Back at the Ranch

Back at the Ranch

The ranch homes that sprouted across the American landscape in the decades following World War II are ubiquitous and much maligned, but the architectural style is getting a fresh look.

Ranch home owners can thank the current popularity of the mid-century modern furniture of the same era. The craving for clean lines, functional style and a retro feel has propelled ranch-style homes into the spotlight.

“The idea of a ranch house was to do away with some of the more rigid, formal approaches to a middle-class house,” says Robert Benson, professor of architectural history and theory at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.


A Happy History

Also known as a California ranch, western ranch or rambler, the wide, low-pitched homes with more casual, open floor-plans were incorporated into the nation’s housing stock en masse after a conscious federal government effort to encourage homeownership among GIs returning from overseas.

As for the style, Benson says, “The ranch house counted on a certain kind of romance from cowboy movies, not necessarily the real Old West but more like the John Wayne Old West from Hollywood movies.”

There is something quintessentially American about these homes, he adds. “They tended to be more gracious, more generous, a plan where your life would be a little bit better.”

The homes have a reputation for being dated, today, with their tendency toward wood paneling and pastel-colored tiles. But that’s not the whole story.

“They may seem ordinary to us because we’re surrounded by them, but when they were being built, they were a brand new kind of house like nothing that had ever been seen before,” says Richard Cloues, deputy state historic preservation officer for the state of Georgia.

Georgia’s Historic Preservation Division recently launched a campaign to document the history and significance of the ranch house in the state.


Pros and Cons

Ranches foreshadowed the modern concept of bringing the outdoors in, for instance, typically having large picture windows or even entire walls of glass, as well as exits from the living room to a yard or patio.

That perk comes at a price, though. They used a lot of single-pane windows in a period when both electricity and natural gas were cheap, so the homes are energy hogs.

“You get good views and light, but the flipside of the coin is it costs you money,” says Michelle Gringeri-Brown, author of “Atomic Ranch: Midcentury Interiors” (Gibbs Smith, 2012).

Unlike the more segregated Victorians and bungalows that preceded them, ranches also heralded open layouts that allowed the cook in the kitchen to interact with people in the family room.

“It really appealed to young couples with kids, and there were a lot of men returning home from the war to raise families,” Gringeri-Brown says.

The homes are practical today for the same reason, but modern couples too often overlook ranches or dismiss them as kitschy, she says.

She wishes more people would use their imaginations to see the potential of the homes. Despite sizes that typically start at around 1,000 square feet and often exceed 4,000, ranches usually are very affordable.

Expect to pay a little more for one of the more sophisticated ranches by California developer Joseph Eichler, whose modernist houses have earned something of a cult following.


Preserving the Style

In her book, Gringeri-Brown tries to show the range of possibilities with remodeled ranch homes, from the purists who kept the original tile-work to those who opted for a more modern interpretation while still respecting the integrity of the period.

Woodwork from the 1950s often has extensive wear and tear and is expensive to refinish, so the first impulse always is to rip it out, Gringeri-Brown says. But she showcased a 4,130-square-foot home in Portland where the owner instead installed new, wide cherry wood panels on the walls and as an accent on a brick fireplace where a patinaed steel box camouflages a flat-screen television.

The result is sleek and modern.

Preservation officer Cloues hopes the campaign in Georgia and similar efforts around the country will help illuminate the value and potential of ranches, diminishing the number of gut renovations that obliterate any hint of post-war roots.

“My clear impression is that you can have all these programs out there to help preserve properties, but the more effective thing is to get people who are living in them to understand why they are important and really take that to heart,” he says.


Photo: Jim Brown from “Atomic Ranch Midcentury Interiors” by Michelle Gringeri-Brown, Reprint with permission by Gibbs Smith

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