Jennifer and Dan Harrison live close enough to Disneyland that they’ve hosted many a party that ended up with friends out on the driveway watching the summertime fireworks display from the theme park. That was at their 1920s bungalow, though, before the couple moved into a midcentury ranch house. Its Anaheim, California, location may lack the same aerial firepower, but everything else is bigger, better and bolder in their view.
“When we lived in the bungalow I was proud to have a house from the ’20s. Anything later than that was too new. Your house is only 50 years old? Mine’s 80—please!” Jen, a teacher, says. “But when we walked into this house, the charm and the thought that went into it [struck me]. “It’s like the evolution of homes: a bungalow is plunked in the middle of a yard, while this one wraps around the yard. There was not one place I could sit in our bungalow and look out and enjoy the yard. Here, every window has a great view. It’s so well planned.”
Their 1954 ranch house on a street once called “Doctors’ Row” is traditional both inside and out, with a gable roof, stone-clad front facade, double-hung windows, brick fireplace, crown molding, hardwood floors and separate rooms for entertaining, dining, cooking and denning. But no one would accuse the Harrisons of having a bland ’50s-sitcom home. The smokin’ hot colors they’ve chosen, the punchy retro furnishings and the collectibles Jen has transferred from the bungalow assure that their house makes a distinct impression.
Custom built on a lot and a half, the 2,600-square-foot home has only two bedrooms, but they’re big enough to roller-skate in. The living room and the kitchen with its dinette breakfast area, are similarly spacious, while the dining room and den are more modest. Two baths in virtually original condition, plenty of storage, a pool and a bonus room in the garage convinced the couple to move their aesthetic forward several decades.
When they lived in the bungalow, Jen says they decried vinyl windows, stucco and louver windows. “Now I leave that last one off,” she says with some amusement. “What’s wrong with louver windows?”
Their furniture and collections range from 1930s Fiestaware and a Heywood-Wakefield dining set to Todd Oldham chairs. A turquoise and white vinyl sectional reminiscent of a ’55 Chevy and a child’s red rocking chair share the living room with lots of decorative touches— teapots, pillows, polka-dot Fire King bowls, vintage and new accent lamps.
“I was a little nervous; I love your magazine, but a lot of the homes you feature have furniture that you can tell the homeowners picked out specifically for that place—I need that Eames chair or Noguchi table right there. Everything is pure,” Dan, an IT guy, confesses. “That’s not how we are. We like the ’30s and the ’40s and the ’50s and the ’60s, and things that are brand new. We want to keep things in a retro style, but we want to be comfortable, too. We want it to feel like a home, not a museum.”
“The whole Ruby’s Diner–look, everyone thinks that was the ’50s, but that was really the ’40s,” Jennifer adds. “Our house isn’t a theme party. I don’t subscribe to wearing a poodle skirt and black and white shoes. If there was a course in how to decorate ’50s style, I’d avoid it at all costs.”
The industrial-strength color they applied to their home begins on the walls. The entry hall is lime, the bath and dining room turquoise-y, the master bedroom wisteria and the kitchen has gray-green cabinets with pink-plaid wallpaper. Their 1920s cottage was also vibrant, but none of the paint shades they’d used seemed to look good in the new house.
“I liked those colors so much that I thought I’d just bring them here,” Jen explains, “but nothing that was tried and true over there worked here.”
While those who ascribe to brown-on-beige-on-black neutral interiors might consider the combinations strident, much thought and trial and error went into finding colors that work in a given room as well as playing off the palettes in adjoining rooms. “We wanted the den to be a vibrant color, yet soothing,” Dan says. “We went back and forth between cool colors and warm colors; we finally found this awesome coral.
The living room was more of a challenge. “We went through some disastrous colors,” he remembers. “Everything was way too light; it looked like a fishbowl. We tried seafoam green, peach and light blue. A friend suggested this purple color but we thought it was way too dark. Then we started thinking that the room is really well lit during the day, plus it’s huge. If you paint a small room dark it’s going to feel like the walls are caving in, but in a big room, why not—give it a shot.”
“A lot of people say ‘I like your house but I could never live in it,’ ” Jen semi-grouses. “I think, ‘Go home to your white walls!’ ”
Kitchen Collection Run Amok
Dan came from a Star Wars–poster aesthetic and admits he’s more streamlined, while Jen’s approach is more if-you’ve-got-it-display-it. Their bungalow lent itself to decorative things on pretty much every horizontal surface, but in this house more items are stored behind closed doors.
The collectibles include Noritaki china, vintage toasters, refrigerator storage containers, melamine canister sets, and Bauer and Fiesta pitchers, vases, plates, cups and bowls—lots and lots of bowls, at least 30 just counting the Pyrex ones. Jen kind of fell into collecting the Fiestaware when she stumbled across a large trove of turquoise dinnerware, but now limits her purchases to newly released disc pitchers. A veteran who’d brought Noritaki china back from Japan during the Korean War for his two daughters thrust a set upon her at a yard sale.
But other collectibles are pure nostalgia fed: “Pyrex I was very specific about: I remember making chocolate chip cookies out of a bowl set my mom had. I love the bright colors and was never interested in the clear glass containers of the early series or the mustards and avocados of the later series,” she says. “I would pick them up piece by piece really inexpensively at garage sales. It still amazes me how many complete sets I’ve been able to put together over the years, but those days are over. People laughed at me when they saw the sets, and usually told me that their mom still had them in the fridge with leftovers intact. Now I see them in antiques stores with prices I can’t believe!”
Members of the Anaheim Historical Society, the Harrisons are working to infect the local bungalow-philes with midcentury fever. “There’s no real drive to focus on houses from the postwar boom,” says Dan. “The committee got together in 1997 and deemed 1,200 structures historically significant. They chose 1949 as their cutoff.”
That means the Harrisons’ house doesn’t qualify for California Mills Act status, while their previous bungalow was among 150 Anaheim residences that benefit from the property-tax-saving benefits—which makes Jen grind her teeth a bit. But they’re patient and believe change will come through education and exposure.
“Anyone from the historical society who comes over loves the house,” Dan says. “They recognize it as being significant. It’s not a cookie-cutter home that you would have seen built in the ’70s or ’80s. No one gives us the impression that this house is not worth fighting to preserve. Jennifer has such strong feelings about this house and houses of this era, and she brings a fresh voice to the group. I think they want that.” Still, not everyone has a historic-group mindset as Jen illustrates: “There’s not a lot of ‘Ranch Pride’ around our neighborhood. When I say I have a ranch, sometimes people ask if that means I have a horse.”