So, what exactly is a ranch? Typically, it's a one- or 1 ½-story house with a flat or gently pitched roof, wide overhangs, big picture...

Share story

So, what exactly is a ranch?

Typically, it’s a one- or 1 ½-story house with a flat or gently pitched roof, wide overhangs, big picture windows and an attached garage (or sometimes a carport). The back might have sliding glass doors opening onto a patio. Decorative details are minimal.

The style has its roots in the Spanish colonial ranchos of the early 19th century — earth-bound adobe dwellings with deep overhangs to keep out the summer sun.

Other precursors include Frank Lloyd Wright’s broad, horizontal Prairie School houses and the simple, geometric forms of the modernist pioneer Mies van der Rohe and his followers.

The California architect Cliff May popularized the style in the 1930s with sun-filled, L- or U-shaped tract houses and with elegant custom versions that were celebrated in shelter magazines like House and Garden.

Jim Draeger, an architectural historian with the Wisconsin Historical Society, traces the ranch’s golden age to the post-World War II housing boom and federally insured mortgage policies.

“You had 20 years of pent-up housing demand, the fact that these houses could be put up very quickly and the FHA’s influence on the aesthetics of subdivision design,” Draeger said, referring to the Federal Housing Administration.

“The FHA actually had an ‘adjustment for conformity,’ rating your home loan lower if the house wasn’t a ranch or a Cape Cod.”

Soon, it seemed that every young family was living in a ranch.