For any complex project, such as renovating a mid-century home, it is always good to establish a few basic principles at the start which will guide future decision-making processes. I quite often see the tension between partners on the smallest decisions (such as choosing tapware) and think that if they had agreed on a few principles at the start then their thousands of decisions that need to be made would be informed by those basic principles and the process would be much easier.
The question of restoring versus renovating versus modernising is a big one.
Which mid-century homes are worthy of restoration?
Are some elements worthy of restoration and others not worthy?
Could a restored home be better than it was originally?
Which homes should be renovated (and not restored)?
If a mid-century home is completely modernised is it still a mid-century home?
Can you restore and renovate at the same time?
I stumbled across this advertisement for this beautifully restored and renovated 1950 Westcraft Capistrano Calypso Trailer which neatly encapsulates the dilemma faced by many mid-century homeowners and one way to approach such a complex project. I thought it was an interesting project as the owner has skilfully restored, renovated and modernised at the same time, and the result is breathtaking.
Like many mid-century homes, this caravan had been neglected and was in poor condition when purchased. In addition, it had none of the modern conveniences and comforts that are part of twenty-first-century life. Here is the story:
In 2008, I bought a banged-up and somewhat decrepit 33-foot-long 1950 Westcraft ‘Capistrano’ park trailer from a friend, with the intention of doing a moderately thorough restoration. This particular model was the longest and most rare of the line, fabricated in Burbank, California in the post-WWII era by the Westcraft Manufacturing Company, known after the war for thick aluminium framing, ribs and skin, copious amounts of rivets, and heavily-chromed architectural elements. These materials had been considered strategic materials during the war, but then became available in abundance for the construction of trailers and other vehicles.
The George T. Hall Company was already an established pioneer in the manufacturing of trailers when it introduced the Westcraft brand in 1932. During WWII, the company participated in defence programs, but soon afterwards resumed trailer fabrication for civilians, utilizing heavy-gauge aluminium bodies over all-metal frames. From 1946 until the closing of the factory in 1955, Westcraft trailers were produced in Los Angeles, then Burbank, with a separate line of less expensive ‘Westwood’ models made between 1946 and 1948. The Westcraft line, named after well-known romantic California destinations, included the Montecito, Coronado, Shasta, Sequoia, Yosemite and Capistrano. Only the Capistrano featured a clerestory roof, known as a Pullman, with seven windows on each side up top, a design which allowed for six-feet, four-inches of interior headroom. The ‘bread-loaf’, smooth-skinned exterior shell was painted in several striking colours of enamel, enhancing its exclusivity and Art Deco lines and appeal. It was this extremely rare, elegant and forlorn creature that won my heart. “
For this particular project, the item concerned was extremely rare, had been a quality build and was in the eyes of the new owner beautiful, so worthy of a restoration project. But what parts should be restored. what parts should be renovated, and what parts should be modernised?
GENERAL ‘RESTOMOD’ CONCEPT:
The goal was NOT to restore this trailer to the original mint condition, but to create an even more opulent antique style based on the original 1930’s Art Deco design, thereby adding many new elements to attain a much higher level of luxury and elegance than the original had.
In addition, many modern practical and luxury appliances (listed below) were installed for truly comfortable living, but all of them are completely hidden in cabinets and behind curtains, so that when all cabinets are closed, the trailer looks and feels like an antique vintage specimen in absolute mint condition.
To achieve this double goal, almost all elements of the interior had to be meticulously designed from scratch and handcrafted in the shop, with the assistance of third party specialists working on the metal elements, such as water-jetting and bending aluminum, cutting and forming stainless steel, polishing and chroming, as well as high-quality painting, especially on the exterior.
The owner decided to make the project better than new, and NOT retore it is as a historical museum piece. This involved sympathetic integration of twenty-first-century technologies and comforts, but concealing them, and not making them a feature.
