Historical Development Ranch House

by Debra

in Decorating Ranch Style House, Ranch House History

Part of the appeal of the traditional nineteenth century adobe (which is often called a ranch house) was how the design was informal yet it played off of the relationship of the inside of the house and the space outdoors. This type of home, a single-story design, was built with long porches, or corridors, that allowed for circulation of air between rooms and was used in place of hallways.

House Colors: Exterior Color by Style of Architecture

These long porches also gave the home a transitional space for living areas that were neither inside nor outside, but lead to the private courtyard tucked into the house’s design. There have been many architectural interpretations of these design elements since the late nineteenth century, each owing their designs to the romantic California homes and how they brought the outside environment into the plan.

Writers and architects of the late nineteenth century saw the value of the adobes of California. They also became enthralled with the Franciscan missions at the same time. California architects, like those in other parts of the country, began visiting the buildings from the past and used them as a means of inspiration for new designs they would create.10 Architects continued to use past buildings for inspiration well into the twentieth century.

At first, this use of the past was seen in those who designed Arts and Crafts houses because the used the simple lines of traditional ranch houses along with the style’s informal character. The Pasadena-based architects Charles and Henry Greene used the elements of the single-story ranch to design some of their wood-frame Craftsman bungalows.

Their houses were orientated around the spacious courtyard, closing it in on two or three sides.11 Arturo Bandini’s residence in Pasadena (1903, which no longer exists), designed by the Greene’s, was designed specifically to showcase the features of the California adobe. Still other architects designed similar lower-end ranch houses which were to be built in large numbers by building companies, pattern books, and plan services. 12

The ranch house continued to be adapted to other styles during the 1920s and 1930s. In fact, California architects began incorporating elements of Mediterranean and Hispanic elements into the ranch style house. They also added some of the elements from the American colonial homes of the past.

Ranch style houses were then influenced by modern architectural designs by the late 1930s; this simple house has continued to be adapted since then. Many architects and builders made changes to the design of the ranch house to keep up-to-date with what was needed by the homeowner. However, as changes were made, the original design elements and the connection to the house of the past were lost.

The Depression hit in 1929 and continued well into the mid-1930s. It was at this time that the federal government began home ownership programs touting the ranch house as a low-cost home they would subsidize for California and states in the West. In 1935 the U.S. Farm Security Administration (FSA) built houses together on tracks of land to help people survive the Depression.

They attempted to keep the character of the former walnut grove intact. Joseph Weston was responsible for designing four different houses with varying number of bedrooms. Each type of house had several plans and design elevation so that the development didn’t look like identical houses.13

Privately developed subdivisions began appearing in Los Angeles; these were far different than those the FSA had developed. The ranch houses were larger and were built on small estate-like pieces of land. They were promoted primarily to the middle class prospective homeowner.

Beginning in 1934, A.E. Hanson, a developer/landscape architect, developed Rolling Hills on the Palos Verdes peninsula. Cliff May (architect/builder) created a similar subdivision, Riviera Ranch, in the West Los Angeles area. These two examples were among the more well-known subdivisions constructed during this period.14

Each of these subdivisions were promoted in such a way that they respected the original land grant that was given in the nineteenth century. They allowed for a semi-rural landscape and included outdoor activities such as horseback riding for all those in the subdivision homeowners to enjoy.

However, despite the rural feel of these subdivisions, it was also emphasized that they were within close proximity to commercial businesses. It was quite common to find stables, paddocks, multi-car garages within the design elements of the subdivision.

During the Second World War, the federal government imposed strict limits on what materials could be used for building. It was for this reason that new housing construction was limited to housing for defense workers. Ranch houses were common in defense housing tracts in California where there was ample employment in the aircraft and shipbuilding industries of that time.

San Lorenzo Village, just south of Oakland, was built starting in 1944 by David D. Bohannon, developer/builder. The houses in this subdivision had the basic features of a ranch house, however they were varied because of the orientation of the floor plan, how the elevations were treated, and the materials that were selected for their building.

