Here’s Why Ranch-Style Houses Are Called Ranches

Last time we checked, there weren’t too many cows roaming America’s suburbs.

American Suburban Houses
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I’m willing to bet that almost everyone in America has been in a Ranch-style house—whether it was yours, your neighbor’s, a family member’s, or the location of a random 8th birthday party you went to, Ranch-style homes are one of the most common house types across the country and one we’re all familiar with.

The modest homes primarily date to the middle of the 20th century, and as you could probably guess, many are still standing today. They’re still a popular choice for first-time buyers and renovation seekers alike. So why are there so many of this humble, casual house style? And why are they even called Ranches? We got to the bottom of these questions, and more: Read on for the backstory of America’s favorite suburban house.

Why Are There So Many Ranches Out There...In the Suburbs?

We can trace the origins of Ranch-style homes to 1930s California, when and where several architectural movements were happening alongside one another. The Colonial Revival movement was in full swing, and California was booming with Spanish Colonial Revival homes. The Craftsman movement was also growing at the same time. Both of these architectural styles are more traditional, with lots of separate, smaller rooms and an overall rectangular shape. Enter the Ranch, which was the complete opposite of what came before it.

Impala And T-Bird
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Clifford May, a self-taught architect in San Diego, is considered the father of Ranch houses, as many architectural historians trace the birth of the style to a house he designed and built in 1931. May told The New York Times in the 1980s: “'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.”

May’s home designs, which were inspired by the adobe Spanish Colonial homes of southern California, caught on and became the new standard for modern, informal living. The house style was dubbed a Ranch, or Rambler, because of the wide-open-spaces appeal this new type of home nodded to, and the tenable connection to true cattle ranches, which were also horizontal in shape (albeit larger), with low-pitched roofs, and a similar connection to the outdoors.

Ranch-style houses really took off after World War II, when returning soldiers moved with their young families to new housing developments in the suburbs. The concept of a Ranch house was fast and affordable to build en masse, which made them the perfect house style for developers to commission.

When we say they took off, we weren’t exaggerating: By 1950, 9 out of every 10 new homes built in the United States was a Ranch. The style has a lot of overlap with Mid-Century Modern homes—you could even say most Mid-Century Modern houses are Ranches, but not the other way around—but the majority of middle America’s Ranches were a bit more traditional and reserved in design, whereas Mid-Century Moderns were just that: modern. Consider them to be the cooler, more contemporary cousin of Ranches.

So What Are the Defining Features of a Ranch?

Now that you know the backstory, here’s what makes a Ranch a Ranch: Ranches are modest one-story homes with a low-to-the-ground profile that stretches horizontally rather than vertically. Covered by a low-pitched roof with wide, overhanging eaves, they typically have an L- or U-shaped layout surrounding a patio in the backyard.

American Suburban Houses
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Like Mid-Century Modern homes, Ranches (especially those originating in sunny California) emphasized the blending of indoor and outdoor living. As May’s original description points out, the homes were on ground level so you didn’t even have to step down or walk through a porch to be outside. Two extremely common features emphasizing that casual lifestyle were a sliding glass door that led out to the back patio and a large picture window on the front of the house that typically looked into the living room.

Ranch houses were built fairly simply, which meant homeowners could customize them with finishes that were more traditional or modern in style. But overall, the emphasis on a modern, casual lifestyle—with an open eat-in kitchen the whole family spent time in and an attached garage or carport—was widely appealing.

“The layout was open and casual,” architect Witold Rybczynski writes in his book Last Harvest, “with wood paneling instead of wallpaper, and room dividers instead of interior walls. The exterior was unabashedly contemporary and did away with steep roofs, dormer windows, and porches."

Home of Hector Sierra and Yvonne Durazzo - Annandale, VA
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By the 1970s, Americans’ interest in two-story living and more traditional spaces returned and the popularity of the Ranch began to wane. Even so, there are still hundreds of thousands of Ranch-style homes, which in recent years have seen a bit of a resurgence in popularity—if only for renovations’ sake. Their simple design and lack of perceived historic importance has made the Ranch a super popular choice for homeowners to modernize, add on to, and make their own. It’s worth noting, though, that as most Ranches have reached the 50-years-old mark, they’re now deemed eligible for recognition through the National Register of Historic Places. So preservationists and architects alike are now paying this humble house style special attention—and it’s likely the national interest will follow once again.

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