Unlike the European pastiche of Colonial or Victorian houses, the ranch, or “rancher,” style started here, specifically in postwar Los Angeles, and quickly became a fixture of suburban landscapes across the U.S. With its low-slung frame sprawled across the wide open spaces of the developing American West, this midcentury relic reflected postwar optimism, the aspiration of suburban family life, and a special way of living—as put it in 1946, “informal yet gracious.” Now the classic ranch, once a radical departure from tradition, is being rediscovered by today’s generation as a veneration of relaxed West Coast style.
“While architects in Western Europe and the Soviet Union met the need by building high-rise-apartment blocks, Americans created a consumer product that people wanted to buy,” says Alan Hess, architectural historian and author of The Ranch House.
First drafted in the 1930s by architects like Cliff Mae and William Wurster, the ranch-house style lent itself well to mass production: low, one-story, and made of simple and inexpensive materials like shake roofs, board-and-batten walls, and brick foundations. Heroic characters played by John Wayne and Randolph Scott had captured the imagination of Americans, and the ranch house—first built in states like California and Texas—encapsulated the mystique of the Old West. “The myth of the cowboy and the heroic Western characters glorified on the big screen—it all blended into the appeal of the ranch house for the average American,” says Hess.
All of those factors came together to make the ranch house no longer as popular as it had been.” By the early 1970s, buyers and builders were turning to the so-called neo-eclectic homes that were larger, more formal, and more ornate. Their signature low-slung frame is formed by a single-story floor plan with long, low-pitched rooflines and deep overhanging eaves that extend past the exterior walls of the house.
Many structures are decidedly Western, calling to mind the days of dude ranches and Mexican haciendas, while more modern styles featured simple and clean lines and mid-century elements.
Its open-concept layout frequently has a devoted outdoor space—be it a patio, deck, or lawn—that is accessible by large sliding glass doors that open from the living area. Inside, the ranch house often had natural wood and knotty pine throughout, with Western-themed wallpaper that featured fancy and fun lariats and horses—a favorite for children’s rooms. Young buyers see them as affordable options that appeal to a minimalist lifestyle in a difficult housing market, and the aging population is opting to downsize to them for both the convenience of a single story as well as a nostalgic return to the aesthetic of their youth.