Midcentury Modern Home Failures

mid century modern exterior house


The popularity of the mid-century modern style is usually attributed to the TV series "Mad Men." But the show is just a mouthpiece—a messaging system—for the zeitgeist that's already there.

The source of heat lies deep in the cerebral cortex of a generation of 40-plus year-olds. These are the environs where, as kids, they accompanied their parents to the super-sleek savings and loan and marveled at concrete beams impossibly arching over vast floor spaces. Or where they visited their mom's rich sister who had a low, flat home designed by an actual architect—not a tract home stamped from a cookie presser—dominated by a massive fireplace. Or where countless TV sitcom families lived among acres of glass and indoor rockery.

So it comes as no surprise that this generation, now adults, now parents, and now monied, would want to buy or remodel their homes to mid-century modern perfection.

Mid-century modern represented freedom—freedom from the bonds of gravity (cantilevers), from the restrictions of energy-saving (those acres of glass), and from skimping on land (spread out the house on one level; no two stories allowed here).

And who doesn't love freedom?

But if you're considering renovating sections of your home, or your entire home, into the mid-century style, at least be aware of several beliefs of that age that later came to naught.

  • 01 of 05

    Too Much Glass

    Modern home exterior
    spyderskidoo / Getty Images

    The first thing you notice with mid-century modern houses is that they appear to be built wholly of glass.

    The Fail

    Glass is a terrible insulator. The more layers and thickness you have, the better the insulator you have. It also helps to have materials suited for insulation, such as fiberglass and gypsum. Even though mid-century modern homes employed thick tempered glass for its transparent walls and oversized windows, there are far better ways to insulate a home than this.

    Why They Did It

    The spirit of post-WWII was all about breaking down boundaries—geography, race, gender. Glass was seen as a way to break the boundary between inside and outside, as well.

  • 02 of 05


    Mid-century modern home
    Korisbo / Getty Images

    In any good mid-century modern house, you had to have a cantilever or two somewhere. Cantilevering means to have a piece of the house jut out horizontally, unsupported from below. But it doesn't involve minor chunks of the house—it might be entire decks, rooms, wings, or pools. The more, the better.

    The Fail

    Any engineer will tell you that the best way to support a load is by vertical columns. The more off-center you place your supports, the more you court collapse. This is a classic example of style taking precedence over function.

    Why They Did It

    This was the Jet Age, a time to aim for the sky and the stars. Cantilevered sections gave the appearance of a building on the move.

  • 03 of 05

    Large Fireplaces

    Modern living room fireplace
    deliormanli / Getty Images

    Massive fireplaces of brick or natural stone would usually dominate the mid-century modern home's living room. Often, it would be planted right in the center of the room.

    The Fail

    The ultimate in irony. Post World War II, old, smoky, gassy forms of heating (coal mainly) were banished and electricity was king. The "All-Electric Home" was a big selling point for homes of the Fifties and Sixties. So it's ironic that the smokiest, gassiest form of heating would eat up valuable living room real estate.

    Why They Did It

    These tank-sized fireplaces had less to do with heating than with providing architects a chance to add a bold geometrical shape to the home interior.

  • 04 of 05

    Open Floor Plans

    Open Floor Plan in Hollyhock House by Frank Lloyd Wright
    Image Copyright and Courtesy Santi Visalli / Getty Images

    A house with an open floor plan does away with as many interior walls as feasible. Private areas (bedrooms and bathrooms) retain walls and doors, but everything else is fair game for the sledgehammer.

    The Fail

    For one, homes with open floor plans are more difficult to heat or cool: you do the entire house at once. Sectioning the house means you can heat/cool only the areas you want.

    For another, providing more walls and doors means greater privacy—for greater family harmony. After all, we have to keep Marcia, Jan, and Cindy separated from Greg, Peter, and Bobby.

    Why They Did It

    Beginning in the 1950s, the American family's needs began to change. The kitchen was no longer a remote outpost but a major hub of activity. The open floor plan tied together the kitchen and other communal living areas to accommodate these shifts.

    Pictured is a precursor to the mid-century modern—Frank Lloyd Wright's Hollyhock House.

    Continue to 5 of 5 below.
  • 05 of 05

    Flat Roofs

    Flat Roof on Mid Century Modern House
    Copyright and Courtesy pbnj productions / Getty Images

    At first glance, a mid-century modern home looks like a rectangle on its side—no triangles or weird angles anywhere.

    The Fail

    Snow is heavy. Snow accumulating on a flat roof is double trouble. Rain can easily back up on a flat roof. Not only that, tree junk collects on flat roofs and has to be brought down by hand. Peaked roofs carry away snow, rain, and leaves and broken branches.

    (Disclosure: The MCM's flat roof isn't zero degrees flat. These roofs do have a minor slope.)

    Why They Did It

    Le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright, and other progenitors of the modern style dictated long low horizontals. Naturally, the peaks and valleys of typical houses of that era did not comply. Solution: flat roofs.