executive Director and a longtime proponent of the mid-modern style, explains the importance of this status. “It’s all a matter of appreciating and preserving our history,” she said, “and sometimes shortsightedness can cost us historic treasures. People in the 1950s and 60s considered weathered Victorian homes, commonplace at the time, as just ‘old houses’ and were quick to tear them down in the name of progress. Look at how many lovely old structures we’ve lost due to this attitude. And, similarly today, many people consider ranch houses as just old houses.”
Forgey noted that many younger people today take the mid-century home for granted because their parents and grandparents still live in them. “Some people tend to think: I grew up in a ranch house and I’m still fairly young, so how can it be considered historic?” she added.
This question and others are explained throughout the new display. The idea for an exhibit on DeKalb County ranch homes first emerged as a request from DeKalb County Commissioner Jeff Rader to look at ranch homes from both a community planning and historic perspective. Add to this request tireless research by the DHC staff and an in-depth study conducted by Georgia State University Professor Richard Laub’s historic preservation graduate students and the concept for the new exhibit began to take shape. “We felt we could highlight some of the specific DeKalb County neighborhoods that we know date to the very beginning of the evolution of the ranch home in the county,” Forgey noted.
No doubt one such neighborhood she’s referring to would be Northwoods in Doraville. It and Embry Hills are two of only three remaining planned communities of ranch homes in the state. The other one is in Savannah. A number of ranch homes are also still scattered randomly and in developments throughout DeKalb County. “A home or structure must reach the ‘50-year’ benchmark to be considered historic or qualify for status on lists like the Georgia or National Register of Historic Places,” Forgey said. Northwoods, having recently earned a spot on the Georgia register, is in line to be placed on the national register later this year.
The ranch home has historic links to DeKalb County dating back 60-70 years. Prior to World War II, DeKalb County had one of the highest numbers of dairy farms in the United States. After the war, as dairy milk manufacturing evolved, many of the dairies closed and were sold to developers who saw the need for new housing for huge numbers of returning servicemen and their families.
Revitalized prosperity was spreading across post-war America and affordable housing styles like the ranch home quickly replaced the Craftsman and cramped bungalow styles popular in the 1920s and 30s. The revolutionary open floor plan in ranch homes offered a roomier, livable space and the promise of bedrooms for every member of the family. Located on large lots with affordable starting prices as low as $10,000, the innovative ranch home open floor plans included amenities that were formerly considered “extras” like fire places and built-in appliances.
Also daring for the time, and very Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired, were floor-to-ceiling windows that gave the illusion of glass walls, allowing the outdoors inside. Huge brick patios added to the back of the houses inspired cookouts and neighborhood get-togethers, creating a sense of community.
Visitors to the DHC exhibit will learn much more about the ranch home and its impact on social history thanks to the efforts of Karen Chance, DHC Exhibits Coordinator. She has spent months remodeling the exhibit space to recreate a typical “atomic age” living room and bathroom. “Because this has not been an area where we have had a collections focus, we borrowed items from businesses and individuals and many people have come forward donating items like a circa-1950s television and a huge ‘casket’ stereo console popular at the time,” added Forgey.
Chance has added graphics of Georgia ranch homes and neighborhoods to provide additional information. Smaller items housed in display cases represent other rooms in a typical ranch home such as appliances used in a 1950s kitchen, dining utensils or bedroom accessories.
The Mid-Century Ranch House: Hip and Historic! is the perfect complement to two ongoing DHC exhibits that will continue to run simultaneously. Dairies in DeKalb focuses on the rich history of dairy farming in DeKalb County using colorful signs, artifacts such as a route book and milk bottles and even a life-sized replica of Rosebud, the famous cow mascot for Mathis Dairy. The Guy Hayes Collection: Food, Fun & Fashion features vintage black and white photos that provide a unique view of food trends, clothing styles and recreational diversions of the 1950s and 1960s. Hayes was a well-known freelance photographer who lived in Avondale Estates until his death in 1983.
All three exhibits are free to the public. The DeKalb History Center and Museum is located in the old courthouse on the square in Decatur, 101 East Court Square. The museum is open from 10 a.m.to 4 p.m., Mondays through Fridays. To visit the DHC website, go to www.dekalbhistory.org.