Ranch House

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Ranch House

The hiatus in home building enforced by the Great Depression ended in a period when older architectural styles, such as the bungalow, made popular during the housing boom of the turn of the century, was replaced by newer design ideas. After World War II, new designs proliferated due to the largest housing boom in the history of the United States. Unlike designs used at the turn of the century, those used after World War II incorporated a well-thoughtout public discourse concerning the design of the modern home. Specifically, many home magazines, such as Ladies' Home Journal, linked surveys of home owners with ideas of architects and designers in order to argue that the modern home should pair the latest building technology with the needs of the modern family. In addition, this discourse involved a new attentiveness to domestic life, led by Dr. Benjamin Spock, that suggested that the home design greatly influenced family life. As early as 1940, the ranch house became the form indelibly attached to the new ideal of the American family.

The basic features of the ranch house—its simple, informal, one-story structure, its low-pitched eaves, its large, expansive "picture" windows—were fused in the public mind with the easygoing lifestyle identified with the Southwest and West Coast. Although such homes did not necessarily populate the ranches of the Western Prairie—the ranching frontier cared little about architecture—the form of the homes did bear some resemblance to western ranch houses of the 1880s. More directly, the ranch house derived from architect Frank Lloyd Wright's prairie and usonian houses.

Within the overall ranch-house type a pattern of evolution can be traced. Both the size and complexity of the floor plan layouts increase. The modest ranch type evolves into a sprawling, highly articulated ranch rambler, incorporating split and bi-level variants. Three zones of the home are structured around the basic acts of its human occupants: a bedroom zone; family living and entertaining zone; and a garage with adjoining hobby area. The center of the home is the living zone, which incorporates a strikingly open orientation allowing the design to feel free-flowing. While the home appears as a single-story home from the exterior, these zones stretch into a main floor and a lower floor. In this fashion, the ranch form can be deceptively large while placed on a fairly small lot. This, of course, made it a very attractive option for developers.

The ranch house became the most ubiquitous form of American house design after 1950, arguably helping to define family life and structure during this same period through its layout and design. The dominance of the living zone, where it really becomes a multi-purpose area composing the heart of the home, dovetailed beautifully with the life of leisure that awaited many middle-class Americans after 1950. The design was particularly conducive to the television, which could be placed in the main living room and viewed from any number of areas in the living zone. Purchasers associated the form with "heritage, status, and respectability," but functionality was never too far from their minds.

—Brian Black

Further Reading:

Clark, Clifford Edward, Jr. The American Family Home, 1800-1960. Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 1986.

Wright, Gwendolyn. Building the Dream: A Social History of Housing in America. Cambridge, MIT Press, 1983.