What was once new is old
Modern is a misleading word. As an American house style, it first appeared in the 1920s, and the bulk of Modern houses are at least a half-century old—which means they're eligible to be part of the National Register of Historic Places. It also means they're old enough to be ripe for renovation.

But redoing a Modern home presents special challenges. Some of the period's experimental building techniques have not always held up well. In Plano, Illinois, preservationists at Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's 1951 Farnsworth House are trying to deal with rust on the home's 9½–foot–high steel window frames, which can cause them to distend and fracture the plate glass. David Bahlman, president of the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois, says that because of the home's historic importance, replacing the frames with modern aluminum trim is out of the question. So they're testing how to repair them. At the same time, Bahlman's group is addressing problems caused by previous renovations, including a "flat" roof that has been repaired so many times that its slope toward a drain in the center of the house has diminished, causing leaks and water damage.

Modern-house owners also struggle with original finish materials, such as laminated counters and vinyl flooring, that were the wonder products of their time but are today considered low-budget. Los Angeles architect Frank Escher, who recently designed an addition to Richard Neutra's 1958 Loring House in the Hollywood Hills, isn't against switching materials, as long as the new products respect Modern's spare aesthetic. His favorite substitutes include solid-surface counters and linoleum flooring, though he doesn't write off laminates, which have evolved in recent years.

The good news about taking on a Modern house restoration is that the plans may still be in the hands of the original owner. "Those drawings can tell you an awful lot about the logic of the home's construction," says Bahlman. But even without the plans, as more and more warm up to the style, information about renovating Modern is increasingly available. In large cities like Los Angeles, where the L.A. Conservancy keeps track of dozens of historic 20th-century buildings, house tours are an invaluable source for ideas or to find preservationists who specialize in the style.
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