The Ranch House Anomaly

How America fell in and out of love with them.

A 1969 ranch house

In his new book, Last Harvest: How a Cornfield Became New Daleville, Witold Rybczynski follows the design, construction, and marketing of a new residential subdivision over the course of several years. In the process, he explains how modern homes and communities are built. In yesterday’s excerpt, the first of three, Rybczynski examined why we live in houses. Today’s excerpt explains how Americans fell in and out of love with the ranch house. Wednesday’s slide show follows the evolution of New Daleville step-by-step, from cornfield to subdivision.

The construction of a typical house requires thousands of board feet of lumber, hundreds of sheets of plywood, and many cubic yards of concrete, square feet of exterior siding and wallboard, bundles of insulation, gallons of paint, reels of wiring, and lengths of copper piping. A builder not only coordinates a dozen different trades to put all this together in a timely and efficient manner but must put it together in a way that is attractive—and affordable—to buyers. He must also judge to what extent buyers are open to innovation. Houses are the largest investments that most families will ever make, and as prudent small investors, they tend to be conservative and to avoid unnecessary risk. While architectural critics frequently disparage the uniformity of housing, that is precisely what buyers demand; they don’t want to be stuck with an odd or dated house at the time of resale. Contrarians don’t do well in the housing market.

But houses are not only investments, they are homes, and hence sources of personal pleasure and pride. Like clothes, they convey status and social standing; like cars, they tell people something about their owners. Thus, the decision to buy a house is emotional as well as financial. I understood this the first time my wife and I went house-hunting. There were houses that we knew, from the second we saw them, were not for us; we didn’t need to go inside. Of course, one doesn’t buy a house just because of its curb appeal, but the view from the curb is important. It’s what we see every time we return home.

The schizophrenic house buyer is both a status seeker and an investor. In addition, he or she is a consumer. Renovating a kitchen, for example, is done with one eye on convenience and one eye on resale, as well as a glance at the attractive advertisements in the latest issue of House & Garden. The house buyer is not immune to fashion. Although the desire for novelty is generally tempered by an inclination to the safe bet, there was one period when buyers let their hair down. Buoyed by the post–World War II boom, optimistic about the future, and gripped by the idea of Progress, Americans embraced innovation as never before, in the way they traveled, the way they brought up their children, in their manners—and in their homes. The hallmark of that period was the ranch house. It is said to have been invented in 1932 by Cliff May, a self-taught San Diego architect, but it also owed a debt to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonian houses, and to Alfred Levitt’s popular “Levittowner.” Today the suburban ranch house is considered the epitome of conservative taste, but at the time it represented a radical departure from tradition. To begin with, all the rooms were on one floor. The layout was open and casual, with wood paneling instead of wallpaper, and room dividers instead of interior walls. The exterior was unabashedly contemporary and did away with steep roofs, dormer windows, and porches.

The casual, spread-out ranch house (it was also known as the California ranch and the rambler) had enormous appeal and by 1950 accounted for nine out of 10 new houses.In hindsight, the rancher’s most striking feature was its diffidence. Low to the ground, it lacked traditional domestic status symbols, such as porticoes and tall gables. Its one extravagance was a large window facing the street—the picture window. As far as I have been able to determine, picture windows made their first appearance in Levittown, Pa. Alfred Levitt had already used floor-to-ceiling walls of Thermopane glass to open the house up to the backyard, but in the “Levittowner” he put an 8-foot-square * kitchen window facing the street. The common criticism that picture windows offer neither privacy nor a view misses the point. Picture windows are meant not for looking out but for looking in. They are displays—for Christmas ornaments, Halloween skeletons, and Thanksgiving Day wreaths. Opening the house up to the street—something that neither Wright nor modernist architects did—is a curiously disarming gesture. “Feel free to look in,” the picture window announces, “we have nothing to hide.”

Another design innovation of the ‘50s was the split-level house, which mated a ranch house with a two-story section, half a flight up and half a flight down. The split-level originated in California as a way of building on slopes, but it also provided useful solutions to two new domestic problems. One was where to put the television. The first televisions, which were designed like pieces of furniture, stood in the living room. As television watching became increasingly popular—especially among children—to preserve the living room for formal entertaining, the set was moved to its own special room: the recreation, or rec, room. The rec room was usually in the basement, but in a split level, this was only half a flight down, less drastically separated from the rest of the house. The other problem was where to put the car. Using the lower floor of a split level as a garage was an inexpensive alternative to the attached carport. By 1970 four out of five new houses were either ranchers or splits.

When I was growing up in Canada, my friends and I lived in new, ranch-type houses. Ours was not large. It contained a living room, an eat-in kitchen, three bedrooms, and a bathroom, all in less than 800 square feet. This would have been a tight fit for the four of us, except that we also had a large basement, which accommodated my train set, my parents’ collection of National Geographics, and a laundry area. There was also a rec room—my first design project. I nailed sheets of textured plywood to the walls, laid vinyl tile on the floor, and stapled perforated acoustical tile to the ceiling. I built a small bar in the corner and a Mondrian-esque room divider. I was 18, and I thought it the height of chic.

Housing has always been governed by a simple rule: As people become richer, they spend more money on their homes. Historically, this has meant using more expensive materials—varnished mahogany instead of painted pine, marble instead of brick—updating the décor, or adding technological refinements, such as gas lighting, indoor plumbing, or central heating. In addition, spending more money has usually meant making the home bigger. This happened in Renaissance Italy, 17th-century Holland, and 19th-century England. It also happened in the prosperous second half of the 20th century in the United States. Some statistics: In 1950 the median size of a new house was 800 square feet; by 1970 this had increased to 1,300; 20 years later it had grown to 1,900; and in 2003 it stood at 2,100. More than one-third of new houses built today exceed 2,400 square feet.

My childhood bedroom was about 8 feet by 10 feet, just big enough for a bed, a desk, and a chest of drawers. My younger brother’s room was smaller. The most generous space in our home was the garden, where my father grew gooseberries and crab apples. Our 60-feet-by-100-foot lot was small for the time. My best friend, whose father was a local grandee—the manager of Woolworth’s—lived nearby in a larger ranch house, which occupied a much bigger lot. That’s the thing with ranchers; as they get larger, they stretch out and need more space. A 2,000-square-foot ranch house with a two-car garage, for example, needs a lot at least 120 feet wide.

By the 1980s, buyers wanted larger houses, but California’s widely copied Proposition 13, which required developers to pay for their own infrastructure, had made land much more expensive. The builders’ solution was to return to two-story houses, which don’t need such large lots, and which are up to 30 percent cheaper to build because of smaller foundations and roofs. Today, more than half of all new houses have two stories.But that is only one change. No one builds ranch houses or split-levels anymore. Picture windows and carports are gone, and so are breezeways. Home buyers’ affair with modernistic design is over. When I leaf through a directory of one big home builder’s current models, I notice that all the houses have similar architectural features: pitched roofs, gables, dormers, bay windows, keystones, shutters, porches, and paneled doors. Americans’ fondness for such conventional imagery is characterized by some critics as nostalgic and retrograde. In fact, it represents a long domestic tradition that extends to colonial New England and Virginia. In that history, the brief fling with the rancher was an anomaly.

* Correction, April 19, 2007: Due to a copy-editing error, the Levittowner’s 8-foot-square kitchen window was incorrectly described as an 8-square-foot kitchen window. Click here to return to the corrected sentence.