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Modern architecture in Madison is more popular now than ever
From the Bauhaus to the ranch house

Laurie Beth Clark's modern house by Beatty and Strang.
Credit:Timothy Hughes
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Ah, the 1950s American suburban landscape, where the modern ranch house reigns supreme. With nearly uniform design elements, all of which were deemed "modern," the post-World War II, '50s ranch-style house sprouted up in the cornfields that bordered Madison and presented to the community not only a new form of architecture, but also a new way of living.

Prior to the war, however, before "modern" was an accepted and even preferred way of life for booming postwar families, modern residential architecture was being introduced to the streets of Madison.

In the early 20th century, most of the houses built in Madison were traditional styles such as Tudor or Cape Cod. They were built on small lots and "emphasized the exterior," says Terry Boyd, a professor of 20th-century design at UW-Madison.

In the mid-1930s, the occupants of a standard two-story house with detached garage would find it radical to discover, just down the street, the construction of a stark, asymmetrical, flat-roofed cube with bands of windows wrapping around it. This was typical of the European-influenced "Bauhaus" or International Style of Madison's own Beatty and Strang.

In 1931, Hamilton Beatty returned to his hometown of Madison after training in France under the great Modernist architecture and design pioneer Le Corbusier. Once back, Beatty met up with Allen Strang to form the Beatty and Strang architectural firm (the current Strang Partners is a descendant of this original firm).

"They were the progenitors, or 'fathers,' of Mid-Century Modern in Madison," says Jim Draeger, deputy state preservation officer at the Wisconsin Historical Society and owner of a 1936 Beatty and Strang home. "They were internationally known, published in Architectural Forum and Architectural Record, and they were prolific, building about 80 homes in Madison."

Beatty and Strang were part of a design movement that favored absence of ornamentation inside and out. Inside, architects designed open spaces instead of small rooms.

"They were following ideas that were very close to designs featured at the 1933 Chicago World's Fair," says Boyd, who also owns a 1936 Beatty and Strang-designed home on the near west side.

The fair, with a theme of "A Century of Progress," included a "Homes of Tomorrow" exhibition that displayed striking, unconventional models and new construction techniques, such as prefabricated building elements that would later be widely used after World War II.

For Madison, Beatty and Strang's designs "were pretty curious," says Draeger. "There were open houses that drew thousands of people. They wanted to see what the heck this 'modern architecture' was all about."

The majority of the original owners of these homes were CEOs of industrial companies, research scientists, professors and people in the arts. The historic homes are today often sought after and owned by those in similar professions.

Laurie Beth Clark, an art professor at UW-Madison, hadn't heard of Beatty and Strang prior to her search for an "architecturally interesting house" 15 years ago. She found one of their houses in Monona.

It was built in 1934 for the Curtis family, who made their fortune in manufacturing equestrian products. The house needed a lot of cosmetic work, says Clark. "There was wall-to-wall shag carpeting on the floors, and the original kitchen had been replaced with a galley kitchen. A stove hood blocked the lake view."

Under the carpet was Douglas fir subflooring that Clark refinished. She also gutted, then replaced the kitchen. Throughout the remodel, she remained as true as possible to the home's era and integrity by salvaging many of the original features, and she added her own artist's touch by replacing some unusable flooring with rainbow-colored tile. "It's my design. Fifty-three colors, the painstaking workmanship of Jon Lund."

Some of the existing modern design elements, many of them futuristic at the time, include curved walls, a finished basement and multiple built-ins, such as an enormous linen storage bench in the guest room. The house is the essence of International Style, but Beatty and Strang were able to Americanize the stark, white cube indicative of its European counterpart through such practical details.

After World War II, middle-income homebuyers went for modern design elements in the home.

"The risk-takers were the ones in the 1930s who were clients of Beatty and Strang. Then the masses, after World War II, become more accepting," says Draeger. In addition to Beatty and Strang, he points to noted Madison-area architects William Kaeser and Frank Lloyd Wright as helping shape the city's postwar architecture.

