North American Home Builders

The ranch, such as this one by Alexander Bros. in Palm Springs, started as a California phenomenon.

The Ranch House: American Pop Culture Icon

House Keys, [National Association of Home Builders (NAHB)], December 12, 2006
by Scott Gilmour

Few home styles are as easily recognizable to Americans as the ranch home. They become a television icon; at various times housing Lucy and Ricky Ricardo, Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore, and even Mr. Ed and his owner. (Mr. Ed, of course, was in the attached stable). With its multiple windows and back yard, the ranch style quickly became a unique piece of mid-century American pop culture. Today, these modest emblems of Americana are seeing a revival that would make original ranch builders proud.

In the mid-1930s, San Diego architect and builder Cliff May fused Hispanic Rancheria-style architecture with American modernism to create a this new style of house. The original ranch style created a warm feeling and made use of natural light, making the style very popular, initially in areas like Southern California.

"The ranch was a California phenomenon at first," said Jim Brown, publisher of Atomic-Ranch Magazine, a quarterly magazine for mid-century architecture and ranch fans.

North American Home Builders

Nearly 70 percent of American homes built in
the 25 years following WWII were ranch homes.

The home style quickly spread across the country to become the dominant home style from post-World War II until the mid-1980s.

Denver, San Jose, and Houston all have large concentrations of ranch homes, however, Brown notes that the ranch is a "suburban phenomenon" and most cities' inner suburbs have them.

"The ranch house was the answer to the need for housing returning World War Two GI's," Brown notes. As a matter of fact, some scholars believe that 70 percent of American homes built in the 25 years after World War II were ranch houses.

According to Brown, the ranch style is very attractive because it "celebrates the family" and its open floor plan "brings people together." Family and togetherness were certainly wishes of GIs returning from the war.

Many ranch-style homes feature lofty ceilings and airy hallways to create an open living space. These homes also featured walls of windows designed to bring the outside in, perfect for homeowners in sunny Southern California. Attached garages, long, low rooflines and back yards were standard on the original Ranch. Brown notes that with the ranch home, Americans moved from "the front stoop to the back yard."

As the style became more popular and spread nationwide, builders began making various changes that decreased cost. The number of windows was cut down as was the height of the ceilings. Kitchens also shrunk. However, the general floor plan and style remained the same and the house remained as recognizable as ever.

Most sales of ranch homes today are to younger, first-time home buyers. The ranch is a great choice for this crowd as there is a huge stock of available ranches.

"Younger people are making them new," Brown says. People are remodeling ranch-style homes, and common updates include turning carports into garages, garages into home offices, and adding bedrooms. However, Brown notes that it is important to keep the home's history in mind.

"Update your home carefully," Brown warns. "Staying with the original builder's intent makes for the most successful remodeling job."

Ranches are a great choice for older Americans looking to stay in their homes. "A one-story ranch is very conducive to an older crowd," Brown says. Many people have been living in their ranches since the 1960s and 70s and have no intention to move, due to their excellent aging-in-place capacities.

Brown also believes that the ranch style will once again become hot. He points to the bungalow craze and notes that the ranch should be next to go through a revival.

"When people realize they can fix up and furnish their dream ranch with new top quality items, this ranch revival will be as big, if not bigger, than the interest shown to Victorians and bungalows," Brown says.

The ranch house is a true American icon and one of the most recognizable home styles on the market today. With its classic charm and functionality, the ranch is accommodating for the many types of families that make American culture so unique.

If the ranch-style home intrigues you, you're not alone. Contact your local home builders association and find out where the ranches are in your neck of the woods.