Identifying the 1950s Ranch House Interior as a Cultural Resource (U.S. National Park Service)

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1950s Ranch House.
1950s Ranch House.

University of Georgia’s College of Environment and Design (CED)

Post-War Boom & Ranch Houses

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.

Preservation Community & Ranch Houses

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.

Great Variety in Ranch Houses

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.

Interior Historic & Cultural Significance

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.

Defining Characteristics of a Ranch House Interior

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.

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