The housing market has changed dramatically throughout history. Immediately following World War II, American homes were primarily in larger cities, small towns, or in farming communities. Between 1945 and 1970, large tracts of land were split into smaller plots of land, creating subdivisions with “tract” housing.
The demand for affordable housing remained steady. Financing for these houses, through public and private means, was reasonable.1 The design used most often in subdivisions were one story ranch houses, found in great supply in California; it projected an informal way of life that California epitomizes.
The California ranch house, which can trace its architectural heritage from the adobe houses of the Southwest and wood-frame-and-sheathed house of the nineteenth century, quickly became as popular in postwar California as the bungalow and been in previous years. Russell Lynes, a cultural historian, commented during the late 1950s that the ranch house owed its popularity to the fact that “Nobody could mind it. It was not experimental enough to be considered ‘ugly’ by even the most conservative, and it was not tricked-up enough to be considered ‘ugly’ by the experimental. It was merely ‘nice.’ It was ‘unobjectionable.’ It was ‘homey,’ and it was said to be ‘practical.’2”
Because of the benign character of this style house, several people became critical of the ranch house. In fact, James Marston Fitch, the architectural historian and preservationist, noted that he felt uncomfortable about how popular the house had become. “. . . there was at first, a tendency to dismiss it as too exotic: ‘It’s all right for California but it wouldn’t work here.’ Now we are at the other extreme – – building ‘California-type ranch houses’ in every state of the Union regardless of their fitness to the site and the climate.”3
While the Ranch-style house is common in every area of the country, this style house can be found by other names. Ranch bungalow, rambler, California colonial, and ranchette are just a few of the common names for the same style house. Some people go so far as to give the house less flattering names such as ‘ranch burger.’ No matter what it’s called, this house style has been popular within the state of California and the remainder of the country, ever since the end of the Second World War.
Some 1960s advertisements attempted to take the ranch house out of its typical context. Rather than showing the house on a well-landscaped piece of land in the suburbs, the ranch house became a child’s playhouse or a house for their dolls. In fact, the ranch house was used in the entertainment industry in advertisements as well as in paintings in museums. It was as popular as an icon as it was a home to live in.
While the ranch house is less popular today than it was following the Second World War, it is no longer treated with the contempt that it once was. There are several factors that explains the reaction it has received: 1) It is seen as out-of-fashion by most people except for a few who continue to admire the style, and 2) Some studies have seen the house as being the epitome of a less-enlightened society and period in our history.4
Despite its detractors, the ranch house has been a mainstay in the neighborhoods across the country. It can be easily adapted, almost taking on a chameleon-like quality. Construction can be made in nearly any material, design, or construction method but it remains a recognizable and maintains the low-horizontal scale that makes it popular.
1 For a selection of the vast literature on postwar housing, see: Barry Checkoway, “Large Builders, Federal Housing Programs, and Postwar Suburbanization,” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 4, no. I (March 1980): 21-45; Joseph B. Mason, History of Housing in the U.S. 1930-1980 (Houston: Gulf
Publishing Co., 1982); Ned Eichler, The Merchant Builders (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1982); and Scott Donaldson, The Suburban Myth (New York: Columbia University Press, 1969).
2 Russell Lynes, The Domesticated Americans (New York: Harper and Row, 1957), 266-67. See also: T.H. Robsjohn-Gibbings, Homes of the Brave (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1954), 77-81.
3 James Marston Fitch, “The New American Architecture Started 70 Years Ago,” House Beautiful 92, no. 5 (May 1950): 258.
4 See, for example: Barbara L. Allen, “The Ranch-Style House in America: A Cultural and Environmental Discourse,” Journal of Architectural Education 49, no. 3 (February 1996): 156-165.