The Ranch, an Architectural Archetype Forged on the Frontier

By Katherine Salant
Saturday, December 30, 2006

If asked to name America's most important contribution to residential architecture, most people would probably suggest Abraham Lincoln's log cabin, a Southern plantation mansion like Scarlett O'Hara's Tara (even though it was only a movie set) or George Washington's Mount Vernon.

The correct answer? The ranch house.

It is an American original, and its echoes are in nearly every house built since World War II. Just peel away those Tuscan touches and Tudor treatments and take a closer look at the construction methods, the location of the major living spaces, the generous use of glass that blurs the distinction between indoor and outdoor space, and the open floor plans that combine several functions within one area of the house.

No matter how different a house might look at first glance, you will find the ranch's influence all over the place.

Adding the suburban ranch to the American architectural pantheon may surprise some. Ever since the years right after World War II, when this house type became a suburban fixture, critics have derided it as a bland and colorless box.

The truth is more complicated and more interesting.

A small number of architects working in California and the Southwest during the 1920s and '30s designed the first suburban ranch-style houses. These were based on the simple, one-story houses built by ranchers who lived in the harsh climate of the plains and mountains of the West. For young architects seeking forms that were defined by their function and not layers of Victorian bric-a-brac or the Colonial-style treatments popular in the East, the ranchers' houses had particular appeal.

The architects also admired the way the casual lifestyle of ranch families was reflected in their houses. All the rooms opened onto a shaded veranda, which functioned as a hallway and as an important living area for much of the year.

On their drawing boards, the young architects re-created the solitude of the vast prairies by arraying the living and dining areas around a private back yard from which no neighbors could be seen. Even more startling to the homeowners of the time was the way some of these designers merged indoor and outdoor spaces. Drawing on the work of Frank Lloyd Wright, they used multiple windows and French doors on the walls that faced the landscaped back yard, an innovation that made the outdoor area appear to be part of the indoor living space.

Another Wrightism was using the same space for multiple functions, as in a living-dining room or an eat-in kitchen. Placing the bedrooms in the front of the house was also unusual.

Because the architects' clients were usually wealthy, the houses were big, often sprawling across the owner's land as the ranchers' houses sprawled across the prairies.

To a 21st-century eye, the simplicity of these early ranches -- with their adobe or board-and-batten walls, exposed beamed ceilings, and interior spaces filled with natural light -- is highly attractive. But the style did not initially receive the architecture establishment's imprimatur.

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