Postwar housing activity was also influenced by a national home shortage and a benefit package backed by the GI Bill of Rights, offering a mortgage guarantee program under the Federal Housing Administration. "There was a housing crisis in this country we really can't imagine today," says Draeger. "It was so severe, people were living in chicken coops and garages. An entire generation of people had grown up, gone to war and come back with no place to live."

Buyers were looking for something completely different from what they'd known in the past - new styles and new neighborhoods. As builders quickened the pace to satisfy the consumer market, construction had to streamline in response.

Traditional hand-wrought techniques like trimwork and moldings were replaced by manufactured elements. Prefabrication of housing parts allowed for easier, faster assembly on-site, and as a result the modern home became more modular. Often designs varied just enough for a neighbor to discern between the Smiths and the Joneses.

This standardization, explains Draeger, stems from an architectural module based on stud wall construction with a 16" template utilizing 4' x 8' sheets of plywood or drywall. Builders wanted to economize and reduce product waste, "so more and more materials become standard," says Draeger. "Concrete block becomes a predictable unit, as does a shingle tab."

Out of this, the ranch-style house was born, named for its long, rambling design that gave a nod to the western American ranches popularized in both television and literature at the time (remember Shane and Gunsmoke?). They were shallow-pitched roof, low-profile, open-floor-plan homes that allowed for keeping one eye on the kids, another on the guests and enough space to live comfortably.

As modern steered toward mainstream at the end of the '40s and into the '50s, Madisonians were steering their Chevys and Packards into neighborhoods at the edge of town. With government subsidies for builders and affordable financing for even middle-class homebuyers, Madison grew - a lot. Notable concentrations of ranches sprouted up in Monona, Midvale Heights and University Hill Farms on the west side, Elvehjem and Heritage Heights on the east side and Brentwood Village on the north side.

Those ranches are undergoing a renaissance these days. Brian and Molly Hicks bought a 1958 ranch in the Westmorland neighborhood in 1999, complete with two-car garage and finished basement. The Hickses are only the house's third owners. Their desires mirrored those of its original owners. "We wanted a home that was close to the city yet affordable," says Molly Hicks.

The Hickses appreciate the style and details of their home, now deemed a Mid-Century Modern example of architecture. "I had really liked the ranch style, and this house was in great shape."

It was in such good shape that most of the original features and even décor are still intact: grass cloth wallpaper in the entry, a Tennessee fieldstone fireplace, Formica kitchen counter, pastel yellow and blue his-and-her sinks in the master bathroom with matching blue toilet,

and even the basement bar area. "It's great for entertaining," says Hicks. "We even have the original owners' rattan sectional, rolling cart and game table."

The Mid-Century Modern ranch favors entertaining. Galley kitchens and cut-throughs to the dining room are common, as are open, flowing spaces; a "rumpus room" or kids' space; and orientation toward the backyard, complete with patio. "The patio emerges," says Jim Draeger, "and it becomes the social focal point."

Though some may say the ranch looks dated in the 21st century, it's difficult to conceive just how different the style looked in the '50s. "It's come back into fashion," says Hicks. "Before, people might say our home lacked character, or 'Oh, it's just a ranch.' But it has a lot of unique, interesting features, and it's completely functional."

The Hickses are like a growing number of people in Madison and the rest of the country who view the Mid-Century Modern as an architectural style to be revered and preserved.

In market data published on DaneCountyMarket.com, current demand for ranch-style homes in Madison is greatest on the near west side, in neighborhoods such as Westmorland, Sunset Village, Midvale Heights and University Hill Farms. Dan Miller, a real estate agent with Keller Williams, attests to the ranch's enduring popularity.

"These neighborhoods consistently have among the lowest months of inventory in Dane County. In other words, there is a strong demand for housing in these neighborhoods relative to the supply of homes on the market," says Miller.

With prices beginning under $200,000, historic area ranches still qualify as middle-class, and buyers are enthusiastic about the potential ease of remodeling, if it's even necessary.

"Many buyers choose to keep the original retro features intact - things like pastel bathtubs or checkered ceramic tile," says Miller. "These features are unique by today's standards. They vary from the norm, which is exactly why some folks are drawn to them."

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