Restoring the "'40s House" in Sunnyslope

One day last summer, I found myself standing on a wobbly stool in a tiny, sweltering cottage in a part of midtown Phoenix that had long been the butt of local jokes. I was there to help paint the kitchen of an old, lath-and-plaster bungalow that had been donated to the Sunnyslope Historical Society, and which the organization was planning to restore so that people could come look at how middle-class people lived in the desert of the 1940s.

Built in 1945 by Walter Lovinggood, the house originally was located at 8924 North Second Street. The Lovinggoods sold the house to Corda Inskeep in 1947, and the Inskeeps lived there until 1983. They sold it to Earl Getman, an electrician who ran his business from there and eventually sold the house to the city of Phoenix, which donated it to the Sunnyslope Historical Society with the stipulation that it be moved to another location, but not demolished. Longtime Sunnyslope residents the Melluzzos donated a plot of land conveniently located right next door to the Sunnyslope Historical Society Museum, to which the tiny house — dubbed the '40s House by the museum — was relocated in 1999.

"This would not have happened in most neighborhoods in Phoenix," Christina Plante — the neighborhood relations manager for John C. Lincoln Health Network who oversaw the house's renovation — told me the other day. "There's a really big sense of community here, from people who moved here in the '40s when Sunnyslope was really the place to be."

I expected the restoration of the'40s House to trade authenticity for cuteness; that the lower-end furnishings and cheaper finishes appropriate to such a humble abode would be ignored in favor of fun, kicky furniture, and swanky window treatments. I've seen this a lot in private residences, where the homeowner installs fir cabinetry and high-end lighting fixtures and oak flooring in a two-bedroom shotgun cottage, then proclaim the place "period correct." In cases like this, the house looks great, but the truth is that, way back when, anyone with enough money to trick out a place like this would sooner have moved into a bigger house.

I needn't have worried. The restoration team, which included local architecture experts including Alison King, Taz Loomans, and Marshall Shore — restored the '40s Housewith a keen eye for both economic and historical accuracy. The upholstered living room furniture is simple and gently used-looking but not shabby; the pastel paint colors are era-appropriate; the kitchen is fitted out with a stunning selection of cheap but sturdy "Youngstown cabinets," the enameled metal cabinetry popular in post-war America. A closet in the back bedroom has been left unfinished to display the house's two-by-four construction; that room will host exhibits germane to suburban life in 1940s Sunnyslope.

"Stuff had to be from 1949 or earlier," Plante explains, "because a family living in this kind of house would have had older furniture mixed with new." The single exception to this rule was made for the comfort of visitors: The Historical Society installed central air conditioning, which residents of this home almost certainly wouldn't have had.

"Our goal was to restore the house to look like what the GIs had to look forward to once they returned from World War II," Plante says of the house, which opens to the public next month. "For most middle-class Americans, this was what the American dream looked like: a two-bedroom, one-bath house where a couple could raise three kids and maybe move Grandma in later on."

Plante knows that people will be pleased to glimpse the city's suburban past when they visit the '40s House, but it's the exhibit's subtext that she's really banking on. "The timing couldn't be better," she told me. "Right now, the economy is a mess. I'm hoping visitors will see a little house five or six people loved and lived in for decades, that was rescued and restored by volunteers, and be reminded of things, like family and community, that are really important."

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela