Ranch-style houses (also American Ranch, California Ranch, Rambler or Rancher) is an American domestic architectural style (although also found in Canada, Australia and New Zealand). First built in the 1920s, the ranch style was extremely popular in the United States from the 1940s to the 1970s, as new suburbs were built for the Greatest Generation and later the Silent Generation.
The style is often associated with tract housing built during this period, particularly in the western United States, which experienced a population explosion during this period with a corresponding demand for housing.
The ranch house is noted for its long, low to the ground profile, and minimal use of exterior and interior decoration. The houses fuse modernist ideas and styles with notions of the American Western period working ranches to create a very informal and casual living style. Their popularity waned in the late 20th century as neo-eclectic house styles, a return to using historical and traditional decoration, became popular. However, in recent years the ranch house has been undergoing a revitalization of interest.
Preservationist movements have begun in some ranch house neighborhoods as well as renewed interest in the style from a younger generation who did not grow up in ranch-style houses. This renewed interest in the ranch house style has been compared to that which other house styles such as the Bungalow and Queen Anne experienced in the 20th century, initial dominance of the market, replacement as the desired housing style, decay and disinterest coupled with lots of teardowns, then renewed interest and gentrification of the surviving homes.
Not all Ranch homes have all these features. These are considered the key elements of the original Ranch home style.
- Single story
- Long, low roofline
- Asymmetrical rectangular, L-shaped, or U-shaped design
- Simple floor plans
- Open floor plans
- Attached garage
- Sliding glass doors opening onto a patio
- Large windows
- Vaulted ceilings with exposed beams
- Windows often decorated with shutters
- Exteriors of stucco, brick and wood
- Large overhanging eaves
- Cross-gabled, side-gabled or hip roof.
- Simple and/or rustic interior and exterior trim
History and development
The 20th century Ranch House style has its roots in North American Spanish colonial architecture
of the 17th to 19th century. These buildings used single story floor plans and native materials in a simple style to meet the needs of their inhabitants. Walls were often built of adobe brick and covered with plaster, or more simply used board and batten wood siding. Roofs were low and simple and usually had wide eaves to help shade the windows from the Southwestern heat. Buildings often had interior courtyards which were surrounded by an U shaped floor plan. Large front porches were also common. These low slung, thick walled, rustic working ranches were common in the Southwestern states
Early Modern Period
Several American architects of the early 20th century were instrumental in taking the Spanish colonial ranch homes and fusing them with Modern Architecture to create the California Ranch House Style. Cliff May
of San Diego
and William Wurster
of San Francisco
are two of the more common names associated with this innovation. Cliff May’s book, “Western Ranch Houses” stress three basic concepts about ranch houses that serve as foundational philosophical underpinnings: livability, flexibility and an unpretentious character. All three elements were addressed by combining modern building practices with the rustic Spanish Colonial rancherias.
Livability was addressed by the addition of open floor plans instead of the small and divided up rooms of previous house styles. In a modern ranch house each of the major rooms was intended to flow into the next. Large windows were added to bring in outside light and nature. Garages were attached to the home instead of the separate building they had been in previous house styles such as the bungalow. Sliding glass doors opened to patios, usually covered, in the back of the home, a direct fusion of the Spanish Colonial Rancherias and Modernism. As land was inexpensive and plentiful in this time period the Ranch Houses were long and rambling over their large lots.
Flexibility was addressed by the open floor plans that allowed rooms to be rearranged and serve multiple purposes. Ranch Houses often included separate living and family rooms and formal dining rooms that all could be redressed for other purposes as needed. In addition the simple trim and style could be made to work with a number of interior decorating schemes, from American Colonial to ultramodern to contemporary casual. The integrated patio served as an extension of the living space, allowing a functional relationship with the outdoors.
Unpretentious character was addressed by the simple, lean, lines of the houses themselves. Ranch Houses, with their low roof lines and simple rustic trim, were intended to maintain a casual feel and not dominate their neighborhoods. Entry was not into a grand foyer, with an elaborate two story staircase winding down and soaring cathedral ceiling, but instead into a simple ante-chamber, if that, which was disarming and pedestrian. Interiors were designed for ease of movement and a "homeish" feel, often with wood paneling, textured ceilings for noise control, and occasional exposed wood beams in main living areas.
Era of popularity
By the 1950s the Ranch House accounted for nine out of every ten new houses. The seemingly endless ability of the style to accommodate the individual needs of the occupant, combined with the very modern inclusion of the latest in building developments and simplicity of the design satisfied the needs of the time. Ranch houses were built throughout America and were often given regional variation to suit regional tastes. The “Colonial Ranch” of the midwest and east coast is one such noted variant, adding American Colonial features to the facade of the California Ranch House. Ranch homes of the 1940s and 50s are typically more deliberately rustic in nature than those of the 60s and 70s, with features such as dovecotes, Swiss board edging on trim, and generally western and even fantasy trim styling. In the '60s the Ranch house echoed the national trend towards sleekness in design, with the homes becoming even simpler in trim and ornamentation.