During the construction phase of the project, organization was important, as well as the use of precut lumber, and having a staging area at each site to be sure that the house was constructed in a cost-effective and timely manner.15 The approach of design and construction that was used in this subdivision continued to be used for tract housing developments following the war; however, this very approach was the reason why ranch houses have been criticized at this time and since.

The limitations on construction, during the years the war continued, caused the architects, designers, and builders in America to try to predict the types of houses that would be popular after the war ended. They discussed what types of materials would be used, the appearance that would be most sought after, and the types of furniture that would be used in the houses based upon the programs and publications by the American Institute of Architects and the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB), which was founded in Washington, D.C. in 1942.

Other publications also influenced architects of the time including Elizabeth B. Mock’s If You Want to Build A House (New York, 1946) which was published by the Museum of Modern Art and Tomorrow’s House (New York, 1945), a complete guide written by George Nelson and Henry Wright. These were modestly priced and covered a broad range of topics, which was also the case for many professional and popular magazines at the time.

Popular periodicals continued to espouse how affordable the ranch style house was during the 1940s and into the following years. Good Housekeeping, House Beautiful, and Better Homes & Gardens chose leading architects and builders to display ranch designs in their publications.

Cliff May and the Modern Ranch House

Cliff May and other noted architects were featured in these magazines and others showing the homes they designed that could be used as model houses, fully furnished, landscaped, and ready for a family to move in. Having the house completed in such a way to show off the collaborative effort of the designer, builder, landscaper, and interior designers made it easier for prospective buyers to envision themselves in this type of home.

Low-cost houses continued to be the focus of designers during the 1950s. It was during this time that architects Cliff May and Chris Choate of Los Angeles collaborated to design low-cost ranch houses and established Cliff May Homes, first in California during the 1950s and then throughout the country by the mid-1950s.

Between 1952 and 1953, the “Magic Money House” was developed. This modular house was built out of five foot, four inch sections. It used post-and-beam elements pre-constructed into panels that were used for the structure.16 These houses, which were 831 square feet with two bedrooms, cost prospective owners only $8,000. Larger homes could be designed from this basic house, which would be priced accordingly. The designs were available on an individual basis or could be used on tract developed land.

The Magic Money House had elements of a traditional ranch house such as the low-pitched gable roof and rectangular shape, but could also be constructed to create an up-to-date ranch house. Many believe that the popularity of May’s work and the Magic Money House helped the ranch style house remain popular following the war. May’s work continued to appeal to a variety of people, despite their economic or geographic differences following the war just as before the war.

Following the Second World War, other builders, architects, and prefabrication companies began answering the country’s call for more ranch houses.17 Some of these companies to actively design and build ranch houses in the Midwest and other regions of the country were Scholz Homes, Incorporated (Donald Scholz, builder) of Toledo, Ohio, and National Homes Corporation, which was a successful company in Lafayette, Indiana that built prefabricated housing.18

When a prospective buyer visited pre-built model homes, they often found them situated on the lot much like what would be seen on any street in postwar California. East Coast’s distinguished firm of Levitt and Sons changed from their popular Cape Cod models to the ranch house for the Goldenridge tract (1951) housing in Levittown, Pennsylvania.19

Designs for the ranch house have gone through many interpretations over the years. They have been changed to meet the needs of the regions they are built but they have also influenced by Colonial Revival, the Prairie School, and designs by Frank Lloyd Wright.

Some ranch homes have Asian or Pacific Island flair to them; different houses have elements of the various architectural periods and history of the country. The basic features of the house, such as its low rectangular form and how informal it is, continue to be the features most people readily recognize.

The popularity of the ranch house has translated into other areas of construction besides merely the residential area, which can be seen as far back as just prior to the postwar period. This house, low in scale and very linear, was easy to adapt to other buildings.

Some commercial buildings that were built using this style include schools, office buildings, club houses, public buildings, and health care facilities among others. Motels, restaurants, supermarkets, and shopping centers, as well as automobile-related buildings, were also built using many of the elements of the ranch house.

By the 1960s, gasoline companies began using the elements of the suburban ranch house for neighborhood service stations. In 1965, a California Union Oil Company service attempted to create the appropriate setting for their ranch style building.


