Ranch House History

by Debra

in Ranch House History

Sunset Magazine, as the voice of western living, was the first publication to define the characteristics of the ranch house. The ranch house, and its predecessors, had been covered in the magazine prior to World War II, but it dedicated an entire book to Western Ranch Houses in 1946.5

Western Ranch Houses by Cliff May

The Sunset Magazine book was patterned after architectural books by providing many drawings, being selective in the amount of text that was presented, and giving the reader plenty of photographs to look at.


Cliff May of Los Angeles and William W. Wurster (of Wurster, Bernardi, and Emmons) were the California architects who were the primary designers of the ranch style house prior to the war. May collaborated as an author for the Western Ranch Houses book with the editorial staff of the magazine. In fact, May is the architect who is most closely associated with this style of house, which could be in part to his collaboration with Sunset Magazine in developing the book.7 After Sunset Magazine produced their book on ranch houses, other publications promoted this type of house for those interested in home ownership following the war.

The three basic concepts about ranch houses that Western Ranch Houses emphasized were livability, flexibility, and the house’s unpretentious character. The important elements of design included using the climate in relation to the site the house was built upon and how the house was oriented on the property.

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This style of house also attempted to bring the outdoors inside by having large picture windows and sliding glass doors. The design also included arranging rooms in a linear fashion, keeping the elevation asymmetrical, and having low wings that emanated from the rectangular center of the plan. Because of the existing floor plan and architectural tradition, homeowners would easily be able to renovate and put on additions to increase the size of the home with little problem.

The Ranch house was chosen often for homeowners seeking a single-family home from the 1950s and into the 1960s. Part of the reason for the house’s popularity was the use of informal plans, incorporating the latest equipment offered, and the range of imagery it afforded.

Homeowners, especially of Cliff May’s work, were very satisfied with their homes’ design. May created a house design (1962-1963) for Robert Power, a resident of the coastal city of Camarillo, California, a town north of Los Angeles. In it, he illustrated how the ranch style home could be both traditional and modern by combining elements of both in such a way that he intimated at the past rather than duplicating it. He used the open floor plan and a post-and-beam construction to allow for great amounts of light and space within the home, but it was all contained under the low-pitched gable roof so common of this style of house.8

May wasn’t the only architect to design homes using these elements. Other architectural firms, such as Wurster, Bernardi, and Emmons, also were able to design similar homes at the time. The firm worked on the Williams residence (1956) and was able to create a light-filled, airy ranch house that fit perfectly within the hills of Portola Valley, near San Francisco.9 The Albert Goldmon residence (1957, designed by architects Goldmon and Rolfe) in Houston, Texas, had similar design elements to the houses designed by the California architects, and illustrated the effects of having the ranch house placed low on it’s site.

While it’s true that the single-family ranch houses began to wane in popularity by the late-1960s, this style of home is still being built in California. The homes are built in subdivisions that offer several period revival houses to potential buyers. Also adding to the increase of houses being built is the demand for condominiums and retirement housing which began in the 1970s. These needs were met by building multifamily communities of the ranch house.

5 See also the later edition: Sunset Magazine, ed., Western Ranch Houses by Cliff May (San Francisco: Lane Publishing Co., 1958). It was reprinted in 1997 and the earlier edition (1946) was reprinted in 1999, both by another publisher.

6 David Bricker, “Cliff May,” in Toward a Simpler Way of Life: The Arts & Crafts Architects of California, ed. Robert Winter (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), 283-90; and Daniel Gregory, “William W. Wurster,” 245-254.

7 Daniel P. Gregory, “Visions and Subdivisions: Sunset Magazine and the California Ranch House,” Architecture California 13, no. I (February 1991): 32-35.

8 “Residence of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Power, Camarillo, California,” Architectural Digest 2 1, no. 2 (Fall 1964): 20 23.

9 Alan R. Michelson, “Bemardi, Emmons–and Wurster: Focus on the Younger Partners,” in An Everyday Modernism: The Houses of William Wurster, ed. Marc Treib (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), 222 223.

10 David Gebhard, “Architectural Imagery, The Mission and California,” Harvard Architectural Review I (Spring 1980): 13940; Karen J. Weitze, California’s Mission Revival (Los Angeles: Hennessey and Ingalls, 1984), 26-28; and Richard Longstreth, On the Edge of the World: Four Architects in San Francisco at the

Turn of the Century (New York: Architectural History Foundation, and Cambridge: MIT Press, 1983), 279-286.

11 Randall L. Makinson, Greene and Greene, Architecture as a Fine Art (Salt Lake City: Peregrine Smith, Inc., 1977): 70-72, 8889; “Wooden Dwellings in California on the Lines of the Old Spanish Adobe,” Craftsman 13, no. 5 (February 1908): 568-71; and Seymour E. Locke, “Bungalows, What They Really Are. The Frequent Misapplication of the Name,” House and Garden 12, no. 2 (August 1907): 48-50.

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