CUSTOM ELEMENTS crafted by Steven Butcher and his team:
Steven and I drew up plans for an upgraded and modernized cabin that would suit my needs, yet maintain the amazing Art Deco design of her sophisticated interior and shell: a master bedroom, full kitchen, a bar/lounge, a living room with custom-made leather convertible sofa/bed and chairs, a magnificent period bathroom with jade-green toilet, gimbaled vanity and heavy stainless steel shower enclosure. This ‘resto-mod’ includes all of the high-end amenities as well: two superb sound systems, two hidden flat-screen televisions, wonderful Deco lighting on dimmers, custom-fabricated grills, modern appliances, incredible faucets and fixtures, all-new blinds, a honey-colored wooden floor to match the cognac woodwork, contemporary water-heating, air-conditioning and heating systems, heavy-gauge stainless steel counters and sinks, and luxurious deep burgundy leatherwork throughout, including numerous hand-built furnishings. All of the metalwork has been custom-milled and fully re-chromed or highly polished. All of the wooden features have received numerous layers of marine varnish. The exterior enamel paint required multiple coats. The work includes rewiring everything to the latest codes, replacing all plumbing, redoing the closets and all hidden interior spaces, creating a pocket door for the bathroom and another swing-away door to separate the master bedroom from the living room for complete privacy. The fold-up dining table, which vanishes into a leather-lined cabinet that also conceals one of the flat screens, is in itself a design of technical genius. We eventually realized the scope, complexity, cost and duration of the work we had undertaken, and resigned ourselves to the necessity of taking our time on it. This apex of mid-century design deserved to be treated to the highest-end restoration on the planet.
In due time, all of these aspects were realized. In addition, the exterior was completely reworked and painted in three gorgeous enamel colours ranging from Midnight Blue to Sterling Silver to highlight the sumptuous design, a mix of ‘land yacht’ and private Deco train carriage. Approximately half of the aluminium panels were replaced; the expansive trunk was entirely redone and carpeted; all chrome and polished surfaces and handles were refinished; the chassis, axles and wheels were reworked or replaced; the skirts were matched to the exterior paint; the screen doors were redone; the solid doors were restored and rehung; all new gaskets were installed throughout; extensive work was done to the under-carriage. The grillwork was either restored or custom-milled and fabricated. On the tongue, we placed polished-aluminium propane tanks with period fittings. To complete the overall look, we registered the trailer with a YOM (Year Of Manufacture) 1950 yellow California license plate in a period frame.
– approximately half the interior birch wood panelling replaced
– to match the new wood with the original surfaces, it had to be ‘aged’ by tinted varnish and faux grain techniques with 5 coats of colour and aging
– then new and old surfaces were given at least 4 coats of varnish, with sanding and corrections between each varnish phase.
– all walls newly insulated and struts repaired or replaced as needed
– framing and doors in Douglas fir
– floor: original old-growth pine boards refurbished, reconfigured with inlay patterns throughout the trailer
– approx. 50% exterior aluminum surfaces replaced due to damage
– all cabinetry newly designed and constructed – including the TV cabinets, bathroom medicine cabinet with triple swivel gimbaled mirror mechanism
– all metal trim for mirrors, shelves, etc
– all grill elements for loudspeakers, heater/AC vents, fans, etc.
– all drawer handles and interior door handles, pulls and grips
– combined living room foldable table and TV cabinet
– original bar area enhanced, including glass shelf interior lighting
– all upper clearstory windows and frames
– most light switch and outlet plates
– all leatherwork, including the couch and chair cushions and coverings,
by Ben Ahadzedeh
– convertible sofa/bed in the living room made from scratch due to custom size requirement
– an interior swinging door between bedroom and hall added
– pocket doors added to bathroom and closets, with custom made slider handles
– all new window blinds
– all operable window closure systems newly built or refurbished, with additional weather sealing.
– all plumbing and electrical wiring renewed (using 20Amp Romex), with additional circuits and internet/cable capability
– bathroom lined in stainless steel with interlocking metal surfaces and no screws (to optimize moisture protection) and enlarged to include shower and custom made shower curtain rod
– full stainless steel kitchen surfaces and sink fittings
– storage compartments under the bed, including hidden areas beneath the King mattress
– polished aluminum propane tanks and valve system added
– trunk remodelled, lined with German carpeting
– all running lights replaced with NOS original period lighting
– undercarriage – aluminium plates added as needed, all wiring and plumbing shored up, in conduit, chassis and plates painted with a rustproof protector.
– wheels: axles, bearings repacked, drum brakes checked, rims refurbished, new tires with period look
– step units at both entrances genuine period railway train steps refurbished and painted to match the trailer
For this part of the restoration work, lots of customized elements had to be designed and made, which would have been hugely expensive, but crucial to get the aesthetic and integrity right. As all of this hard work is fairly seamless with the original a potential new purchaser will not recognise it, or fully appreciate the costs involved. There was also a lot of time and effort put into modernising the infrastructure of the trailer, such as the plumbing and electrical. These items cannot be seen, but are very important for the functionality and longevity of the trailer. So many mid-century home renovators seem to gloss over these important, expensive and “invisible” aspects of living in a mid-century home.
