Ranch Style Homes

Flexibility is Addressed by the Open Floor Plans

Sometimes called the California ranch style, this home in the Modern family, originated there in 1930s. It emerged as one of the most popular American styles in the 1950s and 60s, when the automobile had replaced early 20th-century forms of transportation, such as streetcars.

Ranch-style houses (also American ranch, California ranch, rambler or rancher) is a uniquely American domestic architectural style. First built in the 1920s, the ranch style was extremely popular in the United States during the 1940s to 1970s, as new suburbs were built for the Greatest Generation and later the Silent Generation. The style was exported to other nations and so is found in other countries.

The style is often associated with tract housing built during this period, particularly in the western United States, which experienced a population explosion during this period, with a corresponding demand for housing.

The ranch house is noted for its long, close-to-the-ground profile, and minimal use of exterior and interior decoration. The houses fuse modernist ideas and styles with notions of the American Western period working ranches to create a very informal and casual living style. Their popularity waned in the late 20th century as neo-eclectic house styles, a return to using historical and traditional decoration, became popular. However, in recent years, interest in ranch house designs has been increasing.

The Ranch House Style by Katherine Samon - it's remarkable, that it took until 2003 for a book about ranches to become available. In spite the millions of ranch houses across the entire nation the ranch house has been snubbed by the high-style community. To rectify that insult to all ranch house enthusiasts, Ranch House Style additionally includes meticulously researched, authoritative information on the history of the style, architects, sociological context, designers, and furniture have been included. This book is a serious writing that stands by itself in the field, Additionally, it's a beautiful, practical, and inspirational, decorating book.

Preservationist movements have begun in some ranch house neighborhoods, as well as renewed interest in the style from a younger generation who did not grow up in ranch-style houses. This renewed interest in the ranch house style has been compared to that which other house styles such as the bungalow and Queen Anne experienced in the 20th century, initial dominance of the market, replacement as the desired housing style, decay and disinterest coupled with many of teardowns, then renewed interest and gentrification of the surviving homes


The following features are considered key elements of the original ranch house style, although not all ranch houses have all them.
  • Single story
  • Long, low roofline
  • Asymmetrical rectangular, L-shaped, or U-shaped design
  • Simple floor plans
  • Open floor plans
  • Attached garage
  • Sliding glass doors opening onto a patio
  • Large windows
  • Vaulted ceilings with exposed beams
  • Windows often decorated with shutters
  • Exteriors of stucco, brick and wood
  • Large overhanging eaves
  • Cross-gabled, side-gabled or hip roof
  • Simple and/or rustic interior and exterior trim

History and development

The 20th century ranch house style has its roots in North American Spanish colonial architecture of the 17th to 19th century. These buildings used single story floor plans and native materials in a simple style to meet the needs of their inhabitants. Walls were often built of adobe brick and covered with plaster, or more simply used board and batten wood siding. Roofs were low and simple, and usually had wide eaves to help shade the windows from the Southwestern heat. Buildings often had interior courtyards which were surrounded by an U shaped floor plan. Large front porches were also common.  These low slung, thick walled, rustic working ranches were common in the Southwestern states.

Early modern period

Several American architects of the early 20th century were instrumental in taking the Spanish colonial ranch homes and fusing them with Modern Architecture to create the California Ranch House Style. Cliff May of San Diego and later, of Los Angeles, and William Wurster of San Francisco are two of the more common names associated with this innovation. Cliff May’s book, “Western Ranch Houses,” written with the editors of Sunset Magazine, stresses three basic concepts about ranch houses that serve as foundational philosophical underpinnings. First, is livability, second, flexibility and third is an unpretentious character. All three elements were addressed by combining modern building practices with the rustic Spanish Colonial rancherias.


Typical family room of a ranch house, note simple trim and ornamentation that lends itself to a variety of decorating stylesLivability was addressed by the addition of open floor plans instead of the small and divided up rooms of previous house styles. In a modern ranch house, each of the major rooms was intended to flow into the next. Large windows were added to bring in outside light and nature. Garages were attached to the home instead of the separate building they had been in previous house styles such as the bungalow; this acknowledged the importance of the automobile in modern life by integrating the vehicle into the home. Sliding glass doors opened to patios, usually covered, in the back of the home, a direct fusion of the Spanish colonial rancherias and Modernism. As land was inexpensive and plentiful at this time, the ranch houses were long and rambling over their large lots.


Flexibility was addressed by the open floor plans that allowed rooms to be rearranged and serve multiple purposes. Ranch houses often included separate living and family rooms and formal dining rooms that all could be redressed for other purposes as needed. In addition, the simple trim and style could be made to work with a number of interior decorating schemes, from American Colonial to ultramodern to contemporary casual. The integrated patio served as an extension of the living space, allowing a functional relationship with the outdoors.

