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Ranch-style housing (also American ranch, California ranch, rambler or rancher) is a domestic architectural style originating in the United States. The ranch house is noted for its long, close-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.
First built in the 1920s, the ranch style was extremely popular with the booming post-war middle class of the 1940s to 1970s. The style is often associated with tract housing built at this time, particularly in the western United States, which experienced a population explosion during this period, with a corresponding demand for housing. The style was exported to other nations and so is found in other countries. Their popularity waned in the late 20th century as neo-eclectic house styles, a return to using historical and traditional decoration, became popular.
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 many teardowns, then renewed interest and gentrification of the surviving homes.
The following features are considered key elements of the original ranch house style, although not all ranch houses contain all of them.
The raised ranch is a two story house, i.e. the foundation serves as an additional floor, often called a split level, a modification of the dominant one story design. 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.
The ranch house style was adapted for commercial use during the time of the style's 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.
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 a U shaped floor plan. Large front porches were also common. These low slung, thick walled, rustic working ranches were common in the Southwestern states.
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 1950s are typically more deliberately rustic in nature than those of the 1960s and 1970s, with features such as dovecotes, Swiss board edging on trim, and generally western and even fantasy trim styling. In the 1960s, the ranch house echoed the national trend towards sleekness in design, with the homes becoming even simpler as this trend continued.
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. This is likely due to the US consumer perception of general hope in the improving post-war economy of the 60s coupled with the message conveyed by the media that the desirable and successful lifestyle demanded ownership of a homestead that resembled a small plantation home or manor. 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. By the late 1970s, the ranch house was no longer the home of choice, and had been eclipsed by the neo-eclectic styles of the late 20th century. Very late custom ranch homes of the later 1970s begin to exhibit features of the neo-eclectics, such as dramatically elevated rooflines, grand entryways, and traditional detailing. These neo-eclectic homes typically continue many of the lifestyle interior features of the ranch house, such as open floor plans, attached garages, eat-in kitchens, and built-in patios, though their exterior styling typically owes more to northern Europe or Italy or 18th and 19th century homes styles than the ranch house. Neo-eclectic houses also have a significant level of formality in their design, both externally and internally, the exact opposite of the typical ranch style house. Additionally, the increase in land prices has meant a corresponding increase in the number of two-story homes being built, and a shrinking of the size of the average lot; both trends inhibit the traditional ranch house style. Ranch style houses are occasionally still built today, but mainly in the Western states and, usually, as individual custom homes.
Beginning in the late 1990s, a revival of interest in the ranch style house occurred in United States. The renewed interest in the design is mainly focused on existing homes and neighborhoods, not new construction. Younger house buyers find that ranch houses are affordable entry level homes in many markets, and the single story living of the house attracts older buyers looking for a house they can navigate easily as they age. The houses' uniquely American heritage, being an indigenous design, has furthered interest as well. The houses' simplicity and unpretentious nature, in marked contrast to the more dramatic and formal nature of neo-eclectic houses, makes them appealing for some buyers. The more distinctive ranch houses, such as modernist Eichlers or Cliff May designs, as well as custom homes with a full complement of the style's features, are in particular demand in many markets. Many neighborhoods featuring ranch-style houses are now well-established, with large trees and often with owner modifications that give these sometimes repetitive styles individual character. As these homes were mainly built in the time frame of 1945 to 1970, they are modern in their infrastructure; their heating/cooling systems, wiring, plumbing, windows, doors, and other systems can all be easily repaired and upgraded.
Small scale tract building of ranch houses ended in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Those still built today have usually been individual custom homes. One known exception is a tract of ranch-style homes briefly built in California in 2007/08. These houses borrowed 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 were on 1/4 acre lots, and have their front garages turned sideways so that the garage doors were not dominating the front of the house.
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