Thanks to the soaring price of real estate, growing numbers of modest postwar homes are being gutted and rebuilt, not just to make them larger, but to bring them into current vogue as well.

When done with care, such drastic makeovers occasionally succeed. More often, though, they just obliterate the very traits that give a home character, replacing them with a confused muddle of real estate sales clichés.

The reason most makeovers fail is simple: Architectural style resides in the very bones of a building, not just on the surface. A home’s original style can’t just be stripped away and replaced with another one, as you might throw a slipcover over an old sofa. Like the sofa, the basic form beneath will always show through. The proportions of windows and doors, the pitch and style of the roof, and even the way a house occupies its site are all integral to its style, whether it be Victorian, Bungalow, Mediterranean or Rancher.

Short of eradicating every trace of these features, it’s no easy task to credibly transform one style into another. Nor is there much point in an exercise, which, at great expense, usually sacrifices a home’s long-term timelessness for a few brief years of fashion currency.

Radical makeovers aren’t a new idea, of course. During the first half of the 20th century, when Victorian architecture was widely despised, those benighted homes were often “modernized” into near-comical renditions of Spanish Revival, Bauhaus, or other more fashionable styles. Ironically, now that Victorians are once again appreciated, those irreversibly remuddled examples are worth markedly less than their unsullied neighbors.

Today’s makeovers are no less ludicrous than those of years past. We just don’t notice how jarringly inappropriate they are, because the homes involved don’t yet seem worthy of respectful remodeling.

Right now, it’s the misfortune of postwar houses–especially the tract homes of the 1950s and ’60s–to inherit the oh-well-nothing-here-worth-saving status once accorded to Victorians, Bungalows and every other style temporarily at its nadir. Drive down any suburban street and you’re likely to find a mid-century home that’s been remuddled into oblivion.

Usually, these heavy-handed makeovers are meant to tart up the clean lines of postwar homes into something closer to the grab-bag traditionalism currently in vogue. More than a few such projects are carried out by speculative builders with–dare I say it–a minimal grasp of the subtleties of postwar design. Many blithely load up on their favorite remodeling goodies from the local building emporium–vinyl windows with divided lites, plastic six-panel doors, and yard upon yard of crown molding–convinced they’re making some major improvements to that boring old Rancher.

Yet such neo-traditionalist frou-frou has no place in mid-century homes, no matter how drastically revamped. The sort of frantic appliqué detailing so popular on today’s tract houses is inevitably at odds with the intentionally calm lines of most postwar design. Crown moldings and gridded windows won’t change a Rancher into an Italian villa, any more than stucco and a red roof turned those Victorians into adobes.

***

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