It was an era of homes with shag carpeting and hot tubs in the bedroom; now, some historians and homeowners are embracing the decade and bringing groovy back to real estate (minus the mirrored walls and laminate surfaces)
By STEFANOS CHEN
April 11, 2013 5:38 p.m. ET
The clues: Popcorn ceilings. Avocado appliances. Shag carpeting.
Answer: Design features from a decade some homeowners would rather forget.
Often dismissed as the era of A-frame homes with hot tubs in the bedroom, the 1970s also saw some forward-looking advances in home design, from stricter building codes to the beginnings of the green-home movement. Now, some historians and homeowners are looking past the mirrored walls and laminate surfaces and restoring these retro residencesâ€”saving some from the wrecking ball.
Michael LaFetra, the owner of movie-production company Foundation Films, is an avid restorer of modernist homes. Since 1999, Mr. LaFetra, 46, has bought and restored close to 20 houses in California, many of them in Los Angeles. Among them is a 4,755-square-foot wood-and-glass home in Santa Monica built by well-regarded architect Ray Kappe in 1970.
Mr. LaFetra purchased the home for roughly $3.8 million in 2011, according to public records, and says he poured about $1 million into its restoration, using architectural prints and archival materials provided by Mr. Kappe. Most of the work involved reinforcing the home’s glued laminated fir, a kind of compressed wood beam, that was severely misaligned. Instead of simply caulking the pinky-width gaps, he invested in steel reinforcements to “essentially make it new again.” The home was listed for $5.975 million in January and is now in contract; the sale price wasn’t disclosed, but was below asking price.
Those who appreciate the eclectic styles of the ’70s will find houses with unique charms and solid bones. “The true height of ’70s architecture was that most architects at the time were very experimental,” says Dora Epstein Jones, coordinator of general studies at the Southern California Institute of Architecture. Regional materialsâ€”like redwood in the West and mud brick in the Southwestâ€”were commonly incorporated into the design, and ecological concerns, like solar paneling, were growing in popularity.
In Charlotte, N.C., the center of Gary Ferraro and Lorne Lassiter’s 1973 Sea Ranch-style home features a 26-by-20-foot atrium with a 40-year-old river birch tree growing in the middle.
“It was a little daunting when we first moved in,” says Mr. Ferraro, 72. The couple purchased the home about a year and a half ago and just completed a 16-month renovation of the property. The roughly 3,850-square-foot, vertical-cedar-plank home was a departure from the couple’s last abodeâ€”a far more conventional townhouse.
The house is in the affluent Foxcroft neighborhood of Charlotte, where many of the nearby properties are “very traditional” Georgian-style brick homes. Their closest neighbor’s home is about 9,000 square feet, he said. Some of them “look like they should have a moat,” he jokes.
Mr. Ferraro, a retired cultural anthropologist, says he appreciated the home’s modernist architecture, but that some of the design aesthetics were dated. Then he met the home’s architect, Crutcher Ross, who, before his death in 2011, gave his blessing for the $400,000 restoration.
Changes included removing popcorn ceilings from some bedrooms and swapping dark tiles in the living space for white porcelain ones. “Everything was very dark,” says architect Mike Standley of Charlotte-based design firm Liquid Design. Today, the home’s clerestory windows and dramatic sloping ceilingâ€”about 18 feet at the apexâ€”serve as a backdrop for the couple’s sculptural-glass collection, Mr. Ferraro says.
Most of the work on the Kappe home involved reinforcing the home’s glued laminated fir, a kind of compressed wood beam, that was severely misaligned. Michael McNamara
The couple also kept the “spectacularly funky” tile in the home’s four full bathrooms and two half-baths, which they had repainted white from colors like robin’s-egg blue. “It went out of style, but it’s come back,” he says about the tiles. They are especially striking in the master bath, which includes a 17-foot-tall, elliptically shaped shower with a 2-by-4-foot window. “Even if you cannot sing a note, you really sound very good in that shower,” Mr. Ferraro says.
He admits he may have trouble selling the property some day, but he’s in no rush to do so. Still, finding a buyer with the same sensibilities can prove challenging.
About 10.7% of all homes not in foreclosure in the U.S. currently for sale were built between 1970 and 1979, according to real-estate website Trulia, which analyzed listings that contained a home’s build date in the property description. With a median size of 1,600 square feet, ’70s homes are almost 800 square feet smaller than homes built in the 2010s, according to Trulia data.
It’s also a decade with the fewest luxury homes currently for sale. Only 2.5% of homes built in the ’70s are on the market today for $1 million or more. By comparison, 4.5% of homes of all ages are priced at $1 million or more, the data show.
One reason may be that many homes from this era have been torn down. In a survey of about 500 modernist homes on New York’s Long Island, where real-estate prices are among the highest in the nation, “almost all” have been demolished or drastically altered, says Caroline Rob Zaleski, author of “Long Island Modernism, 1930-1980,” which was published in the fall. “The most endangered past is the most recent past,” she says. And while homes from the 1950s and ’60s are enjoying renewed interest from admirers of the “Mad Men” midcentury-modern style, the same isn’t true for ’70s homes, even though they share common elements.
The ’70s began with modernist ideas and ended with a return to more classical themes, like the “neocolonial” home. It was the last decade before the emergence of the “McMansion,” Ms. Zaleski says, a less-than-complimentary term for large homes with a hodgepodge of classical influences.
“There’s symbolic confusion,” when it comes to what the ’70s represent in terms of architecture, says Ms. Epstein Jones of the Southern California Institute of Architecture. It’s another reason why ’70s homes don’t enjoy the same cachet as those from other, well-defined decades.
Some ’70s homes, however, are unmistakably a product of the period, extreme even to the leisure-suit set.
In Perinton, N.Y., a suburb of Rochester, Mike Gagnier, 63, and Theresa Sherrod, 59, are selling their “childhood fantasy” home, a 1971 “mushroom house.” The structure is composed of several 80-ton concrete pods and built partially into the side of a hill. A matching “cave” with bubble skylights and a mosaic-tiled hallway was added in 2001.
Much of the furniture is built-in, partly due to the home’s unusual contoursâ€”there are no corners. Large windows line the circumference of the pods for views of the woods and a waterfall feature on the grounds.
Mr. Gagnier and Ms. Sherrod, both physicians, bought the home in 2012 for about $800,000 and have spent about $100,000 in the past year installing more energy-efficient windows, adding new lighting and performing some upkeep; otherwise they were entirely faithful to the original design, they say.
“Every weekend, practically, people stop, come in the driveway, or sometimes come knock because they don’t know it’s a private home,” Ms. Sherrod says.
Even so, the couple say the home is comfortable and functional. There’s a very practical kitchen and well-apportioned living roomâ€”except theirs has a plaster-covered tree sculpture in the center that gives the space a “groovy feel.”
The couple say an insurer put the replacement value of the home at roughly $4.5 million. They expect to list the home for $1.5 million this month, according to real-estate agent Rich Testa. They don’t regret their decision to sell, saying they needed to move to Maryland to be close to family. Now in Bethesda and surrounded by Colonial-style townhouses, Ms. Sherrod is nostalgic. “It was an opportunity you only get once in a lifetime,” she said.
Write to Stefanos Chen at email@example.com