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AN AMERICAN VERNACULAR Cliff May’s Ranch Homes

AN AMERICAN VERNACULAR Cliff May’s Ranch Homes

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Published by Ed Chops FitzGerald
The ranch house can be viewed as an ethnographic artifact of American society, demonstrating the values, ideals, attitudes, and living patterns of a society every bit as much as a pot sherd provides information to an archeologist or a bone fragment to a paleontologist. As a style born of the Western United States, the ranch house offers a uniquely American form of vernacular . This essay briefly explores romantic perceptions of the Western US and changes in the suburban landscape as represented in the Ranch Style.
The ranch house can be viewed as an ethnographic artifact of American society, demonstrating the values, ideals, attitudes, and living patterns of a society every bit as much as a pot sherd provides information to an archeologist or a bone fragment to a paleontologist. As a style born of the Western United States, the ranch house offers a uniquely American form of vernacular . This essay briefly explores romantic perceptions of the Western US and changes in the suburban landscape as represented in the Ranch Style.

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Published by: Ed Chops FitzGerald on Jun 07, 2009
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05/11/2014

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A
 N
A
MERICAN
V
ERNACULAR 
Cliff May’s Ranch Homes
Ed FitzGeraldARCH 391Prof. Woods05/03/07
 
Vernacular architecture buffs often argue that we can learn the most about life in a particular society not by scrutinizing the monumental works of its great architects butrather, by examining those buildings common to ordinary men. In this vein, a study of theAmerica Ranch Style home, a form of suburban housing so popular in the post-WorldWar II period as to be considered banal, can elucidate the cultural intricacies and fashionsof its time. The ranch house can be viewed as an ethnographic artifact of Americansociety, demonstrating the values, ideals, attitudes, and living patterns of a society every bit as much as a pot sherd provides information to an archeologist or 
a
 bone fragmen
t
to a paleontologist. As a style born of the Western United States, the ranch house offers auniquely American form of vernacular 
1
.
 
This essay will briefly explore romantic perceptions of the Western US and changes in the suburban landscape as represented inthe Ranch Style.In their 
 Field Guide to American Houses
, Virginia and Lee McAlester have notedthat the popularity of “rambling Ranch houses” during the 1950s and the 60s was made possible by the country’s growing dependence on the automobile.
2
Streetcar suburbs of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries still used relatively compact house formson small lots because people walked to nearby street car lines. As the automobilereplaced street cars and buses as the principle means of personal transportation in thedecades following World War II, compact houses could be replaced by sprawling designson much larger lots. Never before had it been possible to be so lavish with land. The
1
The term “vernacular” has used to connote a plethora of different meanings within the discourse of architectural forms. I use the term here to refer to architecture that has, through time, been adopted andrefined into culturally accepted solutions, and has, through repetition, become “traditional”. I find that thisdefinition is the most widely applicable to the diverse spectrum of buildings (from log cabins to kivas to prairie farm houses and igloos) that are generally viewed as vernacular.
2
Virginia and Lee McAlester,
 Field Guide to American Houses
(New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 991), 479.
2
 
rambling form of the ranch house emphasizes this by maximizing façade width, which isfurther increased by the inclusion of a built-in garage. (Fig. 1)The twentieth century suburban ranch house has its roots in the Spanish colonialarchitecture of the seventeenth through nineteenth centuries. Like their modernderivative, these buildings seldom rose more than a single story from the ground. Thiswas in large part due to the limitations of the native material, adobe brick, whichnecessitated thicker walls as building grew in height. (Fig. 2) The early Spanish settlersusually kept their designs simple to meet the barest needs of their inhabitants. Walls were built low and thick to support the roof and insulated the interior from the Southwesternclimate. Roofs were low and simple as there was no snow to necessitate a high pitch. Theeaves projected in a wide overhang to shade the windows from the sun and create a protected loggia. Buildings often had interior courtyards which were surrounded by an L-or U-shaped floor plan. These squat, thick walled, rustic working Spanish
ranchos
werecommon throughout the Southwestern states. With an amazing range of variations, themodern Ranch Style remains surprisingly true to its antecedent (save the use of adobe).The contemporary Ranch Style originated in 1930s California amidst a designatmosphere that embraced the International Style championed by European architects likeLe Corbusier, Walter Gropius, Mies van der Rohe, and Richard Neutra. (Fig. 3) Byabandoning historical precedents, stripping away all superfluous ornament, and stockingkitchens with the latest in gadgetry, these architects sought to bring an intellectualsophistication and machine-like efficiency to the home. Yet while the International styleoffered functionality, its glass space frame boxes, flat roofs and rectilinear forms wereforeign additions to the American suburban landscape. Opponents of the style argued that3

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