Ranch-Style Living

Made in America, Shared Stories, Traditions
on September 2, 2007

Rhonda Stangrover, 44, has fond memories of growing up in a 1956 ranch-style house on a large corner lot in Alamo, Calif. (pop. 15,626). As a kid, it always was comforting to know that her mom was within earshot.

“Since we were all on one floor, I could be on one end of the house and holler, ‘Mom!’ and she could hear me,” Stangrover says. “There’s a secure feeling being in a house you love. I came home from the hospital to this house, and didn’t leave it until I went to college.”

After college, Stangrover bought a multistory condo and went on to marry and start a family. In 2000, she returned to her childhood home—this time, as the new owner. Her father had died and the three-bedroom house was too much for her mother to care for. Stangrover and her husband, Mick, 45, purchased the house from her mother, who moved into a small townhouse in a nearby community.

“It was like stepping back in time,” Rhonda says of moving into the home of her childhood. “Until we were able to re-paint and re-carpet the master bedroom, we were literally sleeping in ‘my parents’ bedroom.’ We had to make it our own.” To do so, the couple added 600 square feet to the house, expanding the old galley kitchen and turning the formal living room into a family media room.

Rhonda says living in the ranch house has brought her family, which includes sons Jarrod, 9, and Kyle, 7, closer together. “Someone can sit down on the couch in the family room and talk to me, even if I’m in the kitchen,” she says, referring to the home’s open floor plan. “Nothing is segmented or isolated.”

Houses for a generation
The open floor plan that Stangrover loves is a hallmark of the ranch house, an architectural style that dominated the American residential landscape from the 1940s to the 1970s. Architect Cliff May is credited with building the first ranch house in San Diego in 1932, but the style, which called to mind the romance of the American West, spread quickly around the country to accommodate soldiers returning stateside after World War II.

Also called the American Ranch, Western Ranch or California Rambler, ranch-style houses are distinguished primarily by several characteristics: a horizontal, rambling layout built in a single story with a low-pitched gable roof; a rectangular, L-shaped or U-shaped design that incorporates a large back yard and large windows; sliding glass doors leading out to a patio; and an attached garage.

By some estimates, 70 percent of the homes built from 1945 to 1970 were ranches. But by the 1970s the style declined in popularity, as rising land prices caused Americans to build up rather than out. Today, however, the ranch is regaining its popularity, particularly among baby boomers, whose era they dominated. For some, like Rhonda Stangrover, the ranch is a reminder of their childhood, a nostalgic trip to the comforts of home. For others, the ranch has a different allure: Single-story living is easy on aging knees and backs.

First-floor people
When Pamela Yaeger, 44, and her husband, John, 52, moved from upstate New York to the Long Island, N.Y., area in 2000, one of the key requirements for their new house was that most of the living space had to be on one story.

“We’re definitely first-floor people,” Pamela says. “My husband was adamant when we were looking that we had to have a single floor—both for his knees and mine. The condo we left had three floors; doing laundry was a nightmare.”

The Yaegers found a 1949 ranch house in Levittown, N.Y., which is believed to be America’s first planned suburban community. The town derived its named from home developers Levitt and Sons, who met the needs of the post-World War II housing boom by developing a fast assembly-line system for home construction. Between 1947 and 1962, the company built nearly 60,000 homes in suburbs up and down the East Coast; most of them were ranches, the easiest and most economical style to build.

The term Levitt ranch didn’t mean much to the Yaegers when they were house-hunting, but as they’ve remodeled their house, they’ve learned more about the history and legacy.

Although the first homes built in Levittown were Cape Cods, by 1949, the ranch craze was sweeping the nation, so Levitt and Sons introduced The Rancher. Houses sold for less than $10,000, and included all appliances and a double fireplace that faced the living room on one side and the kitchen on the other.

“We got rid of the fireplace, which allowed us to open up the area to a 19-by-20-(foot) great room instead of the typical Levitt 12-by-12-(foot) living room,” Pamela says.

After re-sheetrocking the walls and installing new tile, carpet and flooring, the house “doesn’t feel like a Levitt on the inside,” she says. Yaeger notes that of the 40 houses on her street, it’s nearly impossible to tell that any of them are the standard Levitt ranch, because many residents have expanded or remodeled.

“When we first bought the place, I didn’t think much of it,” she says, “but after seven years of remodeling, it’s grown on me.”

Aesthetics and practicality
Jim Brown, publisher of Atomic Ranch, a quarterly magazine devoted to ranch houses, says that ranches offer a historical context and identity that people can appreciate and be proud of. It’s a belief, however, that he didn’t always hold. Brown, 56, and his wife, Michelle, 55, each grew up in ranch houses, but as adults couldn’t imagine living in one. After all, the ranch was the style their parents embraced.

Then five years ago, Jim, a photographer, began noticing ranch-style homes more and more. “I wondered what could be interesting about a ranch and decided to check them out,” he says. He discovered the advantages to ranch living, and set out to share that perspective through a new magazine, which launched in 2004.

The next logical step for the Browns was to find their own ranch. They sold their 1920s Craftsman bungalow in California and purchased a 1952 ranch in Portland, Ore.

“As a photographer, I have a lot of equipment; it wasn’t easy lugging it up and down three stories in the bungalow. It’s so much easier in this house,” he says. Brown also loves the spacious windows. “It’s better for our psychological outlook; seeing all the trees bloom here in spring and summer has been a revelation.”

According to Brown, moving “back to the ranch” is both an aesthetic and practical decision for baby boomers.

“For many, the kids have grown up; they can downsize to a ranch. Also, they want to be able to take it easy and enjoy the yard,” he says. “But more than that, we want to be as vital as we can for as long as we can, and one way to do that is to eliminate risks for stupid mistakes, like falling down the stairs.”

The “perfect house”
Real estate agent Leigh Brown, of Charlotte, N.C., says she can put a ranch house on the market on a Friday and have an offer by Monday. The houses are particularly popular with a demographic she calls “half backs”—retirees from the Northeast who initially retired to Florida, then came “halfway back” to North or South Carolina.

“They’re tired of two stories,” Brown says. “They’re looking for their last house.”

In February, Brown helped relocate Yvonne Southwick, 62, and her husband, Al, 60, from a two-story, three-bedroom home in Mathews, N.C., to a newly built brick ranch in Harrisburg, N.C. “Everything is just better here,” Yvonne says. “There’s less maintenance, the heating and cooling is more economical, it’s quieter with no one walking overhead, and there’s no wasted space. I’ve spent my whole life dreaming of a place like this.”