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Nashville Scene Room to Move

1960s houses are the last real-estate bargains

By Walter Jowers

DECEMBER 20, 1999:  I live in a 1914 house. There's a lot good about it. The ceilings are tall, the rooms are big, the woodwork is tasty. But there's a lot bad about the place too. The biggest problem is that the house is underbuilt. The roof frame is all 2-by-4s on 2-foot centers. It's amazing that a big snow or wind didn't collapse the roof a long time ago. Next time I reshingle the roof, I'll probably go ahead and reframe it. Same thing with the floors. They sag, and the floorboards won't take another sanding. Sometime before I reach retirement age, I'll probably have to have the whole floor reframed.

The best thing about our old house is that it's in a nicely kept neighborhood, where all but a few of the 300 houses are old. It's a 12-square-block jewel, a settled kind of place. Every Sunday, real estate lookyloos cruise the neighborhood streets, all lusty for the old houses, big trees, sidewalks, and porches.

Problem is, there just aren't enough of these pre-1940 neighborhoods to go around. The demand for houses in old neighborhoods has caused prices to increase fivefold in the 18 years I've been here.

If wife Brenda and I got sucked into a time warp, woke up in our 20s, and were just moving here to Nashville, we couldn't come close to buying the house we live in now.

If we were first-time homebuyers right now, I'd look for a nice Space Race house--something built between the Soviet Union's 1957 Sputnik launch and the late-1972 moon landing of Apollo 17. I've got two reasons: 1. They're out of fashion, so the prices are unrealistically low. 2. Generally speaking, they're built like fortresses.

Often, when I tell people I like '60s houses, the first thing out of their mouths is, "I hate the bathrooms. All that pink and green and brown tile. If I had to live in one of those houses, the first thing I'd do would be to rip out the bathrooms."

Well, let me give you funky-tile haters a little perspective. First, most of the astronaut-era tile jobs I've seen are remarkably good. With few exceptions, those old high-clash-factor tile jobs are rock-solid, crack-free, and ramrod straight. That's in stark contrast to modern tile jobs, which are often done by unskilled laborers and start falling apart before they're even finished.

Second, consider the fact that today's funky stuff will be tomorrow's cherished antiques. Little known fact: Back in the '20s, people were pitching Tiffany glass into the garbage on the grounds that it was just too dang old-fashioned. You'd be guilty of the same shortsightedness if you ripped out that trademark funky tile.

House trends run in cycles, and they have for at least the last hundred years. Back in the mid- to late 1970s, when people first started renovating old houses, it was cool to renovate a Victorian house, but it was considered tacky to fix up a '20s-'30s bungalow. Now people get in fist fights bidding up the prices of bungalows; Victorian houses are less popular. It's a rerun of the trends of the '20s and '30s, when high-Victorian houses fell out of fashion and simpler bungalow and cottage styles were all the rage.

Back to the Space Race houses: Taken as a breed, they're stronger and straighter than any other houses we see. The quality of the materials and workmanship is way ahead of my 1914 house. I've seen fully functional original stoves in these houses. Some of the kitchen exhaust fans still run. I've even seen '60s-era silent-flush commodes that still have all of the original parts, except for the washers. I predict that these houses will still be standing when there's nothing else left but cockroaches and Styrofoam cups.

Best of all, most of 'em are in intact neighborhoods, free of ugly infill houses. Like my 12-square-block jewel, these neighborhoods will hold their value because they'll hold their charm.

I say buy these houses before too many people catch on to how cool they are. And leave the original funky features intact. Got a big brick planter in the foyer? Leave it there. That's a signature piece. Do not wreck the bathroom tile. Do not remove the Jetson-looking metal trim around the stairs. In less than 10 years, the late-'50s houses will be 50 years old, and that's old enough to go on the National Register of Historic Places. Whole neighborhoods of Brady Bunch-like houses could be declared historic sites.

By the time this happens, people will be looking at '80s houses and wondering why in the hell people ever built 400-square-foot bathrooms. Those giant plastic showers with fake clamshells on the wall will be hitting Dumpsters all over town. And people will be paying haulers to come get those 400-pound ugly-ass chandeliers out of their two-story foyers.

Shortly after that, a whole lot of '80s-'90s houses will blow over in the wind, collapse under a 1-inch snowfall, or just rot to the ground. You just wait and see.


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