This presentation is part of the Mid-Century Modern Structures: Materials and Preservation Symposium, April 14-16, 2015, St. Louis, Missouri.
Identifying the 1950s Ranch House Interior as a Cultural Resource
by Laura Kviklys
Laura Kviklys: Thanks. Awesome. I hope you guys are doing well. As a disclaimer before I actually start. I want to say thank you so much for having me here and really putting together this whole conference. It’s really awesome and rare to be in a room with like-minded people. This is my first time ever to St. Louis. I had such a good time exploring the city and seeing all the mid-century architecture that there is here. Okay, so, all that aside. Hi. I’m here and Mary has already introduced me to present on the 1950’s ranch house interior as a cultural resource. We’re looking at identifying the interior components and kind of evaluating it as a component of a cultural resource.
The post-World War II period in the United States saw an economic prosperity and population explosion unequal to any period in American history. The Great Depression of the 1930’s and wartime rationing in the 1940’s led to a housing vacuum in the country. Returning war veterans and war weary Americans wanted a space of their own to start their families and live their American dream. What were they building in this period? It was the ranch house. The ranch house is the most prolific residential housing type in the United States. There were 1.65 million housing starts in 1955 and 1.5 million for the remainder of the decade. Nine out of ten of these were ranch houses. So what are we talking about when we say “Ranch House?” There is no universal definition of this house type, but you definitely know one when you see one. It’s one story, long and rambling, and usually has overhanging eaves of variation in fenestration and when possible, there is a use of natural materials. The ranch house type can incorporate many architectural styles on the exterior, but the overall footprint is fairly universal.
The preservation community has been addressing and evaluating the ranch house since the early 2000’s. Nationwide, many districts have been listed in the National Register for Historic Places for the ranch house’s contribution to architecture, planning and social development. Many local communities and state and federal agencies have conducted studies to identify exterior features of the ranch house and its historic context. In 2010, the state of Georgia, did guidelines for evaluation of the ranch house in Georgia. This publication outlined the defining characteristics of the type in Georgia, and put the ranch house in a national and state context. More recently, the National Cooperative Highway Research Program, released Report 723, A Model for Identifying and Evaluating the Historic Significance of Post World War II Housing, which focuses greatly on the ranch house.
These studies both identified characteristics and the significance of the ranch house exterior, but provide little insight into the interior plan or use of interior spaces. Which then begs the question, what does the interior actually look like? What are it’s defining characteristics and what is the context for the interior? Why does it actually look the way that it does and are there any preservation challenges that could be associated with it?
In order to address these questions, I examined published ranch house floor plans from the 1950’s. Publishing houses printed books and magazines which served as guidance for prospective home buyers. These plan books offered a statistical representation of common elements within the ranch house design, and social themes expressed through an idealized residential floor plan. Floor plans from nineteen historic plan books were used to obtain data on interior arrangements and dimensions, and included graphics that were used to identify commonalities and plan interiors, through the decade. These plan books were from large builders, individual architects and publishing houses nationwide, and resulted in a sample size of 467 individually proposed ranch house interiors. This data was supplemented with 1950’s women’s magazines and etiquette books in order to gauge perception about living in a ranch house and any implicit information, like interior materials or livability tips. Once an idealized floor plan from the 1950’s and a standard of living emerged from this data, I juxtaposed this information with contemporary renovation guides and home magazines. By identifying what 21st century interior designers and home owners considered desirable, it is easy to identify which characteristics and historic fabric are most threatened within the home.
Now that we’ve gotten all the background out of the way, let’s really get into the meat of things. What does this interior actually look like? What are we talking about when we say “1950’s ranch house interior?” What are the individual components?
So regardless of exterior style or form, ranch house interiors exhibit a remarkable number of similarities in spacial configuration. The most crucial and widespread of these commonalities was a zoned living space. All of the 467 sampled floor plans exhibited some form of spatial zoning. Zoning within the ranch house, grouped rooms based on function, whether public or private.
Public spaces centered around work, entertaining or dining, and included rooms like the kitchen, living room. Whereas private spaces would be bedrooms and bathrooms and a place where people could really focus on personal development and privacy, which is what you want in the bathroom. I’m throwing that out there.
Two different floor plan types emerged in this period. There was the open floor plan and a closed floor plan. Open floor plans are characterized by large communal areas, with few walls and partitions. Free flowing, unobstructed traffic patterns between living areas, kitchen and dining areas are significant indicators of this plan type. The closed floor plan is just that. Each room is singularly defined and separated by fixed wall partitions, and provide a greater sense of enclosure. This plan maintains a more rigid traffic pattern than the open plan, but still utilizes zoning.
