Ranch houses and cowboys: Aw shucks, ma’am, keep it simple

Courtesy Mcheath at en.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

Courtesy Mcheath at en.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

By Joe Lambe

The ranch house, a symbol of suburbia with ties to cowboys, is making a kind of rebirth, an expert says.

Just as tasteful arts and crafts style homes have gotten historic status, people are now saving ranch houses.

And many want to live in new ones.

Mary van Balgooy, biographer of ranch house architect and pioneer Cliff May, talked about it in a Tuesday lecture at the Kansas City Library on the Plaza.

It went with an exhibit at the Johnson County Museum in Shawnee called “What is Modernism.” It was presented in partnership with the Kansas City library – a kind of détente between suburbs and historic city.

Van Balgooy, executive director of the Society of Women Geographers, said she became interested in ranch houses because she was raised in one, they seemed to get little respect and not many had written about them.

From her lecture:

“To me it’s a modernist structure dressed up in a western outfit.”

They spread nationwide after World War II partly because cowboys were an icon and the simple, casual homes evoked cowpoke ethic.

The first houses May designed in the early 1900s were like California adobe houses and Mexican haciendas from the 1890s, she said, and he continued with simple design and openness to the outdoors.

Before he died, he built at least 1,000 ranch houses and 18,000 were built based on designs he sold.

By 1955, 8 out of 10 homes in the United States were ranch style.

Some experts also say the houses were influenced by arts and crafts style and Frank Lloyd Wright’s prairie style.

Also houses historically kept getting simpler, smaller and more modern.

Big and ornate Victorian homes, for instance, gave way to far smaller and simpler bungalows, but the newer homes came with things like plumbing, electricity and more basic comforts.

Simpler still, the ranch house became popular with builders, financers and people.

The linier design with a ground-hugging L or U shape was cheap and could be used for any building type, from motels to bowling alleys.

Bing Crosby lived in a ranch house. So did Gregory Peck, in one built by May.

After the war, glossy magazines like Sunset and House Beautiful praised May’s designs and promoted ranch-house life.

With more transportation available, people flocked to the suburbs and new subdivisions. The Federal Housing Administration made loans but rarely over $8,000, so most of the new homes were small – 600 to 1,200 square feet.

A modernist movement tried to compete by using small steel structures, but steel cost more, the homes took more skill to build and people hated them.

A House Beautiful editor blasted the ugly upstarts: “She thought they were communist; she thought they were cold.”

But she also introduced May to modernists who influenced his later designs.

Today, new glossy magazines praise ranch homes again and historic preservationists are moving to save many of the best.

In the end, van Balgooy said of ranch house life: “This appealed to the American kind of style. This was something that idolized the cowboy as a folk hero, this was something Americans could attain.”

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