Helter Shelter

Bettin' the Ranch

I knew it would happen one day - Victorian houses, bungalows, and foursquares would fill up with doctors, lawyers, and corporate chiefs, and regular working-class homebuyers would rediscover the 50s-60s earlyburbs. Lately, in our little home inspection business, we're seeing a whole lot of folks from the compact-disc generation moving into the houses where their grandmas first cussed Elvis.

I didn't have to be all that smart to see it coming. Back in the 70s, people born in the 30s and 40s started restoring Victorian houses. In the 80s, people born in the 40s and 50s bought up all the bungalows. Now, the 60s - 70s kids are starting in on the ranchers. If the trend holds, my daughter will end up living in a Brady Buncher.

About 20 years ago, when I first started fixing up old houses, it was hard to imagine a day when anybody would think of a rancher as a real enough antique house. Well, that day's here. Right now, a house built in 1952 could make it onto the National Register of Historic Places. In just a few years, some of our suburbs could become U.S.-government-certified historic districts, just like Ashland Park.

I freely admit, in my early days as an old-house know-it-all, I was a little bit of an old-house snob. Those old Queen Anne houses, and Prairie Style houses, and California bungalows had style, charm and workmanship worth preserving. The way I figured, anything built after about 1930 was a generic American Plain Jane, and not worth fooling with. I guess I'm not the only one who felt that way, because the people who are buying ranch houses now don't want to restore them, they want to update them.

From what I've seen, would-be ranch-house owners are dead set on doing two things: Ripping out the two-tone tile in the bathrooms, and painting the knotty pine paneling in the den and kitchen.

Well, it's none of my business what people do with their houses, and I'm surely not the best source for decorating tips. Even so, I do know a little something about caring for old things, particularly old houses. There's an ethic to it, which includes the principle of letting a classic be a classic, and not turning a perfectly good irreplaceable old thing into an average, generic dime-a-dozen new thing. That's why you don't cut the fins off a 57 Chevy, that's why you don't do a Van Halen stripe-paint job on a 57 Les Paul, and that's why Michael Bolton ought to be in prison for monkeying with Otis Redding's Dock of the Bay.

Little-known fact: In the early 20th century, people threw out Tiffany glass. They thought it looked old-fashioned and gaudy, so they threw out the lampshades and the vases and every other fancy-glass thing they could get their hands on. Ponder that the next time you want to get rid of something because it looks dated.

If I bought a rancher tomorrow, I wouldn't touch the funky, old bathroom tile. I have my reasons: First, it's a trademark design element of the period, just like fins on 50s cars. Second, I know I'd never get another tile job that good. Those 50s-60s tile guys knew what they were doing.

Another reason to leave the tile alone: If you tear it out, you'll probably mess up your perfectly-good, cast-iron bathtub, your high-quality, water-wasting (but excellent-flushing) commode, and your better-than-new faucets. If you tear out a 50s - 60s bathroom, you'll throw away good stuff, and replace it with worse stuff.

As far as the knotty pine paneling goes, I'd most likely leave that alone. I wouldn't paint it, and I sure as hell wouldn't "pickle" it. (For those of you who don't know, pickling is one of those hideous candyass decorator effects, in which real wood is gussied up to look like fake wood.) If any of you people ever catch me doing any pickling, feel free to just slap me upside my head.

If I didn't like the way my knotty pine looked, I would clean it. If I still didn't like the look of it, I might even go so far as to sand down to new wood, and apply a low-gloss varnish. I would never paint wood that hadn't already been painted. Once you've done that, there's no turning back. Even if you try to strip the paint, you'll never get all the little flecks out of the grain.

I would rewire a 50s-60s rancher. By any reasonable definition, a 40 to 50-year-old electrical system is obsolete, and due for replacement. While I was at it, I'd wire the whole house for computer networking, security, and modern phones.

If the house had its original kitchen, I'd probably replace the appliances and update the kitchen. I'd do it mostly for convenience, but also for resale value.

When it came time to furnish the house, I'd be tempted to buy some repro stuff from Heywood-Wakefield. The modern Heywood-Wakefield furniture looks just like their streamlined stuff from the period, and it's reasonably priced. You can look at the furniture and fabrics online at www.heywoodwakefield.com (and there are dealers as close as Memphis and Charlotte if you're up for a road trip).