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The Jackson family purchased a circa 1975 time capsule house in late 2020.

Protect Time Capsule Houses at All Costs

published Aug 17, 2021
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Like thousands of other people on the internet last year, Alysha Jackson took one look at the photos of a splashy ‘70s-era home for sale in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and was captivated. Her eyes widened at its blazing purple shag carpets, wood-paneled walls, and groovy built-ins.

“We just kind of got this gut feeling that we should go for it,” Jackson says.

So, from their home in Florida, she and her husband — both Indiana natives — decided to put in an offer on a Friday night after taking a video tour. “We weren’t looking for a second house,” she explains, but by Monday morning, their offer was accepted. A short time later, with a couple of toddlers in tow, they set foot in their new-old home.

“[We saw] all the things we hadn’t noticed in the photos — like wall unit radios and little wood carvings all over the house,” Jackson says. “Just seeing the detail of the home and all the love and care that went into designing it really struck us the first time we opened that door.”

The Sherbondy house bathroom

The retro creation, completed in 1975 by architect James Sherbondy, is a veritable time capsule house with carpeting in the kitchen and the bathroom. Practically frozen in a bygone era, time capsule homes capture the collective imagination. When they hit the market, they make the rounds on social media, and headlines tout their untouched and perfectly preserved forms.

These houses manage to evade renovations for decades, preserving the kinds of features and details you’d never find in a more contemporary construction. Even much smaller changes are avoided; wall colors, furniture, accessories, and art maintain their original allure. Beyond that, they speak to the spirit of the people who’ve lived within their floral-printed walls. Time capsule homes are nothing short of architectural treasures, and preserving them means allowing snapshots of the American lifestyle of yesteryear to live on.

The Jackson family in the Sherbondy house kitchen

Time Will Tell: The Making of a Time Capsule House

There are a few different ways for a place like the Sherbondy house to get stuck in time. One of the most common reasons time capsules exist relates to, well, getting older.

“I think that most people who end up with time capsule houses do so for a really simple reason, and that’s because [the owners] aged in place — they got older and they didn’t see the point or the cost of renovation as being worth it,” explains Kate Wagner, an architecture critic and the creator of McMansion Hell. “So they just kind of end up with these houses that never change.”

While some homeowners indeed had bold, unwavering tastes, others just didn’t see the point in undoing a trendy decorating job that they put time, effort, and money into creating. The attitude can be summed up as: If it’s not broken, why fix it?

Even so, it takes a special kind of person to resist the temptation to renovate for decades, especially once a flooring style or cabinet finish, for example, is deemed outdated. Having a groovy ‘60s living room in the ‘80s, for instance, wasn’t retro-chic yet — it was seen as just plain ugly. 

The Sherbondy house living area

Time capsule owners “don’t feel pressured, or a need to conform to society,” explains John Lahmeyer, a Realtor with Coldwell Banker and the listing agent for the Sherbondy house. The original architect and his family members were the only other inhabitants of the home, which also helped keep it the way it looked when it was built.

Another reason time capsules manage to survive? A lack of resources.

“I think this tends to happen in sort of working-class and middle-class neighborhoods where there’s less of a desire and less financial bandwidth to be able to renovate constantly,” says Sarah Archer, a design writer, curator, and author of “The Midcentury Kitchen.”

Credit: CENTURY 21 Tri-Cities
A time capsule house in Prosser, Washington

Finding orange Formica countertops in a palatial estate in, say, Beverly Hills, is far less likely than in a three-bedroom ranch in suburban Ohio, she reasons. And in the mid-20th century, repeatedly updating the look of a home just wasn’t what regular people did.

“Prior to mass production and globalization, the kind of room-by-room makeover that dominates our remodeling discourse was the domain of the wealthy,” wrote Wagner in “Are home renovations necessary?” for Curbed in 2018. “Most changes in the average household came from gradual replacement of household goods with newer or better ones over time, rather than a premeditated overhaul.”

The exception to these two categories of time capsules are vacation homes. Since they typically don’t get constant wear and tear, they weren’t updated in the way a main residence might be. This funky avocado-green condo in California, for example, managed to retain its ‘70s glamor over the years because its owners rarely set foot in the place. And as with many other time capsules, eventually, the original owners’ children decided to sell it.

A time capsule house in Framingham, Massachusetts

The Burnt-Orange Allure of Being Stuck in the Past

There are no alerts that go off when a time capsule home hits the market. Sometimes, all it takes is a casual Zillow scroller to notice it, tweet about it, and inadvertently put thousands of eyes on a particular house. Other times, a real estate agent knows what kind of museum-like magic their listing possesses. Realtor Matt Cuddy is one of those agents. 

