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Suburban Ranch Style — 1932 to 1980

1948 suburban ranchSuburban Ranch Characteristics

Is your house a suburban ranch?

Arguably one of the most long-lived and quintessential home styles of the mid century was the ranch. For our purposes here, we've classified the Suburban Ranch as a single-story style. (That said, we know many homes had basements as they were considered essential for locating heating systems and laundry areas as well as storage of food and other household goods.)

The parent styles of the Ranch include the Spanish Colonial architecture of early California and the Craftsman-style bungalow of the early 20th century. In the warm all-season climate of Southern California, outdoor living was essential to the "good life." Easy access to outdoor rooms was a natural, logical extension of living indoors.

The Arts & Crafts movement late in the 19th century emphasized natural materials and honest design as well as open floor plans with lots of light and ventilation. Bungalows expressed an egalitarian ideal of home as a place to raise happy families and build equity at the same time. Concurrent design trends, like the Prairie School, incorporated the philosophy of the Arts & Crafts "simplicity" movement as well as the Japanese design aesthetic (as seen in the work of Frank Lloyd Wright and others), which was also influential in the development of the Ranch style.

Though modern designers published plans and built some early Ranch style homes before World War II, the Colonial and Minimal Traditional styles remained prominent through the 1930s to about 1950, when Ranches started to appeal to a new generation of home buyers, who valued a modern, more informal lifestyle.

It was after WWII when designs of visionaries, like Cliff May who designed the first modern Ranch in 1932, began to resonate with a post-War public eager to experiment with evolving home styles. Focusing on design principles of livability, flexibility, and unpretentiousness, May and his peers found a fertile market in developers and home buyers after WWII. Dozens of catalogs and plan books were published by a variety of companies and individual architects showcasing every imaginable version of the single-story ranch.

Open floor plans with flexible interior spaces lent themselves to a more informal American lifestyle. Bedrooms could be used as dens, and family rooms were designed to change as the needs of the family changed. Dining rooms, much discussed for decades as to their functionality and necessity, were often incorporated informally at one end of the living room adjacent to the kitchen.

The characteristics that made Ranches easy to live in, also made them easy to build. As a result, many of the tract homes of the 1950s were Ranches. Produced in huge numbers, millions of Americans can now claim the experience of growing up in one. The sheer volume, however, lead to the inevitable cutting of corners; later '70s ranches often lack the craftsmanship of the houses built during the 40s, 50s, and even the 1960s.

Though the Suburban Ranch has been considered "low" design and too common to be taken seriously by many architects, it's popularity is now resurgent for a number of reasons. First, they remain as functional as ever and very family friendly.

They lend themselves well to updates including universal design. Because they are most often single-story with open floor plans built low to the ground, refining them for optimum accessibility by the retiring Boomer generation, as well as those with handicaps, has made them a great housing option in many areas of the country.

They appeal too to a new generation of home buyers for their mid-century aesthetic and remodeling ease as many vintage materials remain relatively affordable and in good supply.

For the sake of our discussion, we make a distinction between the "California Ranch" and the Suburban Ranch where modern styling exceeds ranch characteristics. Many homes are defined as a California Ranch, but show many more characteristics of modern 1940s and 50s contemporary style, which is how it was defined at the time. We also view the Split-Level and Raised Ranch as derivative styles in their own right.


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