The Ranch style is America’s most pervasive building method. More than a single architectural form, this building movement addresses the needs of American life, and has been adapted for a wide variety of construction methods. Like any popular trend, Ranch homes have also endured their share of criticism over the decades, although demand for them has remained strong.
A made-in-America tradition, the Ranch movement traces its roots back to southwestern colonial architecture of the 17th to 19th century. These buildings usually had single story floor plans, and were constructed with simple materials and native plants to meet the needs of their inhabitants. Adobe covered with brick and plaster was commonly used for Ranch walls, while roofs were low and simple, usually with wide eaves providing shade from the summer heat. As name suggests, this practical building style was also used for homes on Ranches across the southwest. Many large Ranch homes came to include U-shaped floor plans, courtyards, and large front porches.
The first modern wave of Ranch building was known as California Ranch style. Early 20th century California architects Cliff May and William Wurster are often credited with developing the style, which stressed three basic concepts: livability; flexibility; and unpretentious character. Livability was the most immediate benefit of Ranch homes, as the single floor layout allowed more more connection between inside and outside, as well as much larger main rooms. Homes could now be built according to lifestyle rather than architectural guidelines. Flexibility was seen in the open floor plans of California Ranchers, where rooms could easily flow from one to the next, and be used for multiple purposes without as much regard for space constraints. The unpretentious character of Ranch homes is evident in their simple, clean lines and low profiles.
These homes were not designed to create a statement, or evoke past styles, but to provide ease of movement. As such, California Ranchers came to embody the look of a “home,” as opposed to an architectural method. Easily recognized within popular culture, Ranch imagery enables advertisers and film-makers to quickly evoke certain aspects of the American lifestyle.
Not all themes evoked by Ranch imagery are positive, however. For many, Ranch homes represent cultural emptiness, and a bland, unfocused lifestyle often associated with the term “suburbia.” The functional, flexible nature of Ranch homes makes it easy for these criticisms to stick.
But renowned modernist real estate developer Joseph Eichler might not have been so quick to discredit the ranch movement. More than 11,000 of his attractive and distinct single story homes were built throughout northern California between 1950 and 1974, and are now in high demand among discriminating home buyers. The Eichler style, with its low-lying, airy concept and attractive shaded features, is a direct descendant of the ranch style, and an example of how valuable the movement was to American architecture.