Cuddy listed a time capsule house in Framingham, Massachusetts, in 2016. Before he took on the listing, it had lingered on the market for months without any bites, ostensibly because the previous owners hadn’t gone to the expense of updating it over the years. When it came time to sell, there were so many projects needed to bring the house into the 21st century that a remodel would’ve cost more than what the place would sell for. Time capsule houses reach a point where the idea of a top-to-bottom renovation becomes too overwhelming.

A time capsule house in Framingham, Massachusetts

“We’ve got to fly with this thing as-is,” Cuddy told his clients, suggesting they play up the throwback nature of the house when re-listing it. He highlighted its lemon-lime kitchen and magenta-and-black bathroom instead of attempting to neutralize them, then reached out to local press. His strategy worked, of course — the home took off within days of hitting the market, first making an appearance in Boston magazine, then splashing the pages of Elle Décor and BuzzFeed, and getting a spot on “Good Morning America.”

A time capsule house in Framingham, Massachusetts

There’s a reason time capsule houses go viral in a way other listings don’t — they tap into a special kind of sentimentality, giving people a way of looking at the past through rose-colored glasses.

“It’s like, if you see something that you grew up with or that was so familiar to you in childhood, it makes sense [you’d be attracted to it],” Cuddy says. 

The nostalgia element is something Jennifer Spreitzer, the founder and co-moderator of a Facebook group called Time Capsule Houses, has noticed, too. Each day, dozens of real estate listings are posted to the page, making it one of the best resources for active time capsule listings out there. Its nearly 80,000 members, mostly vintage design enthusiasts, like, love, and comment on the one-of-a-kind features of each home. 

“We just get tons of comments like, ‘Oh my god, I had that growing up!’ or ‘That reminds me of my grandmother,’ or ‘This brings back such happy memories,’ Spreitzer says. “A lot of people find that in the group and really appreciate that.”

What It’s Like Living in — and Preserving — a Time Capsule

The best case scenario for a time capsule house is securing owners who act as stewards. Instead of gutting and rehabbing, they improve by maintaining. As lovers of older homes and retro design, the Jackson family is leaning hard into their home’s ‘70s vibes with a few themed photoshoots by real estate photographer Dustin McKibben. And they’re not only preserving the home’s original details, but also retaining its look with furniture and decor from the period.

“If you go on Pinterest, all the ideas are carbon copies of the typical HGTV homes. They’re beautiful — I wouldn’t mind living in one myself!” Jackson says. “However, when you’re renovating a historical home, you really have to dig very deep to find things that are appropriate for the era.”

Living in and sprucing up a time capsule doesn’t come without its challenges. Jackson knew the house would first need some structural reinforcements after moving in, since the dining room’s supports had weakened over the years. Even smaller decisions, like choosing an appropriate material to replace some of the old shag — Jackson went with Marmoleum, a sustainable linoleum brand — requires more than just glancing at a few styles in an online catalog. (And don’t worry, the leftover shag is being used to restore vintage camper vans to their former glory.)

“It’s really hard because when you buy a home and it doesn’t have this history to preserve, you just do whatever you want, what suits your lifestyle,” Jackson says. “[With time capsules] it’s a lot more complex — so much goes into each little decision. It is a little bit more grueling, I would say, than doing what we’d do to a normal, newer home. But I think this house is worth it, because of how unique it is and how special it is.”

Corbyn Wittig's time capsule house outside of Chicago

Corbyn Wittig, the other co-moderator of the Time Capsule Houses group, lives in a brick split level circa 1967 in a suburb north of Chicago with her family. She says she bought it for a below-market price in late 2020, thanks to its unrenovated charms. Wittig is using the money she saved on the listing price to invest in the home’s journey, as she calls it.

“Preservation happens when we lean into fixing and improving what works and brings joy, but I don’t think it has to be puritanical or rigid,” Wittig says. “I feel it’s in the spirit of time capsule appreciation to keep the elements that work, while being willing to let the 21st century dip its toes in, too.”

Corbyn Wittig's time capsule house outside of Chicago

Finding the appropriate caretakers for time capsules — ones who view them as a labor of love, rather than a construction project — is likely what will allow them to live on. Jackson has been keeping her Instagram followers abreast of the projects unfolding in her time capsule, even adding polls to her Instagram Stories for people to vote on which furniture pieces look best in certain rooms. “I think it’s really important to try to keep the spirit of it,” Jackson says. “Because once it’s gone, it’s gone.”

Discovering time capsule real estate listings and delighting in their kaleidoscopic photos is a colorful pastime, to be sure. But if these homes aren’t preserved, photographs will be all of what’s left of them. The kind of environment where, say, your dad grew up, simply can’t be replaced. Time capsule homes are an actual, physical window into the past. They’re also just plain fun. 

“Time capsule houses are definitely one of those things where it’s like, is it kind of tacky? Yes. Is it kind of kooky? Yes,” says Wagner of McMansion Hell. “But we need that in the world. We can’t just be detached and cool and Instagrammable. We have to have fun, and there’s so little room in architecture for fun.”