The ranch house was initially popular during the beginning of the twentieth century. Following World War II, this style house secured its place in the American culture. What is puzzling, however, is that those who are reaching back to the 1950s and 1960s for musical, design, and fashions are hesitant to grasp onto the ranch house. Many think it may be too ordinary or common to appeal to those interested in retro things.

The importance of the ranch house has been hinted at in a recent issue of the Old House Journal’s twenty-fifth anniversary magazine.20 Sunset Magazine also remembered how it has been affiliated with the ranch house. Their annual magazine Idea House for 1999 (Frank Stolz of South Coast Architects; and the O’Brien Group, developer/builder) promoted the “ranch house of the new millennium.”21

The model ranch house was built south of the magazine’s office in Menlo Park near San Jose. Its design proves that the ranch house is still worthy of being explored by designers and broadly interpreted for a new generation.

The basis of this article came from an article originally published in Preserving the Recent Past 2, edited by Deborah Slaton and William G. Foulks, Washington, D.C.: Historic Preservation Education Foundation, National Park Service, and Association for Preservation Technology International, 2000.

12 See, for example: Garden City Company of California, Ideal Homes in Garden Communities, 2nd ed. (New York: Robert M. McBride and Co., 1916), 11, 14, 19, 26, 37-38, 43.

13 “Subsistence Homesteads Are Planned for Economy and Comfort,” Southwest Builder and Contractor 84, no. 19 (19 November 1934): 26-28; and “Rurban Homes Project Near El Monte Now Nearing Completion,” Southwest Builder and Contractor 86, no. 6 (9 August 1935): 12-13.

14 A.E. Hanson, Rolling Hills: The Early Years, February 1930 through December 7,1941 (Rolling Hills: City of Rolling Hills, 1978); “Riviera Ranch Tract Being Opened Today,” Los Angeles Times, 20 October 1940, pt. V, p.3; and Cynthia Castle, “The Times Home Hunter,” Los Angeles Times, 17 November 1940, pt. V.

15 “Bohannon Building Team,” Architectural Forum 82, no. 6 (June 1945): 133-136, 138, 142, 146; “Big Dave Bohannon, Operative Builder by the California Method, Fortune 33, no. 4 (April 1946): 144-47, 190- 200. See also: Donald Albrecht, ed., World War II and the American Dream: How Wartime Building Changed a Nation (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1995).

16 David Bricker, “Built For Sale: Cliff May and the Low Cost California Ranch House,” (MA thesis, University of California, Santa Barbara, 1983), 8 1-100. The design was renamed the “Magazine Cover House” in 1954.

17 See, for example: A. Quincy Jones, Jr. and Frederick E. Emmons, Builders’ Homes for Better Living (New York: Reinhold Publishing Co., 1957); Royal Barry Wills, Living on the Level: One-Story Houses (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1955); and John Hancock Callender, Before You Buy a House (New York:

Crown Publishers, Inc., 1953).

18 “Look at What’s Selling in Ohio!,” House and Home 3, no. I (January 1953): 144-15 1; “How Merchandising on Local and National Level Builds Volume,” American Builder 75, no. 21 (February 1953): 137-138. See also: John A. Jakle, Robert W. Bastian, and Douglas K. Meyer, Common Houses in America’s Small Towns: The Atlantic Seaboard to the Mississippi Valley (Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press, 1989), 182-195.

19 “$9,990 Levitt Houses Boast 70’ Lots,” Architectural Forum 95, no. 4 (Oct. 1951): 217-219.

20 Patricia Poore, “The Ranch House,” Old House Journal 26, no. 5 (September/October 1998): 75-80. See also: Esther McCoy and Evelyn Hitchcock, “The Ranch House,” in Home Sweet Home: American Domestic Vernacular Architecture, eds. Charles W. Moore, Kathryn Smith, and Peter Becker (New York: Rizzoli International Publications, Inc., 1983), 84-89; and Alan Hess, Rancho Deluxe: Rustic Dreams and Real Western Living (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2000).

21 Daniel Gregory and Ann Bertelsen, “Sunset Magazine’s 1999 Idea House,” Sunset 203, no. 3 (September 1999): 110-129.

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