Overwhelmingly, the open floor plan was the most represented in the sample, with 68 percent using this form. This shows an acceptance of this interior style and the adaptability of this plan allowed for growing families. Flexibility in room function was a necessity in a ranch house, because of size limitations. The average interior grew from 1114 square feet in 1950 to 1272 square feet in 1955, reaching 1356 by 1959.
Let’s walk into our ranch house, shall we? There are four distinct designs that were presented in published floor plans in order to get actually into the house. A foyer, a hallway, a vestibule or direct entry into the living room. Two entries were common in the ranch house interior design. A vestibule, which is 35 percent of all surveyed plans, and walking directly into the living room, which is 34 percent.
Now, a study conducted in 1956 by the department of housing and urban development, found that female homeowners wanted a screened off area where guests can remove wet clothing and dripping umbrellas before entering the house. A vestibule entrance was the result of a functional necessity both for housekeeping and for living. I guess if you had a living room entry, you just had sopping wet floors when it was raining.
These living rooms. These are the most publicly used space in the home and they embody a number of shapes and sizes as well as flexibility in use. No single example can define the standard living room. Its purpose was to be kind of a catch all for family activities. It was an area that could incorporate all functions of daily life. An area for leisure, for personal development and for work activities. It really did serve as the heart of the house.
Now because of the importance of the living room, in terms of successful livability within the ranch house, sixteen possible locations for the living room were documented in the sample. The location of the living room was crucial to an efficient traffic pattern in the home and especially when paired with a dining room, constituted a large portion of the overall plan.
The widespread use of the open floor plan in the 1950’s ranch house decreased the number of formal dining rooms over the decade. In lieu of a set aside or formal space, a dining area was often integrated into the living room. The integration of these two spaces resulted in an L shape and occasionally, iron trellises or half walls were used to suggest a separation between these spaces without fully closing them off. This new living/dining area was not only cheaper for consumers, but reflected the informality associated with 1950’s residential living.
Now this is what I consider the most important room in the house, but maybe they didn’t- the kitchen. This was another space that received a lot of scrutiny from potential home buyers. Historically known as utilitarian space, the kitchen was integrated into the overall living space as a response to the trend. Kitchens became less work focused and viewed more as a place for family interactions. Several kitchen arrangements were available in the 1950’s to meet the needs of the individual home owner.
There was a U shaped kitchen. There was a U shaped kitchen that had counters on three sides, the range, refrigerator and sink, and kind of a triangle work pattern. An L shaped kitchen, which would have the range and refrigerator on one side, and the sink on kind of the short arm. A corridor kitchen with two counter spaces and a door on either end and an entry point on either end, and a Pullman kitchen, where the sink, range and refrigerator would all be located on one wall. Did that work? Okay.
Because of the variation in possible design and the focus on informal living, floor plans often incorporated some dining area within the kitchen themselves. Now the names of these spaces vary, but included breakfast nook, dining alcove or snack space and were present in 59 percent of sample floor plans. Despite the trend towards more informal living and dining during this period, utilitarian spaces were still a necessity. These included areas for laundry preparation, mechanical equipment or other basic household activities. Often these spaces were located adjacent to the kitchen, or when applicable, in the basement.
Private spaces. Zoned away from public living quarters, the bedroom was a space for individual expression, development and respite. The most common number of bedrooms per house was three with one larger than the others. By mid-decade, this was referred to as the master bedroom. The versatility of the ranch house plan was showcased through the bedrooms. Often two were labeled expressly as “bedroom,” and the third labeled, as den or bedroom. Now regardless of how they were labelled, these rooms served as a place of privacy and individual reflection. 61 percent of plans had one full bath with toilet, tub and sink at a minimum and as houses became larger half baths and second full baths were incorporated by the end of the decade.
The ranch house interior is not just about layout or spatial configuration. When imagining a 1950’s interior, images of bold color choices and space age-y materials come to mind. Now this housing type really came of age in a period when the building industry was experimenting with new materials that rose out of the war effort, including plastics and aluminums. Decorative laminates like Formica, melamine coated paper like arborite and vinyl products were produced in bright colors and intricate patterns. Wood paneling was a popular choice and replaced traditional painted walls and wall to wall carpeting was available in countless patterns and colors.
Because the options were so variable to home buyers, interior details were really left to the discretion of the individual homeowner, and you’ve got to believe me on this one, they were very very colorful. Bubblegum pink, star burst yellow, I mean, it’s all in there.
