Mad About Midcentury Modern
Montgomery County's architecture isn't all colonials and Cape Cods
A wall of windows, such as this one in Mike Lecy and Kit Yeoh’s Rockville home, is a signature feature of midcentury modern design. Photo by Michael Ventura
Michael Shapiro swings open the front door and crosses the threshold into what seems like a bygone age of clean lines, cool design and atomic-age style. The door is cerulean blue, and as he closes it and steps across the hardwood floors, the theme song to Mad Men plays, as if on cue.
“That’s my cellphone,” he says sheepishly, and silences the ringer.
In Silver Spring’s Hammond Wood, the house could be a set from the popular TV show, which took place in the 1960s and popularized the sleek designs of midcentury modern style. The house, like this entire neighborhood, was designed by architect Charles Goodman, the foremost midcentury modern architect to work in the Washington, D.C., area, and it has Goodman’s signature touches. A wall of windows illuminates the living room. A broad fireplace, made with recycled bricks from a demolished Baltimore brewery, anchors one end of the room. The house has a low-pitched roof, broad eaves and sits slightly off-kilter on the property to fit into the contours of the land.
“To me, this is perfection,” says Shapiro, 43, of Bethesda. “It’s very modern, clean. I like things neat.”
Shapiro—colleagues call him “Midcentury Mike”—is a real estate agent who specializes in midcentury modern homes. He and friend Michael Cook, an architect who does a lot of midcentury remodels, bought the home in May 2015 and renovated it in the spirit of the original style. When they put it on the market in April, it went under contract for the full asking price of $599,000 in two weeks. “There’s a huge explosion in awareness,” Shapiro says. “The homes are now 50, 60, 70 years old, and people are trying to save them and restore them.”
Real estate agent Michael Shapiro, who renovated this Silver Spring home with a friend, says, “If you look beyond the colonials, there are lots of pockets of midcentury modern.” Photo by Michael Ventura
When you think about the architecture of the capital region, stately colonials come to mind, but midcentury modern, more famous in Palm Springs, abounds here, too—if you know where to look. As the suburbs expanded in the 1950s and 1960s, new homes and entire neighborhoods were built by modern architects whose designs won awards for their pioneering styles.
“There are thousands and thousands of these kinds of homes in the area,” Shapiro says. “Some are in neighborhoods like this. Some are custom homes. If you look beyond the colonials, there are lots of pockets of midcentury modern here around D.C. Way more than people think. You just have to delve into it.”
Driving through neighborhoods such as Mohican Hills, Bannockburn and Glen Echo can leave you feeling like you’re in a time warp as these so-called “atomic ranches” drift past, retro and futuristic at the same time.
“There’s something really special going on here,” says Scott Wilets, who moved to Bethesda’s Carderock Springs, a neighborhood of more than 400 midcentury modern homes, in 2007. Scott, 54, is an architect. His wife, Melissa, 50, is a graphic designer. They were planning a family, so they were drawn by the “schools and pools” that bring many to Carderock, which feeds into Walt Whitman High School and has its own swim and tennis club. But they also loved the neighborhood’s architecture. Like Hammond Wood and Rock Creek Woods in Silver Spring, Carderock Springs is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. An architectural review committee makes sure any changes to the homes are in keeping with their original style. Trees can’t be removed without permission.
“We like the windows and the strong connection to the outdoors,” Scott says while sitting in his airy living room, a wall of glass providing a view of the backyard where Scott built a modern-style treehouse for the couple’s son, Nathan. “The flow of the house is a really nice feature.”
For a long time, the qualities of these homes were overlooked by historic preservationists and the public, says Clare Lise Kelly, architectural history specialist for the Montgomery County Planning Department. Midcentury modern homes were too old to be modern anymore, but too modern to be historic.
“It’s kind of a conundrum,” Kelly says. “How could modern be historic?” Until recently, the county hadn’t conducted a survey of historic sites since 1976. Therefore, the most recent buildings considered historic—at least 50 years old—were from the 1920s. In 2013, Kelly set out to document what the last survey left off: what she calls “Montgomery Modern.”
The decades from the 1930s through the 1960s were a busy time for the county, says Kelly, whose 2015 book Montgomery Modern documents the county’s modern architecture. New Deal and World War II programs brought visionary architects to the D.C. area, she says, as government agencies were building and the suburbs were expanding. The county’s rolling hills and forested landscapes had discouraged previous developers, she says, but they inspired modernists who liked to nestle homes into nature. And lots of homes were needed. From 1950 to 1970, Montgomery County grew from 50,000 to 500,000 people, Kelly says. “That was a mind-boggling increase in a very short time. The modern design really spoke to this time period,” she says. “People wanted to start afresh. A new page. It was a very optimistic time.”
A recent fascination with those days has made midcentury modern hip again. The popularity of Mad Men helped, aficionados say, but it was more than that. Even though the mention of midcentury modern on a real estate listing can drive up prices, Shapiro says, these houses are often less expensive than other homes, in part because they tend to be smaller. Many of Goodman’s homes, built to be affordable, are less than 1,000 square feet.
“It’s a reaction to McMansionization,” says Shapiro, who was a Middle East expert at a D.C. lobbying firm when he started a blog in 2005 chronicling midcentury homes in the area. “You have people saying, ‘I’d rather be in something a little smaller but that has history and character.’ ”
Thousands of readers a month started visiting the blog, Modern Capital, sometimes peppering Shapiro with questions. Eventually he decided that maybe he ought to get a real estate license. Soon it became a full-time job.
Shapiro acknowledges that tastes change and, for some, the midcentury madness will pass. But for those like him, the clean, sharp style will always call. Here's a look inside three local midcentury modern homes.