Back to the Future

Cynthia and Bob Oswald in their 1950s ranch home in North Cohocton.

For a North Cohocton (Steuben County) couple, finding their dream home meant the additional thrill of refurbishing it entirely with vintage 1950s artifacts.

Cynthia and Bob Oswald bought a traditional, one-story ranch built in the 1950s, and spent weekends scouring Rochester in pursuit of period furnishings. You see, when they sold their Victorian home in Greece, out went the contents that did not fit in with the mid-century decor. The Oswalds came almost empty-handed to Cohocton, with only their personal possessions and collections.

“We had to re-buy everything to live here,” chuckles Bob, a retired Kodak employee and professional photographer. He spent years in the antique business in Rochester, and was familiar with the process of acquiring items. All told, it took about five years to completely decorate the interior. Regardless, Cindi and Bob say that they had loads of fun in the process.

The Oswalds poured over old magazines like Better Homes and Gardens to connect the items that they picked up with the cultural and societal changes of the time period. “Walk inside our house, and we are living the story of the era,” says Cindi, PR director of Noyes Health and director of the Noyes Foundation, as well as the past president of the Livingston County Chamber of Commerce.

MORE TO IT THAN POODLE SKIRTS AND ELVIS

Get ready to rock and roll down memory lane when you visit the Oswalds. Recessed fluorescent lighting, blond wood furniture and heavy, gaudy drapes are the hallmarks of an open floor plan interior of a 1950s ranch home. Asymmetrical rather than matched arrangements was a new concept. In the Oswald living room, for example, one side of the fireplace has a built-in bookshelf, and the other shows off the brick. World War II was over, and America was settling into a decade of growth and prosperity. Families began taking vacations in their wood-paneled station wagon, and their souvenir collections were displayed throughout the home.

“People threw away their Jadeite green dishes – because they were cheap to produce, durable and stain- and heat-resistant – as soon as they could afford better. Convenience became the hallmark with TV dinners, frozen orange juice and boxed pie crust,” explains Bob.

The housewife took all the measures that she could afford to leave her apron behind in the kitchen, once considered the central room in the home. This characteristic is noticeable when you enter the Oswald’s compact galley kitchen, featuring a chrome corner booth.

Families began entertaining in a much more casual manner in the ’50s – they’d lounge in the spacious living room, or outdoors on the patio near the grill. Cocktail parties replaced sit-down meals in the dining room. The hostess served hors d’oeuvres on lazy Susan rotating trays accompanied by martinis. Teenagers as an age group became recognized, and chips with hot dogs around the TV in the family room became the new norm.

A refrigerator displaced the icebox, and when the hostess brought out the jello mold, partygoers knew she owned a modern appliance. It was a matter of social prestige. A telephone in the kitchen alcove on the counter and a second phone in the bedroom hallway on a corner table was a further indicator that the family was upwardly mobile on the social ladder.

A DRIVE DOWN MEMORY LANE

While approaching the Oswald’s blue house along a street where neighborhood houses are decorated for Christmas, there are no outside holiday lights. That tradition came later as the Baby Boomers grew up.

Inside, however, a paper-mache Christmas village scene is displayed on the coffee table along with old black and white photo greeting cards slotted onto a tree-shaped cardholder. The artificial silver Christmas tree revolves while playing “Silent Night.” The Oswalds explain that they change interior decorations for each season.

“People were fascinated with plastic,” remarks Cindi. Plastic became a staple because of Tupperware and ice cube trays – even the tiles in the bathroom were plastic. Lucite jewelry was desirable, and collected by women and their daughters.

According to Cindi, there was a new emphasis on household sanitation in the ’50s. Owners had baseboard heating installed for clean and efficient circulation. A dishwasher was not only a timesaving addition to the kitchen, but it advanced germ control, as well. Picture June Cleaver from the TV series “Leave it to Beaver” vacuuming in her dress and high heels, and you will understand that the housewife’s ability to conquer cleanliness was eased with the latest appliances.

“My son and I found great pleasure in retrieving lamps with fiberglass shades from curbsides while watching the owners look at us with amazement from behind their living room curtains,” says Bob, who is constantly on the lookout for a new find.

The interior entrance of the Oswalds’ 1950s home is a foyer. The walls are papered in an ornate gold and black leaf design. The L-shaped hallway leads to separate bedrooms for children and a master bedroom at the end. The bedrooms are painted in pastel tones, and are complete with Haywood-Wakefield furniture, which had a local distributor in nearby Hornell. Chenille bedspreads in light tones and little lamps on the end tables complete the rooms simply. An eclectic selection of art from Oriental prints to American landscapes hangs on the walls.

THE REAL 1950S

When the Oswalds moved 13 years ago, one of the requirements was to find an old house that had never been renovated. They wanted to live in the country, and had their hearts set on finding a Victorian home. They looked, but to no avail. Then, a turn of events happened that the Oswalds admit was remarkable.

Cindi glanced at the top listing on the piles of home possibilities on their real estate agent’s desk. “The house was listed as a ranch of the period, and I knew,” says Cindi, convinced that she had found her new home. Even more interesting was that its location was on the same street in North Cohocton where Cindi’s grandmother lived. “I had been fascinated by that house when I drove by it as a child,” she adds. “Generations of my family have lived near here, including my mother.”

The original owner, Romeo Babbin, had an architect design the blue streamlined home on University Avenue in 1949-50 for his second wife, Kathryn. It stood out from the older two-story homes. This plan was a popular one in suburban areas, but completely new in a rural town. Older residents of the community have told Cindi and Bob that there was much curiosity about the new home at the time, and an invitation to a party there was cherished.

The ranch home had unique features for its day, such as radiant hot water heat and the first Anderson Thermal Pane sliding picture windows. The original blueprints, which included detailed, penciled-in locations for furniture and flooring, were left behind by the original owner. The house is angled on the property in a way that allows the sun to be seen all day long from the picture window.

Achieving a retro sense of what life is all about is worthwhile for Cindi and Bob. In 1958 Rocky Nelson, son of Ozzie and Harriet Nelson – the epitome of the ‘50s – crooned “I’ve Got a Feeling,” in affirmation.


by Kay Thomas