That’s something else. Not only is it fancy wallpaper and bright colors, something that I’ve been talking to people on the street about ranch house interiors is you know, “Oh tell me what you think about ranch house interiors?” Oddly shaped rooms and no storage space. That’s absolutely correct. No storage space.
Something that developers and builders would do would be to incorporate the use of built ins. Built ins could vary from book cases to vanities to china hutches. Try to maximize the not compact, but the humble size of the fifties ranch house.
The final characteristic of the interior space is their relation to the exterior. Fenestration is a notable defining feature of the ranch house in general, and played a crucial role in establishing interior spaces. Large picture windows were a popular feature which allowed sunlight to permeate living spaces. These, paired with full length sliding glass doors, allowed interior and exterior spaces to meld, making the humble ranch appear much, much bigger.
So as an overview and a generalization, the typical 1950’s ranch house interior had three bedrooms and one bath, an open floor plan and eat in kitchen area, a large living room with an integrated dining room and large amounts of glass which brought the outdoors into the interior. That’s all well and good.
We’ve identified the interior characteristics, but what does this mean in terms of post war residential living? In comparison to previous forms of American housing, qualities expressed by the ranch house interior became associated with efficient, sensible and modern living. The casualness expressed through ranch house floor plan can be seen in the omission of formal spaces. This idea and the integration of exterior spaces allowed for a more informal approach for activities in the home and during entertaining. The emphasis on the relaxed appeal of the ranch house in publication and plan books was a reaction against the rigidity of previous generations and an embrace of the perceived informality of post war America. The ranch house was designed to facilitate a more casual lifestyle.
Now, in an era that valued conformity on a social and political level, the ranch house allowed consumers to express their individuality through plan selection, material use and decoration. Ranch houses were often individualized by particular home buyers and adjusted to meet home owner specifications. Variations in interior and exterior elements meant that a housing form that was mass produced could be altered to create a unique structure for each buyer.
A component of its individuality was the fact that ranch houses emphasized a family centric space- one which was malleable to meet the needs of specific families. Single story living and an open floor plan resulted in less separation of family members and more interactions overall. A common theme in the 1950’s periodical was the role of women in the home, often depicted as wife and mother. New interior materials meant quicker completion of mundane household chores and new appliances like washers and dryers meant mothers could spend more time with their family. The expectation that mothers be omnipresent within the house was promoted by the open floor plan and integration of the kitchen into the bigger living area. With all public rooms seen easily from the kitchen and large expanses of glass to the exterior, supervising the children was possible while completing household tasks. The informality and casualness expressed in the interior allowed children more freedom in the entirety of the house. Since work and play took place in the same area, spaces were no longer secluded for adults and the most important spaces belonged to all.
Now, the open floor plan in this family focused lifestyle did not necessarily mean a constant barrage of 1950’s together time. The 1950’s housing plan, it did seek to promote family togetherness, but really understood the need for private time. Zoning was really the solution for this and provided the space for adults to retire from the children.
Okay, so, the central role of children and their changing needs over time prompted a need for flexibility within the ranch house. Designers and homeowners felt that the house should grow and be built in stages as needs and means of the family grew. This could be seen in multiple additions and alterations that occurred over subsequent decades. Although many builders touted the benefits of additions as the family grew, they rarely if ever, talked about disrupting the original floor plan or the layout of the house.
Which then leads us to preservation challenges. There are two overarching preservation challenges that the ranch house interior faces. Those associated with recent past resources, and the preservation of privately owned interiors. Now the ranch house interior faces a lack of appreciation as a potential significant cultural resource. This stems from the fact that these resources were built little over fifty years ago and many in the public have a hard time viewing them as historic. These interiors are seen as dated and outmoded which increases the public’s marginalization of them.
The fact that these houses are everywhere, may lead some to believe that they will exist in perpetuity, which is absolutely not the case. There are estimates that approximately 75,000 ranch houses are demolished or raised each year to make room for larger McMansion type homes.
Design books and renovation guides also pose a threat to these interiors. They show an inconsideration to the interior and a general unknowing about it’s significance and to the overall integrity of the ranch house. Articles advocate complete demolition of the interior spaces because demolition can work as a great reorganizing tool.