American tastes in architecture began to change in the late 1960s, a move away from Googie and Modernism and Ranch Homes towards more formal and traditional styles. Builders of Ranch Houses also began to simplify and cheapen construction of the homes to cut costs, eventually reducing the style down to a very bland and uninteresting house with little of the charm and drama of the early versions. By the late 1970s the ranch house was no longer the home of choice and had been eclipsed by the Neo-Eclectic styles of the late 20th century. These Neo-Eclectic homes typically continue many of the lifestyle interior features of the Ranch House, such as open floor plans, attached garages, eat in kitchens, and built in patios, though their exterior styling typically owes more to Northern Europe or Italy or 18th and 19th century homes styles than the Ranch House. Neo-Eclectic houses also have a significant level of formality in their design, both externally and internally, the exact opposite of the typical Ranch Style House. Additionally the increase in land prices has meant a corresponding increase in the number of two story homes being built, and a shrinking of the size of the average lot, both trends which inhibit the traditional ranch house style.
Revival of interest
Ranch style houses are occasionally still built today, but mainly in the Western states and, usually, as individual custom homes.
Beginning in the late 1990s a revival of interest in the ranch style house occurred in United States. The renewed interest in the design is mainly focused on existing homes and neighborhoods, not new construction. Younger house buyers find that ranch houses are affordable entry level homes in many markets, and the single story living of the house attracts older buyers looking for a house they can navigate easily as they age. The houses' uniquely American heritage, being an indigenous design, has furthered interest as well. The houses simplicity and unpretentious nature, in marked contrast to the more dramatic and formal nature of neo-eclectic houses, makes them appealing for some buyers. The more distinctive ranch houses, such as modernist Eichlers or Cliff May designs, as well as custom homes with a full complement of the style's features, are in particular demand in many markets. Many neighborhoods featuring ranch-style houses are now well-established, with large trees and often with owner modifications that give these sometimes redundant styles significant character. As these homes were mainly built in the time frame of 1945 to 1970 they are modern in their infrastructure, their heating/cooling systems, wiring, plumbing, windows, doors, and other systems can be easily repaired and upgraded.
The raised ranch
is a variation where a furnished basement is mostly or completely above ground foundation
serves as an additional floor. The common result is a two story
version of a Ranch-style house. It may be built into a hill to some degree, such that the full size of the house is not evident from the curb.
The ranch house style was adapted for commercial use during the time of the style's popularity. As the concept of a "drive in" shopping center was being created and popularized the ranch style was a perfect style to fit into the large tracts of ranch homes being built. Commercial ranch buildings, such as supermarkets and strip malls, typically follow the residential style with simple rustic trim, stucco or board and batten siding, exposed brick and shake roofs, and large windows.
Ranch style houses have been subject to criticism almost from their inception. Ranch style houses are said to lack style and are too sterile and utilitarian. Their sheer commonness often makes them a target of disdain.
The ranch house phenomenon was very much centered in the blue collar
lower income and white collar
middle income socioeconomic groups. Almost from the very start of the ranch house era the style was criticized by the established architectural elite. Thus a clear cultural divide can be seen in the criticisms of the ranch house, the “masses” embracing the design for decades and most of the established architectural community deriding it. The early ranch house tracts were mocked for their treeless nature, and “soulless” was a common adjective to describe such housing, along with the term “ranchburger”. A counter argument to this criticism is that the arguments against the house on an architectural style basis, or a “soulless” basis, reflect a class divide and differing cultural visions of house styles and home life. Another counter argument is that ranch house neighborhoods, which now are at least 30 and often 60 years old, are no longer treeless tracts and have developed "character" and have generally not decayed as many previous house style neighborhoods did after their popularity waned. (see Hess)
Since the 1970s green movements
began, the ranch house has often attacked for being wasteful of resources. The large lots of the ranch houses have been attacked as wasteful to water in order to maintain their turf, and for creating "suburban sprawl
." The long and rambling nature of the homes for a single family is seen as a waste of building materials and as increasing the energy required to heat or cool the house. The suburban nature of the homes, with their encouragement of car culture by having attached garages, is criticized as destroying community and encouraging alienation and isolation. A counter argument to this criticism is that this argument is really focused on the very nature of modern housing and cities: ought cities and modern life to be dependent on personal automobiles for transit or other methods and ought modern living to be centralized or not? The ranch house merely is one style of housing that has been built in the last hundred years in America that is responding to a decentralization of living, an increase of suburbia that predates the ranch house, and the desire for greater anonymity of modern living. Further counter arguments are that individuals ought to have the right to choose the mode of housing they prefer and that satisfies their needs and wants, without "moral" judgments on their housing choices.
- Allen, B. L. "The Ranch-style House in America: A Cultural and Environmental Discourse". Journal of Architectural Education 49 (3): 156–165.
- Bricker, David "Built For Sale: Cliff May and the Low Cost California Ranch House". M.A. thesis. University of California, Santa Barbara. .
- Bricker, David "Ranch Houses Are Not All the Same". National Parks Service Cultural Resources. .
- Clouser, Roger A. "The Ranch House in America". Ph.D. dissertation. University of Kansas. .
- Hess, Alan (2005). The Ranch House. New York: Harry N. Abrams.
- Hunter, Christine (1999). Ranches, Rowhouses, and Railroad Flats-- American Homes: How They Shape Our Landscape and Neighborhoods. New York: W.W.Norton.
- May, Cliff (1958). Western Ranch Houses. Santa Monica: Hennessey & Ingalls.
- McCoy, Esther and Evelyn Hitchcock (1983). Home Sweet Home. Rizzoli.
- Peterson, Gary G. (1989). "Home Off the Range: The Origins and Evolution of Ranch Style Architecture in the United States". Design Methods and Theories 23 (3): 1040–59.