Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Ranch-style houses (also American Ranch or California Ranch) is an uniquely American domestic architectural style. First built in the 1920s, the ranch style was extremely popular in the United States during the 1940s to 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.

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.

History and Development
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. First, is livability, second, flexibility and third is an unpretentious character. All three elements were addressed by combining modern building practices with the rustic Spanish Colonial rancherias.

Early Modern Period
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, this acknowledged the importance of the automobile in modern life by integrating the vehicle into the home. 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 20 foot 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.

Ranch house Unpretentious character
By the 1950s the California Ranch House, by now often called simply the ranch house or even "rambler house", accounted for nine out of every ten new houses. The seemingly endless ability of the style to accommodate the individual needs of the owner/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 facelifts 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.

Era of popularity
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. Ranch style houses are occasionally still built today, but mainly in the Western states and, usually, as individual custom homes.

Revival of Interest
Large scale tract building of Ranch Houses ended in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Those still built today have usually been individual custom homes. However, a builder in Shafter, California in late 2006 began construction of a tract of 62 Ranch Homes. These houses borrow their style cues from the 1950s Western styled Ranch Houses, with board and batten siding, dovecotes, large eaves, and extensive porches. Notably, all homes in this tract are on 1/4 acre lots and have their front garages turned sideways so the garage doors are not dominating the front of the house. These homes are sized from 2491 to 3050 square feet are priced from $440,000 to $480,000. This is perhaps the only tract of Ranch Homes being built in the United States at this time.
Advertisement sign for tract
Homes under construction
One of the model homes
Another of the model homes

Return of the Ranch Style House
Two Story Versions
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.
"Commercial Versions"
The ranch house style was adapted for commercial use during the time of the styles 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 often are criticized for lacking a style and being too sterile and utilitarian. Their sheer commonness often makes them a target of disdain. A counter argument to this criticism is that the objector is simply uneducated in the style the ranch house represents, which is simplicity and lack of ornamention. Furthermore, the ranch house very much is a legitimate style that has a long historical basis.

The ranch house phenomena 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)

Cultural Criticism
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. 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" judgements on that housing choice. Other counter arguments concern the issue of landscaping and water use, that lawn turf gives significant benefits including scrubbing the air of dust, adding oxygen, and cooling the surface temperature of cities while using less water than agricultural crops.

Environmental Criticisms
Simple ranch house built in 1974
Commercial ranch style buildings
Early 1960s house with breezeway
Mid 1950s house with Western details
Ranch house neighborhood
National holiday of Sweden Modernist ranch house, 1955
Large custom ranch house, late 1950s
Custom ranch house, late 1950s
Ranch house that resembles a barn
Long roof tail Ranch House
Classic Ranch House neighborhood
Transitional Ranch House, late 1970s
Abandoned 1950s Ranch House

See also

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