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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.

Though some of the pioneering designers had a conventional architectural education, Cliff May, who is credited with popularizing the style and was one of its finest practitioners, was trained as a furniture designer, and he never became a licensed architect. O'Neil Ford, one of the earliest ranch-house designers in Texas and later one of the state's most respected architects, learned his craft by correspondence.

During the 1920s and '30s, ranches remained a regional house type. After World War II, when civilian residential construction resumed, they became a nationwide phenomenon, but not immediately. As with any change in the home-building industry, it started with a few pioneers whose success was quickly copied.

In 1945, American home builders faced an unprecedented challenge. Theirs had been a small-scale industry. The largest firms never built more than 20 houses at a time, and their construction methods were laborious. But with the war's end, several million buyers were eager to leave crowded and often substandard apartment living in cities for houses in the suburbs. They had the means to do so in the form of federally guaranteed mortgages.

The builders needed to erect houses quickly, and those houses had to be affordable and appealing to a whole new market, largely people who had never been able to afford a house before.

In response, several California builders offered a streamlined, slimmed-down version of the earlier ranch-style houses. These houses were smaller and were built differently, using a vastly simplified assembly-line approach to building that had been developed in the San Francisco and Los Angeles areas to house people who had moved there to work in defense plants.

The postwar ranches were built directly on concrete slabs, which eliminated the time and expense of excavating a basement or crawl space. The wood framing arrived at the site in pre-cut pieces that could be assembled quickly into walls and then erected. Windows, doors and kitchen cabinets that had been fabricated at the building site before the war were now made in factories and shipped to the site, ready to be installed. With these innovations, less skill was required to build the houses, and the builders could tap a much larger labor pool.

From a home builder's perspective, the simplified ranch was a perfect design choice for the postwar market. With no stylistic or aesthetic dictates and an inherent air of informality, it could be adapted to any budget without looking hopelessly compromised. The ranch's multi-function spaces, such as the eat-in kitchen and the living-dining room, reduced the number of walls within the house.

This, plus the big windows that overlooked the back yard, gave a spacious feel to these small, two-bedroom houses, which usually measured less than 1,000 square feet. To make the ranches look larger, the builders turned the longer side to face the street. As with the earliest ranches, the living areas were usually on the back and the bedrooms were on the front.

From a marketing perspective, the ranch style was a stroke of genius because it tapped into the popular culture's fascination with the Old West as portrayed in movies, books, radio and magazines, and as personified by movie stars such as Roy Rogers and John Wayne.

The mass-produced ranches were frequently designed by architects, but the relation between the architect and the homeowner was radically altered. The architect's client was the builder, and the houses were designed without regard to a particular building site. The architect had far less artistic control over the product because the builder determined the specifications and supervised the construction.

The successes of the California builders and of William Levitt, who developed a similar assembly-line approach on the East Coast, were soon copied by builders across the country. For the next 30 years, from the late 1940s to the end of the 1970s, the ranch was the dominant house form in the United States.

One-story houses are still built in many markets, but as land costs have escalated, multi-story houses on smaller lots are becoming the norm. Today a one-story house is rarely called a ranch, and postwar ranch homeowners would not recognize the present-day versions. They're nearly three times as big, with two to three times as many rooms. They are often crammed onto smaller lots with the next-door neighbors as little as 10 feet away.

But the essential features of the scrappy little postwar ranch live on in the eat-in kitchen/family room that is the heart of almost every house built today, in the orientation of these light-filled spaces toward a private back yard rather than the street, and in the informal lifestyle that has become the national norm.

Katherine Salant can be contacted via her Web site,http://www.katherinesalant.com.

© 2006, Katherine Salant

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