All About Pre-War Architecture

These homes may be old, but they're full of spunk and charisma.

Homes built between 1890 and 1940 -- before World War II -- were dubbed pre-war. At the time, houses started changing, shifting from functional farmhouses and Victorian mansions, to a happy medium of two-storied houses and a basement. More people were leaving farms and small towns to move to bigger towns and cities, and the housing industry, from construction companies to real estate agents, started to come more into vogue.

The homes of this era were furnished with charm -- those special touches like high ceilings, arched doorways and nickel-plated features. In the major cities, such as New York City, there was a demand for apartments that had "all the comforts of home," as a 1909 New York Times article once put it. Before then, apartments had a reputation for being uncomfortable.

A lot of care was put into these comforts during an age when mass production was just beginning to get started. A special artistry and individuality went into many of these pre-war homes, which still attract and awe some homebuyers today.

Key Elements

  • Hardwood floors. Floors were often made of solid oak, and most pre-war homes have wood frames around the doors, window frames and in the stair banisters.
  • Moldings. This is a decorative feature, usually made of wood, jutting out of the wall that connects to the ceiling. Kind of the same idea as a wallpaper border one will see in homes today.
  • High ceilings. Homeowners, back then and today, don't like feeling closed in. Typically, a ceiling will be 9 feet above the ground, and sometimes higher. In many ways this is a holdover from the Victorian houses, which tended to have ceilings as high as 12 feet from the floor.
  • Fireplaces. These have been a part of American architecture since the 1700s, but as designs became safer, they really took off during the Victorian era and remained a popular feature in living rooms during the days before World War II. So popular that when President Franklin Roosevelt broadcasted his speeches over the radio, they called them "fireside chats."

Famous Examples

  • The Beresford. This 22-story apartment building at 211 Central Park West in New York City is considered a landmark. It was completed in 1929 by famed architect Emery Roth. Built in the style of the Italian rennaissance, the building has a limestone base and a mix of creatures adorning the walls, including winged cherubs, dolphins and rams' heads. There were -- and are -- only one or two apartment houses to a floor with 10-foot high ceilings, ornate homes with a lot of space, a rarity in New York. Small wonder numerous celebrities, including Rock Hudson, Tony Randall, Glenn Close and Jerry Seinfeld have lived there.
  • 740 Park Avenue. The pre-war apartment house 740 Park Avenue is so famous that a book has been written about it: Michael Gross's 740 Park: The Story of the World's Richest Apartment Building (Broadway, 2006). The apartment house building was developed by legendary New York architects Rosario Candela and Arthur Loomis Harmon. Among its famed residents, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, John D. Rockefeller and Vera Wang. This was such an ornate apartment that -- well, as Gross' book says, the 15th floor, as an example, had 15-foot ceilings, 11 closets and three bathrooms. Some of the foyers were the size of ballrooms.
  • Fred C. Aiken House. A favorite of Milan Heger, a Seattle-based architect who has been a visiting professor of architectural history at the University of Hawaii and the Technical Institute in Slovakia, the Fred C. Aiken House was designed in the Spanish revival style in 1926. "These Spanish revival houses hold its charm like no other -- usually on well-landscaped properties," says Heger. "They just stand out, and they have a following in many professional circles."
  • San Simeon House. Better known as the Hearst Castle, designed by architect Julia Morgan and constructed from 1922 to 1939, San Simeon House is also an important example of the pre-war house, says Heger. In fact, it's probably the most famous, and an example of the best type of pre-war house money could buy. Situated in San Simeon, Calif., and originally owned by legendary newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst, the San Simeon House had 56 bedrooms, 61 bathrooms, 19 sitting rooms, gardens, indoor and outdoor swimming pools, and was, for a time, a magnet for celebrity guests like Cary Grant, Clark Gable and Charlie Chaplin. Now, it draws tourists from around the world. From an architectural standpoint, the house was constructed largely with steel reinforced concrete, a building process that was gaining popularity in the early 1900s. The design borrowed many styles from previous eras, including the Renaissance and Baroque.

Practically Speaking: Hassles and Headaches

While Heger rightfully raves about pre-war homes, calling them "fantastic, important and still more than iconic -- visionary is a better term," Raissa Reid of New York-based ERA Tucker Associates cautions, "You have to know what you're getting into."

Reid, a member of the ERA Historic Properties program, explains that while pre-war houses are beautiful and durable, they are also ... well, old. "You're dealing with some materials that just aren't used today. They would wrap hot water heaters with asbestos, and the pipes didn't meet today's codes. When you're going into a home like that, you can modernize that, but it can be a tremendous expense."

On the other hand, many pre-war houses, at this point, have been modernized, or to some degree, and so one shouldn't write the idea off either.

Some of the bedrooms -- if we're not talking a luxury pre-war home -- may wind up being smaller than today's counterparts. Tastes evolve, and spacious kitchens, walk-in closets and the roomy master bathrooms weren't a part of the building culture the way they are today, in many of the more modern homes.

House Hunting

Not surprisingly, head inward, away from the freeway, away from suburbia and urban sprawl. Of course, some pre-war homes will be in suburbia, built before the suburb was constructed around it. But generally, you'll find pre-war houses in older neighborhoods. Not that this is a hard-and-fast rule, but start looking anywhere from a five to 20 minute drive outside of the downtown metropolitan areas -- neighborhoods that, once upon the time, were considered outside of the hustle and bustle of the city.

And, as you can imagine, depending on the geography, luck and tax base of this location, these pre-war homes can be found in both the worst neighborhoods and in the very best.

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