This (Not Very) Old House: Part One

The House Hopping with Preservationists tour began in Virginia, continued to Ohio and jumped across the Midwest to the Great Plains and Montana. Now, we’re headed back to Vermont for a two-part post about a compromise between the historic features of a 1950 prefabricated ranch house and its incredible lack of energy efficiency. Today Jen talks about the history of her pre-fab “fabulous” house.

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By Jen Parsons

It is tricky business for someone trained in Historic Preservation to be married to an Energy Guy. It gets even trickier when remodeling your own house, while you live in it. Fortunately for us, our 1950 ranch had so little architectural flair to begin with, we joke that when the manufactured parts arrived on a truck and were plopped into assembly, the model name of our home was probably the “Spartan.”

A Home of Superior Permanent Construction

Though it is our home, we are but a number, a single item in the manufactured home series. We are number 31, 521. The most interesting feature of the home included this plaque, which hung in the laundry room (an alcove off the kitchen in the center of the home that also included the hot water heater). The National Homes Corporation of Lafayette, Indiana built the home, and the serial number is stamped in the bottom right corner.

House number 31,521.

With access to the University Library while a graduate student at UVM in Historic Preservation, I only found the following tidbits of information regarding the National Homes Corp.

From “A History of Prefabrication,” by Alfred Bruce and Harold Sandbank, Published by the J.B. Pierce Foundation, 1945:

National Homes Corp., Lafayette, Ind., began production for sale in 1940, and had sold 816 units for private use prior to 1942. During the past year, they produced 2,665 units for public war housing projects, and 102 units for private projects. Their Lafayette plant is working at its maximum capacity of 750 houses per month, which it sends out over a distance of 300 miles. At present, their unfilled orders amount to 2,872 units. The houses are prefabricated in panels on an assembly line, and grouped into four types: two 2-bedroom types selling for $2,000 and $2,400, and two 3 bedroom types, priced at $2400 and $3600. Their plans for post-war distribution are not final, but they are emphatic as to their intention to prefabricate after the war. For the postwar period, they envisage certain changes in construction, design, and distribution, but precise data are not yet ready for publication.

The Exterior of the National Homes Company of Lafayette, Ind. Home, ca. 1945. From "A History of Prefabrication."

Assembly of a National Homes Company home. Judging from the window placement on the front façade and the side façade, this is probably the same model home as ours. From "A History of Prefabrication."

Assembly line of interior panels at the National Homes Company. From "A History of Prefabrication."

Interior wall panel construction. From "A History of Prefabrication."

A larger version of the above images from "A History of Prefabrication."

Our Pre-fab Fabulous Home: The Trailer on the Double-Wide

Our single level, two-bedroom, one bath, 800 square foot manufactured ranch plunked down and rested on its slab in a new post-war suburban development of quarter-acre lots in 1950. As such, one of the cool things about the neighborhood is that the trees are older, taller, and occasionally quite lovely. Quite often, I find new suburban developments rendered more barren and obtrusive by the lack of old growth around them. I call this phenomenon: “House in a field.”

Convenience, proximity and price led us to our little ranch. Without an inherent love for the style, I believe we actually uttered the phrase, “The construction is so basic. It should be easy to fix.” When you remark of “ease” when tackling a home improvement project, you might as well just dig a hole in your backyard and shovel your money into it. It would take less time and cost just as much.

The house had only one prior owner: a man who had met a German woman when he enlisted during the Korean War; he brought her home, and made her his bride. This worked well to our advantage: the German woman was a precision cleaner. Neighbors tell of her vacuuming her driveway of excess dirt.

From appearances, the house remained largely unchanged since the 1950s: the kitchen was laid out galley style. With only four plywood cabinets, a sink, a GE stove, and gold-flecked Formica countertops, the limitations were evident for modern use. The kitchen also suffered from an utter lack of electrical outlets (only one; we chose to plug in the refrigerator and the coffee maker, alternating coffee for toast occasionally). Ceiling mounted light fixtures were also lacking, thereby requiring us to use precious electrical outlets for lamps. These failings signaled that not too much futzing had transpired in the home.

Making pizza in my four square feet of counter space, original cabinets, and ca. 1980 electric stove.

Around 1980, a shed roof addition extended both gable ends toward the rear of the house and formed a long, narrow rectangular room with brown carpet and wood-paneled walls. We fondly called this “The Trailer on the Double Wide.” This added another 350 square feet or so of questionably useful space to the main block of the house, and was accessible through an opening punched out where the rear exterior wall of the original kitchen had been. More brown carpet had covered the floors of the bedrooms, with blue carpet covering the living room, while the kitchen and bath received a reprieve with VAT and vinyl tile, respectively.

Vinyl Asbestos Tile (VAT) remained under the carpet in most living spaces. Darn the “Spartan” model—our neighbors had hardwood.

As for any architectural flair of Post War building styles, features were quite Spartan as well. The two panel interior doors are old growth Douglas fir with lovely, tight grains for the stiles and rails, and plywood panels. Clear glass doorknobs and brass hinges complemented these doors. Varnish has darkened the doors over time, yet they still remain lovely.

Varnished doors and glass doorknobs.

A concave shadow molding and V-joints join the walls to each other and the walls to ceiling. The long pieces of molding were nailed to the wall with a plaster cast joint in each corner where the wall molding and ceiling moldings meet on two sides. The plaque explains this joint as allowing for expansion/contraction of a home, resulting in crack-proof walls. While this sounds unusual, we have to keep in mind now that many people were still quite used to having cracked plaster walls, and this was a home of the future, with newer, lighter modular materials.

The wood molding joins together in a plaster V-joint.

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So, how do the Preservation Student & the Energy Guy work together in this pre-fab house? Stay tuned for part two. 

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Jen Parsons graduated from the University of Vermont with a Masters degree in Historic Preservation and lives in the Green Mountain State. With a young child at home, she mostly preserves heirloom cookie recipes currently. She is sick of remodeling old houses, this being her third, and is looking forward to finally rehabilitating her 1966 Scotty Gaucho canned ham camper this summer…or building a tiny house. You never know.