The Minimal Traditional style has been dismissed as almost a non-style, quickly constructed of inexpensive materials in response to increased demands for housing after World War II.
In fact, the Minimal Traditional was a pacesetting style using rapidly evolving building methods and materials even as it bridged the eclectic Revival styles of the 1920s, like the Tudor and English Cottage, with the modern Ranch that came to dominate residential design during the 1950s.
Of the 20th century house styles, the Minimal Traditional is the most adaptable style to work with. It can be Mid-century Modern, classic cottage, or an edgy contemporary, without destroying its inherent character. Many were built as small houses with a tiny footprint of less than 1000 sq. ft. making it an ideal choice for 21st century sustainable design. It's like tofu ... you can do a lot with it.
During the late 1920s and 30s, the Craftsman-style bungalow that had been the "modern" style from about 1900 to 1920, was being supplanted by a reinterpretation of the Colonial Revival along lines influenced by the Art Moderne, International, and Bauhaus movements. As exciting as those movements were, the Depression demanded financial restraint and the country, overwhelmed by economic uncertainty, turned to traditional styles for security and continuity. These factors combined to create a simplified form ... a modern traditional, otherwise called Minimal Traditional, for its classic shape and lack of ornamentation. Most often, it was a one-story house with a cross-gabled or hipped roof, sometimes with a basement. The floor plan could borrow from the open floor plan of the bungalow or the traditional layout of the more formal Colonial Revival.
Many are easily recognized by their parallel orientation to the street with their forward-facing gable. There is often a hood or roof overhang that protects a small front porch. A large "picture" window may mark the placement of the living room. Ornamentation and detail is minimal, sometimes limited to scalloped trim or some other modest decorative element.
It's been argued that many of these design changes were made to save money, and indeed that probably was often the case. However, it was also common for remodeling projects during the 1930s to cut off the wide eaves on 20-year bungalows to give them a more modern, streamlined appearance. Certainly the home magazines of the 30s and 40s bear this out, as most of the houses featured were built for the carriage trade.
As for quality of construction, the materials used on all but the cheapest ("knock down" houses built as temporary housing after WWII) were generally pretty good and in many cases superior to materials used today. Many of the houses built during the 1930s were constructed by journeymen in the trades who cut their teeth building high-quality Craftsman-style houses during the 'teens. During WWII, new house building was virtually at a complete standstill. After the War, returning GIs and their wives demanded new housing, so as construction increased quality occasionally suffered as it usually does when developers, out to make a killing, cut costs.
Minimal Traditional is associated with tract housing such as Levittown in New York, which was built from 1947 to 1951. However, many Minimal Traditional houses were built before and after the War as infill in established neighborhoods by the lot owner using plans from a plan book.
© 2011 — Mid Century Home Style