Mr. Chatterbox

By Robert Plunket Photography by Lori Sax October 1, 2010

Help! Don’t let me buy another 1950s house. I have two of them already, which I cleverly bought at the height of the market. I admit it, I have a problem. They require a lot of maintenance, and I am underwater in so many ways. I often lie in bed at night and wonder, how did it get bad? So please, whatever happens, don’t let me buy another one.

Having said that, there are three wonderful ’50s homes on the market at the moment—which one should I choose? I just can’t make up my mind.

But before we meet the candidates, let me fill you in about 1950s houses. Many people, burdened with memories of growing up in the suburbs in a similar house, see them as hopelessly dated and blandly middle-class. But there is another group of boomers who love them for what they are—solid, livable, and quickly becoming “quaint.” (I guess these were the ones who had happy childhoods.) And then there’s yet another group, mostly hip young couples who met at art school, who have become obsessed with them and communicate via websites like and subscribe to the definitive magazine on the subject, Atomic Ranch.

The trend started with the most extreme of the 1950s houses, the ones that were slightly futuristic and Jetson-like in appearance. But lately it’s taken a turn to the more common variety—the typical suburban ranch that blanketed the country after World War II. And why not? The ranch house was the most successful house in American history. It changed the way the country lived. It had the perfect layout for a family—public spaces on one side, bedrooms on the other. For the first time there were actually enough closets. (Well, almost enough closets.) Things like indoor utility rooms and sliding glass doors were introduced. The garage was integrated beautifully with the rest of the house. There were early forms of family rooms: enclosed breezeways and basement rumpus rooms. And most importantly, the kitchen finally became “the heart of the house.” Every house built today is a descendant of those innovators.

So many ’50s houses were built here that we hardly even notice them anymore. They’re everywhere. There are whole Sarasota neighborhoods—Southgate, Kensington Park—that are nothing but. Finding a good ’50s house, though—that’s the trick. Most have been altered over the years, some have been poorly maintained, and some, no matter how practical and innovative, are just plain depressing.

The best kind of 1950s house, everyone agrees, is what is known as a “time-capsule house.” These are ones that have never been remodeled. They have the original everything, including baths. The best ones also have a pleasant atmosphere, dripping with nostalgia, and enough period details to delight the connoisseur. (I once bought a house because of the green and white basket-weave tile in the bathroom.)

The first contender in my search for the jewel in my collection is about as close to a time capsule house as I’ve

seen in Sarasota. It has most of its original kitchen, almost unheard of in a 59-year-old house. And it looks great, with wonderful cabinets with vintage pulls and a tile backsplash in a dusty Chinese green.

I’ve rarely seen a house that looked less like Sarasota, Fla. To me it’s pure Michigan and should be surrounded by pine trees and a peach orchard. Inside, it gets even more Kalamazoo-like, with most of the major rooms, including the three bedrooms, paneled floor to ceiling. Wait a minute, I think some of those ceilings are paneled, too! It’s that kind of highly varnished wood they favored in the ’50s, like knotty pine without the knots. To find room after room of this, in perfect shape, plus the original windows—heck, this house has the original Venetian blinds—well, it’s overwhelming.

Other pluses: It’s big (1,824 square feet) and it’s very well located—at 2424 Main St., no less, a five-minute walk to downtown. It’s on a double lot, with a great big fenced back yard. Now, I realize that the new owner will probably rip up the carpeting to reveal the hardwood oak floors, and then paint all that ’50s paneling white. Yes, it will look sensational, but a part of me feels it’s my civic duty to buy it and preserve it as is. It’s priced at $200,000 and is listed by Platinum Home Sales, (941) 556-1470.

Our second contender is a house I’ve had my eye on for years. Even in Southgate it stands out as a beautiful example of the genre, with a long, low façade and those wonderful paned windows you crank open. (Windows are crucial in a vintage house; they have to be original or at least look original, or the effect you’re going for is ruined.)

Inside, the rooms are large and there are plenty of them—living room, dining room, den, three bedrooms. There’s a great fireplace made of Arizona flagstone—very much of the period—and some of the famous paneling mentioned above. The bathrooms are original and the kitchen . . . well, it seems to have a little bit of everything, including what is being described as a “retro oven,” which I take to mean a real old oven. It’s set in the wall and certainly provides a theme to redo the kitchen around.

What I like about this house is that it’s a little grander than most 1950s houses. It sits on the cusp between middle-class and upper middle-class, with just enough special touches to push it into the custom category. And it’s located on a premium block, at 2623 Bougainvillea St. Priced at $179,000, it’s listed by Coldwell Banker; call Valarie Wadsworth at (941) 552-5838.

And now for my favorite. I stumbled across this one at an open house in Sherwood Estates, a pleasant older neighborhood off McIntosh. I literally walked in and went, “Wow.” It’s on a lake and the setting is so lovely that you can immediately picture yourself living here.

The house is lovely, too. It has a lightness and simplicity that need very little updating. It’s got three bedrooms, excellent closet space, the original bathrooms and a den/lanai/TV room overlooking the view—a lawn rolling down to the lake, with trees dripping with Spanish moss.

The drawback is a smallish kitchen redone circa 1980. But the living room more than makes up for this. It’s got a great 1950s fireplace, a big stone thing, beautifully proportioned and very sophisticated in a design sense. The fireplace and the lakefront setting make this a special place.

And, if I can figure out the financing, it just might be the latest addition to my very expensive hobby. (Although I must say, it’s very well priced at $172,000.) Call Michel Bergier at Keller Williams, (941) 806-7063. The address on this one is 741 W. Lake Circle.


Mr. Chatterbox moonlights as our “Real Estate Junkie.” Read his blog at or watch him on the noon news on ABC/7 TV on Wednesdays.
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