The ranch-style house is a kind of American harbinger. Unlike the European pastiche of Colonial or Victorian houses, the ranch or “rancher” style started here, particularly in post-war Los Angeles, and quickly became a fixture of suburban landscapes across the U.S.
With its low-slung frame scattered across the wide open spaces of the developing American West, this mid-century relic reflected post-war optimism, the aspirations of suburban family life, and a special way of life—as sunset magazine to put it in 1946: “informal yet graceful”. Now the classic ranch, once a radical departure from tradition, is being rediscovered by the current generation as a tribute to relaxed West Coast style. Here’s what you need to know about this sustainable architectural style.
So what is the history of ranch style homes?
At the end of World War II, war veterans who had received generous home loans returned home, ready to resume their lives and start families. However, scarcity during the Great Depression and the war meant that few homes were built and demand lagged. “While architects in Western Europe and the Soviet Union met the need by building high-rise apartment buildings, Americans were creating a consumer product that people wanted to buy,” says Alan Hess, architectural historian and author of The Ranch House. “And that was the ranch style house. It deserves respect because it solved America’s housing crisis mid-century.”
First designed in the 1930s by architects like Cliff Mae and William Wurster, the ranch house style lent itself well to mass production: low, one story, and made of simple and inexpensive materials such as shaker roofs, plank and batten walls, and brick foundations. Many scholars argue that the ranch’s survival at that time was also largely dependent on the Hollywood scene. Heroic characters played by John Wayne and Randolph Scott captured the imagination of Americans, and the ranch house—first built in states like California and Texas—captured the mystique of the Old West. “The myth of the cowboy and the heroic Western characters glorified on the big screen — it all went into the ranch house’s appeal to the average American,” says Hess.
After receiving approval from the Federal Housing Administration, veterans and others were able to buy a farm using cheap government loans – a financial boost that catapulted the farm to unprecedented growth. According to Clifford Edward Clark Jr., author of The American family homeaccounting for nine out of ten newly built homes.
But while the American dream of suburbia was an idyllic pillar of American culture in the 1950s and 1960s, critics denounced the ranch-style home as a conformist suburban artifact, coining terms like “ranchburger” and “ticky-tacky.” . “There was criticism that suburbia was so low-density and that a single-family home in the middle of a few acres wasn’t efficient,” says Hess. “The price of land has also risen. All of those factors combined to make the farm not as popular as it had been. By the early 1970s, buyers and builders turned to the so-called neo-eclectic homes that were larger, more formal, and more ornate.
What are the characteristics of a ranch house?
Traditional ranch-style homes, also known as ramblers, are known for their simplistic, no-nonsense design elements. Their distinctive low-slung frame is formed by a one-story floor plan with long, low rooflines and deeply overhanging eaves that extend beyond the exterior walls of the house. The rancher’s shape is often rectangular, although many can also be built in a U or L shape. Depending on the price of the home, they can range from 900 square feet to a more lavish 2,500 square feet.
Many structures are decidedly Western, reminiscent of the days of dude ranches and Mexican haciendas, while more modern styles featured simple and clean lines and mid-century elements. In the Midwest and East, these homes incorporate colonial elements and materials.
The exterior can be made from a mix of materials, including brick, stucco, and wood, or clad in siding. Some have diamond-pane windows or Dutch doors with a top half that swings open, and all have large windows throughout. Ranch homes also often have an attached front garage and a finished basement area.
Almost all of the ranch homes are laid out on a single level floor plan with easy access to all areas of the house and an open flow between rooms. The open-concept layout often features a dedicated outdoor space—be it a patio, deck, or lawn—accessed through large sliding glass doors that open from the living room.
The traditional 19th-century farm house built on the Plains didn’t have open floor plans, but the modern adaptation a century later did, with a combined kitchen, dining, and living room that would open into the backyard. “The indoor-outdoor lifestyle was very appealing to young families with children,” says Hess. “Children can play outside, the mothers could cook, which was the stereotype at the time. The final plan was a perfect fit for that suburban family lifestyle.”
Inside, the ranch house often featured natural wood and knotty pine, with Western-themed wallpaper featuring pretty and fun lariats and horses—a favorite for kids’ rooms. With the availability of modern appliances to the mass market for the first time, these new luxuries – TVs, dishwashers, intercoms connecting the rooms – were an integral part of the suburban ideal. “People wanted to live as if they were out on the plains somewhere, but they wanted to live rustic in modern splendor,” says Hess. “Imagine living next door to John Wayne, the cowboy, but you felt totally comfortable.”
Where can you find ranch houses today?
While it may never return to its unparalleled mainstream traction, populist house style is making a comeback as homeowners buy and restore ranch houses in America’s suburbs. Young buyers see them as affordable options that appeal to minimalist lifestyles in a tough housing market, and the aging population is choosing to downsize them for both the convenience of a single story and a nostalgic return to the aesthetic of their youth.
In addition, a growing group of volunteers and homeowners have taken action to save and preserve classic and retro American ranch homes, with a number of historic neighborhoods – from Colorado’s Arapahoe Acres to that of California Eichler houses until Texas hill country-on the National Register of Historic Places.
Rachel Silva, the Assistant Digital Editor at ELLE DECOR, covers design, architecture, trends and all things haute couture. She previously wrote for Time, The Wall Street Journal and Citywire.