Author Larry Millett feels right at home in the George and Annirene Buck House in St. Paul. "It has every modern gesture — a floating staircase with steel rods, corner fireplace, a wall of glass with a sliding door opening to a Hollywood Hills-like view," said Millett of the 1956 free-flowing split-level.
"It's a house built for martinis."
The Buck House, which has been sensitively restored by owners John Soranno and Michelle Michel, is one of a dozen dramatic midcentury modern residences across the state spotlighted in Millett's lush new coffee-table book, "Minnesota Modern: Architecture and Life at Midcentury" (University of Minnesota Press, $49.95).
The architectural historian investigated how this groundbreaking style spread across the landscape, from roadside businesses to "world-class" churches to row after row of carbon-copy suburban ramblers.
Minnesotans who grew up in the 1950s and '60s, like Millett, will feel nostalgic looking at photos of the Terrace Theatre in Robbinsdale and that cute Dairy Queen in Roseville. He hopes that other historians will dig even deeper to write books about the influential builders and architects of the time.
"This is just a big, broad first take on a rich period in Minnesota," he said. "I feel like I just scratched the surface."
We chatted with Millett about "the Wild West of suburban sprawl," what he considers the most influential work of midcentury architecture in Minnesota — and Frank Lloyd Wright's massive ego.
Q: Why did you decide to do this book?
A: The 1950s and '60s are a fascinating period of midcentury design, with tremendous changes in how the Twin Cities was organized. I grew up in Minneapolis, but remember visiting friends who lived in the new suburbs of Coon Rapids and New Hope. It was an influential time that affected how we still live today, and is worthy of a treatment in a book that puts emphasis on Minnesota.
Q: How was midcentury modern architecture so groundbreaking?
A: There was such a wide range — from the everyday "meat and potatoes" rambler up to the architect-designed homes. The overall look was low-slung rooflines; they tended to be one-story and with an open floor plan. Glass walls and sliding doors linked the house to the outdoors, which hadn't been done before in older historical revival homes.
Q: People use the terms "rambler" and "ranch house" interchangeably. What's the difference?
A: I identify the ranch house as an elongated one-level with an attached garage on the end. Ramblers are more compact and square. By the 1950s, Orrin Thompson tract homes filled the suburbs because it was a way of building fairly cheaply and quickly. One of the ideals behind midcentury housing was efficient and clever use of space. Luxury for its own sake was frowned upon, and the style emphasized practicality rather than grandeur.
Q: Where did the ubiquitous suburban ranch house come from?
A: They were inspired by the sprawling one-story California ranch houses from the 1930s that required a wide lot — that was their appeal.
Q: What caused the massive housing boom in the suburbs?
A: After World War II, there was this huge pent-up demand for housing, and the federal government, through the FHA, built the homes quickly — and not too big. Most housing developments started in flat farmfields in places like Bloomington and Richfield where land was cheap. With the curved roadways, the sidewalks disappeared. High-style midcentury modern houses were built in scenic settings on bigger lots with water, woods and hills. The homes were more carefully sited than many of the McMansions of today.
Q: How did this building boom affect suburban sprawl?
A: We could have done it in a more coordinated fashion — designing more mixed communities and integrated school and shopping more intelligently — instead of row upon row of housing. It was a loose force spreading like a pail of water out from the cities. It was like the Wild West — people would buy [houses] as fast as they could build them.
Q: What are some drawbacks of this architectural style?
A: Not everyone likes the open floor plan — and small size. Early Orrin Thompson ramblers were a minimalist, compact 800 square feet, and the rows of homes didn't create visually exciting streetscapes. As families could afford more, they moved into three-bedroom ranches with attached garages.
Q: What are the pluses of this style?
A: Functional, efficient and quick to build, to meet a real need. They are amenable to an addition because of the simple design and uncomplicated rooflines.
Q: Why did so many Minnesota architects, from Ralph Rapson to Carl Graffunder, decide to design modernist homes during this period?
A: Walter Gropius and other European modernists came over in the 1930s, and their ideas spread quickly throughout the American architecture schools. These generations of architects, the universities and magazines were saying that modernism was the true ideal, and we have to go in that direction.
Q: How did you choose the 12 homes in the book?
A: I didn't want to pick only the crème de la crème. I wanted to show houses that would tell you something about the range of midcentury modern designs outstate and in different suburbs. You have two-story boxes, angular cubes, V-shaped ramblers that look like flying wedges — all the way up to the huge Frank Lloyd Wright home in Austin. Modern design gave architects the freedom to experiment and make a statement using modern materials.
Q: Did anyone turn you down?
A: Not one. People are very proud of their houses. The owners I approached recognized that the midcentury period is important, and that their homes are good examples. They wanted their home's stories to be told.
Q: Why was this the only period in American history when modern architecture was universal?
A: Did Americans embrace the modern style — or was it thrust upon them because it made sense financially and in the ease of construction? I don't know. But this was the only period when modernism dominated the field.
Q: Why don't we build these types of houses today? The Parade of Homes seem to be mostly traditional styles with multiple gables.
A: Modernism today has evolved into more of an ultra-high-style design. There are still modernist architects out there like Charles Stinson, but as an everyday style, it's not in evidence in housing anymore. Historical themed styles keep coming back. We are in this mishmash period now. In the suburbs, we seem to love our gables.
Q: What are some of the owners' stories?
A: Frank Lloyd Wright houses always have a story. He was a character out of an Italian grand opera of tragedies and triumphs. In correspondence between Wright and the Elams about the house they hired him to design in Austin, Millicent Elam made it clear she wanted a front kitchen window to watch the kids play. Wright wrote back and said it would spoil the house. He had a fabulous eye — you could see where he was coming from. Wright walked away; he was done. The Elams later put in the window — a slit inserted into a massive stone-faced pier.
Q: You uncovered gems like a photo of Wright with a scowl at the new Southdale mall in 1956. Why was the great architect not impressed?
A: He didn't like anything he didn't design. He was a cantankerous old man when he toured Southdale. He felt it was not a very gracious building — and he was right.
Q: Why did you describe Southdale as the most influential work of midcentury architecture in the state?
A: It was the first enclosed shopping mall in the nation, and represents a significant feature of American life. It should be a historic landmark — but it never had much zip to it.
Q: Why are midcentury-era homes hot properties with people restoring and fixing them up?
A: A generation who grew up in McMansions or 1980s nondescript suburban homes think they are kind of cool. The book features a young couple who bought the 1950 Carl Graffunder house for its crisp, clean look and the inviting openness. Younger generations are looking at the style with fresh eyes. People who don't have money for a high-style midcentury house can restore and add on to an affordable rambler in Richfield. Realtors market them as midcentury gems — not the case 10 years ago.
Q: Where can people drive around to see an impressive enclave of midcentury modern homes in the Twin Cities?
A: University Grove in Falcon Heights is a great collection of architect-designed houses by Ralph Rapson, the Closes [Winston and Elizabeth] and local firms from the 1950s and '60s. Rapson could be overbearing at times, but he hit the mark with his houses. The Shepherd House is sweet and has a glow to it.
Q: Why should we care about preserving these homes?
A: They are part of our history and evidence of the great suburbanization, which transformed Twin Cities housing after World War II. Not everything from the midcentury period must be saved, but I worry about how all the good stuff will survive. We see teardown mania, especially around Lake Minnetonka, and I don't know if it can be stopped. But there is recognition that some are worth saving.