Unpretentious character

Smaller custom ranch house built in 1960 in California. Note large lot and side garage and hipped roof. Unpretentious character was addressed by the simple, lean, lines of the houses themselves. Ranch houses, with their low roof lines and simple rustic trim, were intended to maintain a casual feel and not dominate their neighborhoods. Entry was not into a grand foyer, with an elaborate two story staircase winding down and soaring 20-foot (6 m) cathedral ceiling, but instead into a simple ante-chamber, if that, which was disarming and pedestrian. Interiors were designed for ease of movement and a "homeish" feel, often with wood paneling, textured ceilings for noise control, and occasional exposed wood beams in main living areas.

Era of popularity

By the 1950s, the California ranch house, by now often called simply the ranch house or even “rambler house”, accounted for nine out of every ten new houses. The seemingly endless ability of the style to accommodate the individual needs of the owner/occupant, combined with the very modern inclusion of the latest in building developments and simplicity of the design satisfied the needs of the time. Ranch houses were built throughout America and were often given regional facelifts to suit regional tastes. The “Colonial Ranch” of the Midwest and East Coast is one such noted variant, adding American Colonial features to the facade of the California ranch house. Ranch homes of the 1940s and 50s are typically more deliberately rustic in nature than those of the 60s and 70s, with features such as dovecotes, Swiss board edging on trim, and generally western and even fantasy trim styling. In the 60s the ranch house echoed the national trend towards sleekness in design, with the homes becoming even simpler in trim and ornamentation.


Neo eclectic homes built in 2006 in CaliforniaAmerican tastes in architecture began to change in the late 1960s, a move away from Googie and Modernism and ranch homes towards more formal and traditional styles. Builders of ranch houses also began to simplify and cheapen construction of the homes to cut costs, eventually reducing the style down to a very bland and uninteresting house, with little of the charm and drama of the early versions. By the late 1970s, the ranch house was no longer the home of choice, and had been eclipsed by the neo-eclectic styles of the late 20th century. Very late custom ranch homes of the later 1970s begin to exhibit features of the neo-eclectics, such as dramatically elevated rooflines, grand entryways, and traditional detailing. These neo-eclectic homes typically continue many of the lifestyle interior features of the ranch house, such as open floor plans, attached garages, eat-in kitchens, and built-in patios, though their exterior styling typically owes more to northern Europe or Italy or 18th and 19th century homes styles than the ranch house. Neo-eclectic houses also have a significant level of formality in their design, both externally and internally, the exact opposite of the typical ranch style house. Additionally, the increase in land prices has meant a corresponding increase in the number of two story homes being built, and a shrinking of the size of the average lot; both trends inhibit the traditional ranch house style. Ranch style houses are occasionally still built today, but mainly in the Western states and, usually, as individual custom homes.

Revival of interest

Beginning in the late 1990s, a revival of interest in the ranch style house occurred in United States. The renewed interest in the design is mainly focused on existing homes and neighborhoods, not new construction. Younger house buyers find that ranch houses are affordable entry level homes in many markets, and the single story living of the house attracts older buyers looking for a house they can navigate easily as they age. The houses' uniquely American heritage, being an indigenous design, has furthered interest as well.  The houses simplicity and unpretentious nature, in marked contrast to the more dramatic and formal nature of neo-eclectic houses, makes them appealing for some buyers who are looking for something different. The more distinctive ranch houses, such as modernist Eichlers or Cliff May designs, as well as custom homes with a full complement of the style's features, are in particular demand in many markets. Many neighborhoods featuring ranch-style houses are now well-established, with large trees and often with owner modifications that give these sometimes redundant styles significant character. As these homes were mainly built in the time frame of 1945 to 1970, they are modern in their infrastructure, their heating/cooling systems, wiring, plumbing, windows, doors, and other systems can be easily repaired and upgraded.

Revival of the ranch-style house

Large scale tract building of ranch houses ended in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Those still built today have usually been individual custom homes. One known exception is a tract of ranch-style homes being currently built in California. These houses borrow their style cues from the 1950s Western styled ranch houses, with board and batten siding, dovecotes, large eaves, and extensive porches. Notably, all homes in this tract are on 1/4 acre lots, and have their front garages turned sideways so the garage doors are not dominating the front of the house.


Two-story versions

The raised ranch is a variation where a furnished basement is mostly or completely above ground, i.e. the foundation serves as an additional floor, often called a split level, a modification of the dominant one story design The common result is a two-story version of a ranch-style house. It may be built into a hill to some degree, such that the full size of the house is not evident from the curb.

"Commercial versions"

The ranch house style was adapted for commercial use during the time of the style's popularity. As the concept of a "drive in" shopping center was being created and popularized, the ranch style was a perfect style to fit into the large tracts of ranch homes being built. Commercial ranch buildings, such as supermarkets and strip malls, typically follow the residential style with simple rustic trim, stucco or board and batten siding, exposed brick and shake roofs, and large windows.


Ranch style houses have been subject to criticism almost from their inception. General criticisms are that ranch style houses lack a style and are too sterile and utilitarian. Their sheer commonness often makes them a target of disdain.

Now mobile homebuyers could move to the suburbs into bigger homes on bigger lots. The style takes its cues from Spanish Colonial and Prairie and Craftsman homes, and is characterized by its one-story, pitched-roof construction, built-in garage, wood or brick exterior walls, sliding and picture windows, and sliding doors leading to patios.

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