L.A.'S ARCHITECTURAL HERITAGE | FOURTH IN A SERIES
The once and future ranch
The postwar icon is wooing a new generation. Yes, your folks' house is cool again.
Cliff Mays 1963 Eshelman-Bemis home in Rolling Hills. (Anne Cusack / LAT)
If a style of residential architecture can symbolize an era, the ranch house became the iconic American home in the period from roughly 1945 to 1970: By some estimates, 70% of American homes built in the 25 years after World War II were ranch houses.
The Chicago area, where the rancher evolved out of Frank Lloyd Wright's Prairie house, and the desert Southwest, where the working ranch provided inspiration, were important centers.
But the ranch house had a special role in Los Angeles, and the fruit orchards and bean fields that fell away from the city soon became ideal laboratories for the style — making L.A. the unofficial capital of what would be called the "California-style house."
Postwar Los Angeles, with its forward-looking community of architects and developers, took the ranch to its apogee, and Hollywood, with its powerful image-making ability, helped spread the word. Now, because of its deep-rooted connections, the Los Angeles area is reasserting its role in the style's revival.
To author and suburban bard D.J. Waldie, the ranch house is downright fashionable. "It's the late 20th century version of the Arts and Crafts bungalow," he says. "Some of that fussiness is being transferred to ranch house culture."
Alongside the fussiness is a growing preservationist movement. "The ranch house is the next emerging residential preservation issue," says Ken Bernstein, director of preservation issues for the Los Angeles Conservancy. "And while some have come to accept the high-end Modernist home, the ranch house is only now gaining recognition and acceptance." In 2002, the conservancy fought to save a Cliff May Experimental House in Sullivan Canyon. And the chair of the group's Modern Committee, Adriene Biondo, lives in a Joseph Eichler ranch house.
There is "typically a 40- or 50-year lag between the time when something is popular and when it's rediscovered," says Kenneth Breisch, professor of architecture and preservation at USC.
"My students, who look back nostalgically at the ranch house because it's from another era, are doing projects and research papers on the ranch house," he says.
Jim Brown, a South Pasadena photographer, and his wife, Michelle Gringeri-Brown, both grew up in postwar ranches in the Southland in the '50s and '60s. "And like everyone else, we took them for granted," Brown says. "We moved on and embraced bungalows. Ranches were so ubiquitous. And because it was the house that a lot of boomers had grown up in, it was my folks' house. And what could be more uncool than your folks' house?"
But the experience of the Browns, who came to value the ranch's low-key beauty and its indoor-outdoor living, shows the style's reformation. Brown and Gringeri-Brown, a former editor of American Bungalow, now publish the year-old magazine Atomic Ranch, which aims to do for the rancher what Taschen Books' 2002 release did for the Case Study Houses: frame the style in a hip, retro package, nearly fetishizing its sharp angles, post and beam ceilings, and sliding glass doors.
"The people we photograph are in their 30s and 40s," says Brown, a good-humored and enthusiastic guy in his early 50s. "They have hip, cool professions; they're animators or musicians." He calls the process in which people reject their parent's era but embrace the previous generation "the grandma effect."
THE ranch house, because of the era in which it developed, had its meaning made largely by the mass media. It was one of the first all-American architectural forms and, arguably, the first form that developed alongside its own mirror image.
The ranch's origins are tied up with larger trends in popular culture. Around 1930 — about the same time early ranch houses went up in the Palos Verdes Peninsula and Palm Springs — the country became increasingly conscious of its history and vernacular traditions, especially its Western heritage. Movies by John Ford showed lanky cowboys retiring to their ranches after a day riding the range, Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys had begun to record, and even composer Aaron Copland became fascinated with Billie the Kid.
Some scholars argue that the survival of the ranch house depended on elements of Western pop culture such as dude ranches, Western swing music and Hollywood films. "If it had not been for their new role, and their glorification in the movies, ranches might well have disappeared from the landscape," architectural historian Alan Hess writes in his book "Rancho Deluxe," which looks at the ranch-style homes of Buffalo Bill, Will Rogers and Gene Autry, whose publicity helped whet the nation's appetite.
"Had that technology not existed, the ranch house would most probably have gone the way of log cabins and sod huts," Hess writes, "a colorful historical memory but no longer a living architecture."
The technology of film, and the nation's patriotic tone during and after the war, filled the humble tract ranch with positive connotations. "In the '50s, say 'ranch' and it would bring up all these associations," says Hess. "Self-reliance, owning your own property, living in nature. And the people who lived in them were often pioneers in the development of the suburbs. Good architects caught all that and translated it into design."
But even as they were being built all over the country, and appearing in countless publicity photographs and magazine covers shot in Southern California, ranchers were not as visible on television as the multi-story colonials that housed many sitcom families. Mr. Ed and his owner lived in one, with stable attached, as did the family in "Green Acres" and other rural shows; Lucy and Ricky Ricardo briefly lived in a ranch house during a sojourn to the wilds of Connecticut. In the '60s, Dick Van Dyke's TV-writer character lived in a New Rochelle, N.Y., rancher, with his wife, played by Mary Tyler Moore (who currently lives in a San Fernando Valley rancher). But they were hardly ubiquitous.
"On TV, most of the houses went up, just as they did in reality," says Mark Bennett, an L.A. artist whose work concerns the floor plans of sitcom houses. He laments that the sitcom that celebrated 1950s Southern California — "Happy Days" — wasn't set in a ranch house. "There were several great shows that had incredible ranch houses, but they didn't last more than a season or so," he says.