– kitchen stove – refurbished Dixie Permaview
– fridge- new Norcold fridge /freezer with ice maker; custom-made Art Deco period front facade doors, hinges and handles matching mint green period stove;
3-way power option: 110Volt, 12 Volt, propane
– period American Standard toilet, late 1940’s refurbished, with modern flushing mechanisms; can be installed either in a travel trailer or park trailer configuration
– stainless steel kitchen sink with Chicago faucets and custom made Art Deco trim
– original Art-Deco NOS (New Old Stock) lighting
-thermometer/barometer – original period
-period lit doorbell
The appliances that are visible, while not all original to the caravan, look appropriate for the decade it was built. Some are refurbished, some are new-old-stock, and some are custom made. The choices have been influenced by functionality as well as aesthetic – this is not a museum piece.
– water heater mounted according to earthquake hazard regulations
– 2 separate NAD stereo systems – for bedroom and living room, with NHT speakers and Sunfire subwoofers, Focal speakers
– 2 Sony flat-screen TV systems for bedroom and living room, each with Sony Blue Ray DVR, with several soundbars: either via dedicated Bose soundbar beneath each screen or connection to surround-sound stereo system in each room
– Duotherm forced-air heater/AC with custom-made Deco intake and output duct grills, remote control operation
– USB charging sockets (concealed) in the bedroom and living room
– cable and internet wiring throughout
– water filtration system beneath the kitchen sink unit
These appliances and fittings are aspects of modernising the trailer. They have no 1950’s equivalent so they are cleverly and discreetly concealed, rather than making a feature of them.
So what lessons can be taken away from this beautiful caravan and applied to the mid-century homeowner who is embarking on a renovation, restoration or modernisation project?
For the different elements of a project, there are a number of different approaches, including replacing sympathetic new for old, restoring existing, purchasing new/old stock, concealment, modernising and custom design and fabrication. At the end of the day, nobody wants to live in a museum piece – in fact, many original mid-century modern homes are not that thermally comfortable being too hot in summer and too cold in winter. The thermal efficiency of a mid-century home is one area where it is possible to modernise to provide a much more comfortable environment in a discreet and concealed manner.
If you want to respect the mid-century style of your home then modernise discreetly – like this trailer kept the modernised aspects discreet and concealed. If you want to modernise your home by replacing parquetry with porcelain tiles, filling the ceiling with glary downlights and whitewashing every piece of stained timber then you are destroying the mid-century character of your home with a contemporary interpretation, and it is no longer really a mid-century home. Don’t measure the character of a mid-century home by contemporary tastes, and appreciate the elements that set it apart from the comparatively generic homes that are built new today.
To get this trailer to this level of perfection is more expensive than a generic renovation. Not only does it take careful craftsmanship, but it also needs research, clever design, and lots of time. The time, passion and money spent on such a project such as this is usually not reflected in the market price, as a lot of the finished work looks seamless, and the costs involved to achieve perfection are unappreciated. However, the joy of owning and living in something so special should surpass the bean counter mentality for many people in the long term. Such a project should not be commenced by those looking for short-term gain, such as the real estate flippers.
“She is now the finest such trailer in the world, and is, in many opinions, Steven Butcher’s most beautiful restoration. The craftsmen who originally labored to design and fabricate these incredible artworks would be incredulous to see this gorgeous, museum-quality example of Art Deco aesthetics, functionality and luxury in a condition far better than new, 69 years after it rolled off of the production line. It is truly one-of-a-kind. “
Secret Design Studio salutes the time, passion and money that has gone into this project, and wishes the current owner the best of luck with the sale in finding the right buyer. If you would like to buy this 1950 Westcraft Capistrano Calypso Trailer then contact the owner here:
If you need advice about renovating, restoring (or modernising) your mid-century home please contact Secret Design Studio using the enquiry form.
CALYPSO – Spec sheet
trailer company: Westcraft Manufacturing Company, Burbank CA
model: Westcraft ‘Capastrano’
year built: 1950
length: 33 ft.
owner: Lucas Lackner
Photos by: Pawel Litwinski and Peter Lackner
restoration/modification specialist: Steven Butcher
specialists team: Clay Gossage, Joe Maggiore, Robert Rymer, Ben Ahadzedeh,
Noah Hillis (intern)