Reconsidering the Ranch House

American Style

The surburban ranch house (or rambler) gets a pretty bad rap. For starters, there are just so many of them, a large number of which are bland and inoffensive at best. The ranch house has been called the "poor stepchild of American architecture," by Alan Hess of Architectural Digest. "Unpretentious, low-slung, cranked out like Big Macs by tract-house builders in the 1950s, it was America’s most widely built single family home its very success casting a spell that doomed it to invisibility."

Among the thousands of ranch houses across the country, however, there are some real gems, especially the earliest versions and some of the exciting Modernist iterations that followed.

While ranch homes can, in some ways, be the epitome of uninspired cookie cutter conservatism, many historians point out that the original concept was anything but conformist. In fact, it was downright radical according to author and Slate architecture critic Witold Rybczynski. He says that the ranch house represented an historical anomoly, a revolutionary departure from America's long love affair with nostalgic "domestic status symbols" like formal entryways, dormers, gables, pitched roofs and porticos (features so popular in today's new construction). The ranch, with its single-storied, low slung profile, its open-plan interior, attached garage and large windows conveyed a unique diffidence, informality and lack of pretention.

For Cliff May, the Californian designer credited with designing the first ranch house in the 1930s, the ranch house was developed to serve three basic tenets:

Livability: open floor plans created an informal and seamless flow between rooms. attached garages that integrate the car into modern life. For May, the ranch house offered "friendliness... informality, and gaiety.” With cross ventilation, sliding glass doors, large windows, private semi-enclosed patios and exterior corridors, the early ranch was all about "sunshine and informal outdoor living" that “connect you to the day, to the time of day and the weather of the day.” The post-and-beam construction and open floor plan allowed for a lot of light. For the first time, kitchens were opened up to an ever-shrinking dining area. Family and recreational areas were paramount, as was storage space.
Flexibility: Multi-purpose rooms could be adapted as children aged and the family's needs changed. The ranch's simple, unadorned style could accommodate all manner of styles and decor. The layout also mean that homeowners could also easily tack on additions. And the homes tended to be forward-thinking when it came to the latest in home appliances and technology.
Unpretentious Character: Simple antechambers replaced the formal foyer; unimposing exteriors were typically devoid of traditional flourishes like gables and dormers. These were homes in which families could grow and host informal parties and BBQs.

The Ranch is Born
Though it has its roots in 19th century Spanish COlonial adobe houses, the ranch house really took off in Post-World War II California, when it began its eventual domination of the American suburban landscape. By 1950, nine out of 10 new houses were ranch houses. Americans were feeling optimistic after the war, mortgage rates were generous, and demand for new homes was soaring as soldiers returned home. Developers cashed in on this demand by embarking on what would be an suburban building boom of unprecedented size and scope. Massive subdivisions of "tract" ranch houses on inexpensive land served the growing middle-class market. Ranch houses, with their sprawling footprint and large lots, were only possible, of course, now that the car was king in America and the average Joe could live further out and on bigger chunks of land.

Upgrades and Downgrades
By the late 1960s, builders were taking short cuts and the ranch house would be reduced to decidedly bland and charmless rectangular boxes; cheap imitations that often lacked the charm and functionality of the original models. The sheer omnipresence of the ranch house also made it the perfect target for critics. But to dismiss the ranch house outright would be to miss some of the magnificent reinterpretations of the style that emerged throughout the mid-century. In California, architects and builders at Eichler Homes and the Alexander Construction Company built some gorgeous ranch homes with a sleek mid-centiury modernist twist. It's no wonder that Eichler and Alexander houses are now garnering the much-deserved attention of preservationsists and mid-century modern afficionados across the country.

Characteristics of the Ranch House
• Single story
• Low pitched gabled or hipped roof
• Deep-set eaves
• Horizontal, rambling layout:
• Rectangular, L-shaped, or U-shaped design
• "Walls of windows": double-hung, sliding, and picture windows
• Attached garage
• Simple floor plans
• Natural materials: Oak floors, wood or brick exterior
• Lack of decorative details
• Open, informal and casual
• Family rooms
• Kitchens that open up to dining areas
• Multiple bedrooms and baths
• Ample storage
• Incorporation of technological advances (telephone wiring in every room, central heating and cooling, full-house vacuums)
• Integration with the outdoors: large windows and easy access to patios and courtyards

Images:

FIRST ROW
1 - 3 Eichler Design. The California home--an original Eichler ranch--of Barry Briscoe.
4 Eichler Homes of Southern California
5 Uncle Eddie's Theory Corner. This 50s ranch incorporates old ranch and barn ideas, and old European ideas like French doors.

SECOND ROW
6 Highly coveted "lanai model" Cliff May home in Long Beach, CA. Rancho Style.
7 A Palm Springs home built by the Alexander Construction Company. Eichler Network.
8 1953 ranch in Long Beach. Rancho Style.
9 Another California home designed by Eichler. Balboa Highlands.
10 1954 Cliff May ranch. Rancho Style.

THIRD ROW
11 Mid-century modern Palm Springs ranch with "butterfly roof". Retro Renovation. Note the diamond-patterned concrete blocks, emblematic of the Southern Californian mid-century modern design.
12 Eichler Design. Advertisement for an Eichler-designed home in a 1960s issue of Family Circle magazine.
13 A less than thrilling example of the ranch house. Baton Rouge Goverment

Sources:
Cliff May and The California Ranch House by Laura Gallagos. 2005.
Rancho Style
Ranch Houses are Not All The Same by David Bricker.
The Ranch Hosue Anomaly by Witold Rybczynski/Slate