Declared an American original by The Washington Post, the ranch-style house first appeared during the early 20th century when Southern Californian architect Cliff May designed and built his first home.
The popularity of the rambling structures exploded throughout the 1950s and 1960s due in part to their flexible design and casual lifestyle evoked by ranch-house living. By the 1980s, home buyers moved on to larger and fancier homes, but the proliferation of the architectural style remains today in neighborhoods across the country dotted with ranch-inspired homes.
Ranch-Style Architecture Characteristics
Various takes on the original ranch design emerged as it became the dominant building style in post-World War II America. Even though some of these homes included added details and split levels, true ranch homes exhibited these common characteristics.
- a low, horizontal profile provided by single-story construction
- substantial design elements such as hip roofs with wide eaves, prominent chimneys and attached garages
- casual living spaces created by open floor plans and natural building materials and a
- connection to outdoor patios or lanais through large picture windows and sliding doors.
Ranch House Types
As the popularity of the ranch house design spread across the United States, variations to its style emerged. While each variation maintains the horizontal profile and open living area characteristic of ranches, each new adaptation set itself apart with distinct features.
The California Ranch is the original design of architect Cliff May. Although it is often used interchangeably with the term ranch house, the California ranch boasts some distinctive characteristics. Inspired by Arts and Crafts bungalows and Spanish haciendas, May designed his houses to blend with the landscape surrounding them. His California ranches were sprawling structures built using local materials, such as stucco and brick. The L- or U-shaped design surrounded large courtyards encouraging harmony between indoor and outdoor living.
Suburban Ranch -- the mid-20th century baby boom found Americans seeking family-friendly living options outside city centers. Taking cues from the informal design of California ranch houses, builders began constructing modern versions across the country made easier by simplifying construction with an assembly-line process. New developments were often built on concrete slabs and on a smaller scale than the western originals. Though they were downsized, suburban ranch houses recreated the open floor plan and the outdoor accessibility of the sprawling California abodes.
Split-Level Ranch homes actually feature three levels of living. From the outside, it is similar to a suburban ranch with an additional two-story section bisecting the main level on one side. The front door leads to the living spaces, usually a den, dining room and kitchen. A half flight of stairs, often located off the entry, leads to bedrooms and bathrooms. The other half leads down to less formal rooms such as a recreation room, laundry space or garage.
Raised Ranch homes created created two-levels by moving garages and other utilitarian spaces such as laundry and rec rooms underneath the main living areas. Sometimes referred to as split-entry homes because the front door opens into a stairwell, you walk upstairs to find the living room, kitchen and bedrooms. A few steps down leads you to the garage and other spaces not regularly seen by guests. Though built with an additional level, the horizontal roof lines and minimal exterior decoration of traditional ranch home designs still apply.
Storybook Ranch homes, also called Cinderella ranches, get their name from the decorative details that adorn their facades. Compared with the plain exteriors of other ranch homes, storybook ranches look as if they came straight out of a fairytale. Exposed rafters, whimsical trim and diamond-shaped windowpanes are some of their common characteristics. Ornamental shutters, flowering window boxes and decorative porch columns add to the charm of these structures.