Another challenge associated is the loss of historic material. The large scale industrial manufacturing processes and equipment used to make these post war materials are now obsolete or nonexistent, making mid-century materials virtually impossible to replicate. As they are difficult and expensive to reproduce and stylistics tastes change, some current ranch house owners opt to replace historic interior elements with modern materials. The challenge that material loss in the 1950’s ranch house is particularly alarming because these materials cannot be recreated once removed. This and these materials may have the potential to be hazardous. Asbestos is a miracle, right? A full analysis of material composition is needed to evaluate the best method of removal or preservation.
The best method preservationists can employ for the protection of these components is really a massive public awareness building. Since there is little recourse for interior preservation in general, allowing the public to make informed decisions about their interiors can insure the longevity of these components. Presenting accurate information and compatible alterations in a comprehensible manner on a large scale, either the Internet or mass communications or something, may introduce home owners to interior changes, perhaps not before recognized. Educating the public to the significance of the ranch interior spaces may make them relatable to the individual homeowner and perhaps prevent irreversible damage or alteration.
The home as an entity, really is meant to adapt over time to suit the needs of the inhabitant. Changes in familial demands and standards of living alter the overall perception of an acceptable home interior. This does not mean that existing interiors should be discounted or as insignificant or destroyed, but rather they should be taken into careful consideration when planning for interior alterations and sympathetically modified. The interior of the home really must be malleable to meet the need of the particular home owner.
The Ranch House is among the most prolific residential housing types in the United States; it was the home of the American twentieth century nuclear family. The building boom associated with the post-war World War II period produced a record number of housing starts: over 1.65 million in 1955, and approximately 1.5 million for the remainder of the decade. The Ranch House peaked in popularity in the 1950s, when it accounted for nine out of ten new houses built.
As millions of Ranch Houses are meeting and surpassing the National Register for Historic Places’ fifty year threshold for listing, this house type is deservedly receiving recognition from the preservation community as a resource worthy of preservation. Collections of Ranch Houses have been listed as districts in the National Register, and many are being recognized and protected as local historic districts. Ranch Houses are significant examples of community planning and development, and post-war social history. Like residential house types and styles that preceded it, the Ranch House is experiencing a period of adjustment while the public at large learns to appreciate its features, details and design attributes.
The Ranch House as a residential type rather than an academic style, has been evaluated by architectural historians and historic preservationists, but few studies fully address interior spaces and materials. The evaluation of a building’s interior as a primary source for information about the post-World War II era can provide a research framework for more detailed documentation of American suburbanization and neighborhood growth in the mid-twentieth century.
The Ranch House is undergoing a resurgence in popularity as many first time homebuyers and retiring baby boomers seek affordable, manageable and flexible housing. The major selling points of the mid-century Ranch House were its emphasis on informality, flexibility in spatial use, and the opportunity for personal expression and individuality through interior plans and materials. Professional preservationists often hear this question from persons who have built or lived in Ranch Houses, “How is it historic if it’s from my lifetime?” Since many of these properties are now being listed in the National Register and will be considered as ‘contributing’ in National Register districts (formerly considered ‘non-contributing’ intrusions in many districts), a new generation of decision matters and homeowners will need assistance in Ranch House rehabilitation. This is problematic from an exterior perspective due to functional changes that result in visual character defining changes. When Ranch House interiors are rehabilitated, additional dilemmas arise. Many finishes, materials, and prefabricated elements are simply unavailable today, making their replacement and repair difficult.
This presentation will identify the key defining elements of the Ranch house interior: the context and significance of the interior as a component of a newly Register eligible resource; its role in the change of desirable living standards in the 1950s and 1960s; and the challenges associated with its preservation.
Laura Kviklys is the Program Coordinator for the FindIt survey program located in the Center for Community Design and Preservation (CCDP) at the University of Georgia’s College of Environment and Design (CED). Findit is a statewide cultural resource survey program in partnership with the Georgia Transmission Corporation (GTC), the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, Historic Preservation Division (GA SHPO), and the University of Georgia (UGA). The Findit program has identified and added over 14,000 resources to Georgia’s Natural, Archaeological, and Historic GIS (GNARHGIS) in 10 years. This program trains and employs Masters of Historic Preservation (MHP) and Masters of Landscape Architecture (MLA) graduate students to conduct cultural resource inventories and analysis. Additionally, the Program Coordinator lectures in the University of Georgia’s Historic Preservation, Landscape Architecture, and Environmental Planning graduate programs.
Laura is a former board member of the Athens Clarke Heritage Foundation, and continues to participate in preservation activities throughout Georgia. Ms. Kviklys holds a B.A. in History from Hollins University, and an M.H.P. in Historic Preservation from the University of Georgia.