what is an atomic ranch eichler tract home
Courtesy of Jim Brown.

Even though it’s the name of our magazine and website, we don’t blame you if you aren’t entirely sure what an atomic ranch is! This iconic home style is one of the foundations of Mid Century residential architecture and it traces its roots back to the 1930s.The ranch home became emblematic of informal, practical living in a postwar world and it was radical departure from the closed-in, multi-story dwellings of the day. So, follow along as we dive into the history of the ranch and finally answer the question: “What is an atomic ranch?”

Cliff May’s first ranch, the O’Leary House. Its stucco exterior and tile roof hearken back to its Spanish Colonial inspiration. Courtesy of Before LA: Cliff May’s Beginnings in San Diego.

The Origins of the Ranch

The atomic ranches we know and love today found their beginnings in 1932, when architect Cliff May designed a home he called the “early California Ranch house.” The design was inspired by the low-slung Spanish Colonial-style homes of Southern California called ‘ranchos.’

In a New York Times article, May says of his ranch house: “I rebelled against the boxy houses being built then. The ranch house was everything a California house should be—it had cross-ventilation, the floor was level with the ground, and with its courtyard and the exterior corridor, it was about sunshine and informal outdoor living.”

what is an atomic ranch ranch house
This Bakersfield ranch holds many of the classic ranch features, like the long, low roofline and picture window. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

The ranch house soon came into its own after World War II. With veterans returning home and buying houses, the suburbs exploded. And the large, empty suburban lots were the perfect space for long and low ranches. Additionally, ranches were cheap and fast to build, so it’s hardly a surprise that by 1950, 9 out of 10 new homes were ranches!

These casual ranches shared many of the same features: a single-story, open floor plan (a novelty at the time), a large picture window on the front facade to create an indoor/outdoor feeling and an outdoor patio with a large yard for entertaining and playing. Together, these dynamic homes allowed for easy family living nationwide. They were a drastic departure from the more ‘formal’ homes of the past.

what is an atomic ranch eichler tract home
This 1955 Eichler atomic ranch holds clerestory windows and a colorful door. Courtesy of Jim Brown.

Making It Modern

A lot of Mid Century Modern homes are ranches, but not all ranches are Mid Century Modern. House Beautiful calls the atomic ranch the “cooler, more contemporary cousin of ranches,” but how does your run-of-the-mill ranch become an atomic one? By including plenty of Mid Mod motifs.

Atomic ranches like the Eichler or Alexander tract homes were built during the peak of the ranch craze from 1945-1970. These ranches often went a step further than a pretty picture window and included glass facades on the rear exterior of the house to bring the outside in. Additionally, they could include clerestory windows for a way to provide privacy and a light source, a butterfly or flat roofline for a hint of Googie style, pops of color to keep things fun and a focus on linear features to keep things simple.

what is an atomic ranch maryland
This exterior of this Maryland atomic ranch features floor-to-ceiling glass windows. Courtesy of Anice Hoachlander.

Together, these features created a home that was the perfect place for families who wanted a modern and livable space. Atomic ranches were the forward-looking homes that embodied a world full of exciting yet practical design and bold choices for better living.

Ready to learn more about Mid Century Modern design? Check out the 5 Elements of a Mid Century Modern Kitchen.  And of course, don’t forget to follow us on InstagramFacebook and Pinterest for more Atomic Ranch articles and ideas!