Rethinking the Ranch
If you grew up in a new suburb in the ’60s or ’70s, chances are your first home was a ranch. A uniquely American concept, the ranch house celebrates our ability to sprawl across the once-rural landscape by expanding horizontally rather than stacking box on top of box – hence it’s other name, the “rambler.” Lexington’s population boomed during this time, driving the real estate market to respond with an expanse of suburbs, especially to the south and west. Because of this boom, the city is blessed with an abundance of ranch houses, from the neo-eclectic examples lining Chinoe between Cooper and Alumni drives to the more traditional ranches in neighborhoods such as Glendover, Lansdowne and Mount Vernon.
History of the Ranch
Architectural historians trace the origin of the ranch house to North American Spanish colonial residential architecture of the 17th to 19th centuries. The style exploded in popularity with the post-WWII baby boom, especially in California and the Midwest.
The ranch is the essence of simplicity and as such became the perfect model for tract housing. The Levittowns suburban developments of the late ’40s and ’50s gave way to the ranch-filled suburbs of the ’60s and ’70s. The simple construction and lack of superfluous detail made the houses economical to produce and the efficient floor plans made the most of the modest square footage. Consumers embraced the casual lifestyle promoted by the informal layout, especially the ability to easily move outside to a deck or patio.
The move away from the ranch began in the late 1970s, as American consumer taste began to favor larger houses with historic detailing. At the same time, land prices and development costs were on the rise and lot sizes were shrinking. Since buyers wanted larger homes, builders went up two or three stories rather than expanding out horizontally. Where the post-war decades were about returning to normalcy and raising a family, the ’80s were about striving for more. Television entertainment morphed from “The Brady Bunch” and “Dick Van Dyke” to “Dynasty” and “Dallas.” People wanted to live the dream being spun by the media: A successful and desirable lifestyle requires a residence with wings and multiple stories. Americans became bored with the suburbs, desiring a taste of wealth and opulence, and houses sprouted gables and illogical building jogs, evoking the illusion of old manses that had evolved over time. Consumers equated sophistication with elaborate mouldings, chair rails and fancy stairs – stylistic details that were often applied without regard to historic precedents. Similarly, rooms were added without regard to living habits, resulting in formal dining and living rooms that sat empty while the inhabitants gathered in their kitchens and family rooms. Developers built two-story foyers that few people used, because in our culture we enter the house from the garage.
Fast forward to 2015 and buyers are once again embracing the ranch house. According to a recent Wall Street Journal article, one-story homes are now selling for considerably more per square foot than houses with multiple stories. Apparently two types of buyers are interested in one-story floor plans: empty nesters who want to age without stairs and young parents who are looking for family togetherness and ease of indoor-outdoor living.
One of the main reasons for buying and renovating a ranch is that they are characteristically easy to remodel – many ranch homes are framed with roof trusses and no interior bearing walls. This means interior walls can be removed and small rooms combined to make a single large room. Opening the kitchen to the dining room or enlarging a master bath can usually be accomplished with minimal structural intervention.
Another plus: Suburbs built during the ranch houses heyday now have mature trees. Their streets are shady and lush, their gardens are well established. In addition, suburbs built during the ’60s and ’70s are typically more conveniently located near shopping and restaurants than the newer, outside of Man-O’ War residential developments.
What to Consider
Those considering buying a ranch should keep in mind that the quality of their construction covers a wider range than some other stylistic periods. Some exterior finishes introduced in the ’60s and ’70s that complemented the lines of the ranch (like T1-11, a plywood siding) ended up deteriorating more quickly than expected. Less reputable developers saw the simplicity of the ranch as an opportunity to build cheaply. If you are thinking of downsizing to a ranch, consider seeking the advice of an experienced architect who can help you evaluate the potential for renovation, as well as advise on conditions that need attention.
Residential architecture is a bit like fashion in that styles fall in and out of favor. The ranch house, however, has attributes that make it an enduring staple of America’s housing stock – it’s our “little black dress.” Lexingtonians will be enjoying their one-story wonders for decades to come.
Posted on 31 August, 2016 in: News