If asked what is America’s most important contribution to residential architecture, most people would probably suggest the log cabin of Abraham Lincoln, a Southern plantation mansion like Scarlet O’Hara’s Tara (even though it was only a movie set), or George Washington’s Mount Vernon.
The correct answer? The ranch house.
Not only is it an American original, its echoes are present in nearly every house built since World War II. If this sounds, well, ridiculous, 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 on the back of the house, the generous use of glass that blurs the distinction between indoor and outdoor space, and 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’ll find that the ranch’s fingerprints are all over the place.
Adding the suburban ranch house to the American architectural pantheon may surprise some housing aficionados. Ever since the post-World War II period, when this house type became a fixture on the suburban landscape, critics have derided the ranch house as a bland and colorless box.
The truth is more complicated and much 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 working 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 brick a brack or the colonial-styled treatments that were popular in the East, the ranchers’ houses had particular appeal.
The architects also admired the way the casual lifestyle of ranching households was reflected in their houses. All the rooms opened onto a shaded verandah, which functioned as both a hallway and an important living area for much of the year.
On their drawing boards, the young architects recreated the solitude of the vast prairies by centering the living and dining areas around a private backyard from which no neighbors could be seen. Even more startling to the homeowners of that time was the way that 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 exterior walls that faced the landscaped backyard, 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. Locating the bedrooms on the front of the house was also unusual for that era.
Because the architects’ clients were usually wealthy, the houses were big, often sprawling across the owner’s building lot 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 battan walls, exposed beamed ceilings and interior spaces that are 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 it and was one of its finest practitioners, was by training 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.
If you want to delve more deeply into the history of the ranch, the best book is “Ranch House” by Alan Hess (Abrams). Hess provides a detailed narrative followed by gorgeous photographs and brief descriptions of 26 classic ranches designed by the better-known designers during the ranch style’s glory days. Nearly all of the featured ranches are one-of-a-kind, high-end, custom-built houses.
For a sense of the exuberance, bright colors and just plain nuttiness of the ranch era, Michelle Gringeri-Brown’s “Atomic Ranch: Design Ideas for Stylish Custom Ranches“(Gibbs-Smith) presents more than 25 custom and tract-built ranches that have been lovingly restored by their current owners. The book also includes several brief essays on ranch period furnishings, including furniture, artwork and dishware.
Jerry Ditto and Lanning Stern’s “Design for Life: Eichler Homes” (Chronicle Books) describes the compelling story of Joseph Eichler, a California land developer and home builder who got the design bug after renting a house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. The text is largely the recollections of Eichler’s son Ned, which gives a reader an immediacy these other books lack.
Eichler, who became a home builder in his mid-forties, had no previous training or building experience, but he had a remarkable design sensibility. Working closely with his architects and very hands-on at the building site, Eichler produced tract-built houses with an unusual level of sophistication. He perfected a post-and-beam system of construction (instead of the wood stud walls used by most ranch builders) and this allowed him to create entire walls of floor-to-ceiling glass. Eichler’s company went bankrupt in 1967, but to this day, his houses are still known as “Eichlers.”
To get a sense of what’s required if you want to undertake an extensive remodel or a brand-new ranch, “Updating Classic America Ranches” by M. Caren Connolly and Louis Wasserman (Taunton) is your ticket. The authors, an architect and landscape architect who practice together in Milwaukee, describe extensive renovations of 20 ranches around the country and the design and construction two brand-new ones, including one they designed themselves. The description are clear, the photographs informative and the before and after floor plans helpful.
If you’re more interested in an overview and sense of the way that houses have evolved and changed in the 20th century, read “Key Houses of the Twentieth Century” by Colin Davies (Norton). He presents 106 of the last century’s most famous and most influential houses. Rather than deep analysis, Davis gives a broad brush treatment, allocating only two pages to each house, but he includes telling details about the original owners’ experiences of living in a masterpiece.
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