ArtsATL > Art+Design > Review: Object of desire, nostalgia and disdain, ranch house gets its due in Dekalb History Center exhibit

Review: Object of desire, nostalgia and disdain, ranch house gets its due in Dekalb History Center exhibit

Dekalb County was the epicenter of the ranch home in Georgia. (Photo by Cindy Brown)
Dekalb County was the epicenter of the ranch home in Georgia. (Photo by Cindy M. Brown)

Any building more than 50 years old is eligible for notice by the National Register of Historic Places. That would include the ranch house.

Though often maligned, this building type was the most popular residential architecture of the 20th century. Between 1945 and 1970, 70 percent of homes built in America were ranches. Dekalb County, the fastest-growing county in Georgia during that period, was the epicenter of the ranch house boom in the state.

The Mid-Century Ranch Home: Hip and Historic, an entertaining exhibit at the Dekalb History Center Museum through Labor Day, celebrates that popular post–World War II phenomenon with photos, floor plans, period accessories (Starburst by Franciscan dish ware) and even life-size mockups of a typical bathroom and family den, complete with knotty pine paneling and the ubiquitous television set.

A typically furnished ranch home. (Photo by
A typically furnished den. (Photo by Jeff Stafford)

So much of the nostalgia attached to ranch houses derives from the attendant fixtures and furnishings: Formica countertops in shades of turquoise or sherwood green, built-in stoves and kitchen appliances from Frigidaire. The exhibition’s reproduction of a bathroom represents the shift from an all-white color scheme to pink, possibly influenced by the fact that pink was First Lady Mamie Eisenhower’s favorite color. Although the exhibit plays up the nostalgia — even piping in period music by the likes of Buddy Holly and the Everly Brothers — it is also a serious contemplation on why the ranch house was so popular.

The building type’s origin is generally credited to Cliff May, the “father of the California Ranch House.” May created his prototype in the early thirties as an affordable alternative to the boxlike design of residential homes. Taking a modernist approach to regional architectural traditions (the Spanish hacienda and California adobe ranches), he synthesized specific elements into a spacious house design that was adaptable for all income levels.

The magazine covers attest to the ranch home's popularity. (Photo by Jeff Stafford)
The magazine covers attest to the ranch home’s popularity. (Photo by Jeff Stafford)

With its functional everything-on-one-level floor plan, the layout promoted a relaxed, casual lifestyle represented by sliding glass doors, which provided easy access to the backyard, and open living spaces like the kitchen/family room, where mom could cook dinner while watching the kids play.

The ranch home popularity was not just a matter of functionality. For most middle-class Americans, it was a symbol of future prosperity and happiness that was far removed from the antiquated and cramped conditions of Depression-era housing. Its California origins added a frisson: it “conjured up powerful dreams of informal living, ideal weather, and movie-star glamour,” as architecture scholar Thomas Hine put it.

As a baby boomer raised in more than one ranch home, I always thought the style epitomized suburbia. What was considered modern in the fifties was reclassified as conservative over time. An architect friend who lives in New York City recently confessed, “The style has been so influential and varied over the years that most people cannot stand it — like me.”

Yet the architecture shares aesthetic qualities with Frank Lloyd Wright’s 1936 design for the single-story Usonian house and Joseph Eichler’s modernist homes of the late forties, which were basically high-end examples of a one-story ranch house with stylized modifications such as exposed ceiling beams or an open-air courtyard entrance.

Most interesting to note is how the California ranch home was adapted for regional tastes and sensibilities. For example, in Georgia, ranch homes were more likely to be constructed of red brick with stone accents, feature wrought iron porch supports and come with hipped roofs (as opposed to a low pitched gabled roof). One could also order customized ranch houses in a wide variety of styles, from something like the iconic “Georgian” to the “Melrose,” with its double carport, and the “Surrey,” which came with a basement/garage and utility room area.

The Georgian

Dekalb County is unique in the large number of ranch house subdivisions it contains. Among them are Gresham Park, Sargent Hills, Belvedere Park, Briarpark Court, Chelsea Heights and Northwoods, which was recently listed on the National Register of Historic Places — along with Collier Heights, a neighborhood in Fulton County.

Those who think this is going too far should consider this. In another 50 years, that monstrous McMansion next door to you, which was built on the site of a 1912 Victorian home teardown, will be eligible for historic preservation, too.

Homepage photo by Guy Hayes

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