Ranch houses may not be sexy and they haven’t been on the cutting edge of American architecture for 50 years. But they are located throughout Druid Hills and other Atlanta neighborhoods and they remain popular homes among all age groups.
They are the sublime in post-World-War II suburban housing and according to state and DeKalb County officials, they are historic.
Ranch houses exploded across the American landscape in the late 1940s.
The surge was fueled by easy mortgages guaranteed by federal agencies, abundant building supplies, and builders eager to house veterans and their families. The building boom helped make the baby boom possible.
It’s not hard to spot a ranch house. They are single-story brick houses with low roof profiles and uncomplicated geometry.
Realtor Katie Black lives in a Druid Hills ranch house and many of her clients buy ranch houses. “To me, it’s a big rectangle,” she said in an interview in her 1950s house. “Most people just think that they’re pretty boring from the outside.”
Real estate consultant Sylvia Mallarino lives in a Virginia-Highland ranch house.
“I think they’re very underappreciated,” she said. “People think that they are not very exciting.”
So what’s all the buzz about ranch houses?
Last year, Georgia’s state historic preservation agency published a flashy new study on ranch houses. Academics are writing about them in journals and speaking about them at conferences. And, homeowners are still buying them.
Ranch houses almost always are built of red brick with lots of windows facing towards the street.
Because they were most often built in car-dependent suburbs, like Druid Hills, attached carports and garages were essential. Other defining features include massive block chimneys and their low and linear massing.
Instead, architects and builders found subtle ways to use light and contrasting materials like stone accents around doorways, to make their buildings stand out. Interior space, however, was the ranch house’s true selling point.
Deputy State Historic Preservation Officer Richard Cloues describes ranch houses as a unique and innovative American house type.
“They were a brand new kind of house like nothing that had ever come before,” Cloues said in a telephone interview. “They tell us that’s what the 1950s and sixties were all about, a suburbanization movement or phenomenon that had no parallel in history.”
With origins in the 1930s American Southwest, ranch house architecture was influenced by the designs of Frank Lloyd Wright.
As Americans tired of the Depression and markets began to rebound in the late 1930s, new “modern” houses were featured in magazines and newspapers.
The media blitz really took off with the 1939 and 1940 World’s Fairs in New York and San Francisco.
The New York fair featured a 15-home Town of Tomorrow where the latest designs and materials in residential architecture were seen by more than 40 million people who toured the demonstration homes. America’s entry into World War II in 1941 put the dreams new modern homes on hold.
By the time the war ended in 1945, Atlanta’s builders and homebuyers joined a building boom that was sweeping the nation. New subdivisions like Briarpark Court, populated by ranch houses, sprouted throughout DeKalb County. Ranch houses also were built in older neighborhoods, like Druid Hills.
Some of the earliest ranch houses in Georgia were built in the Atlanta suburbs. Cloues and his colleagues point to a modest brick ranch house built in 1947 in the Druid Hills Parkwood subdivision as one of the oldest.
Using building permits and census data, Cloues and teams of students from Georgia State University found that about 175,000 ranch houses were built in Georgia between 1940 and 1960.
“It was for Georgia at least, and much of the country, the most popular type of house ever,” Cloues said.
The new houses appealed to wide swaths of middle class homebuyers. Young families liked the open floor plans and new spaces devoted to family activities. Older people liked the ease of single-floor living. The reasons people bought ranch houses in the 1950s are the same ones attracting buyers to ranch houses in the 21st century.
Dan and Katy Mallory own a ranch house in Druid Hills. Their house was built in 1949 and they are only the home’s third owners.
“I had lived in ranches as a child,” Katy said. “I wasn’t looking for huge built-in closets … we weren’t looking for giant rooms.”
Katy, 28, and Dan, 33, both work in high tech. They like the sturdy building envelope of their ranch house and the adaptability of the interior space.
“I think what’s fun about ranches is that you can do about whatever you want,” Katy said. “Some people go really modern inside and make it like a mid-century modern. But you also see people go very classic.”
Realtor Black agrees: “I think one thing that’s really helped ranches is this kind of current love that we have for all things retro and you can take a ranch and you can turn it into a real fifties or sixties sort of home and you can get your fifties and sixties furniture and put it in there and just have a really cool retro house.”
Nostalgia is woven throughout popular culture.
From AMC’s Mad Men to vintage clothing and the constant recycling of music, Americans long for connections to the past. Ranch houses are uniquely qualified storytellers from an important and popular period in American and Atlanta’s history.
Architectural historian Cloues tells people that ranch houses are unlike any other house built in American history.
“They speak of their period just the same way that the Craftsman bungalow speaks of the teens and the twenties and the Greek Revival house speaks of the 1850s,” Cloues said.
Cloues also explained that Ranch houses helped create the iconic fifties family most contemporary popular culture consumers recognize.
Television was new and families were reworking their social relationships and the space in which they lived and played. According to Cloues, “I think it also speaks to a change in the sociology of the family. That the family is now not just a unit of convenience or a work unit.” He added, “I think what made it work was that the family was reworking itself and this house was what fit that lifestyle.”
Katy Mallory concedes that ranch houses aren’t for everyone.
“This isn’t sexy. It’s not in the pages of Verandah magazine or anything like that but it works for us,” she said.
DeKalb History Center executive director Melissa Forgey does think ranch houses are sexy. Their ubiquity and familiar appearance only contribute to their appeal, she said.
“If houses are your thing, there are certain types and styles and shapes and sizes and if you like the built environment, there is something that you will find sexy about them,” Forgey said.
Forgey suggests that the best way to appreciate ranch houses is to see them in what she calls their natural habitats: Atlanta’s neighborhoods. So the next time you are out for a drive through the suburbs, keep in mind this image Forgey offered up:
"To see the similar spacing between the street and the house and just the absolute epitome of what suburbanization was. It’s very sexy. The fifties, you know, have their own connotation for poodle skirts and mom’s baking cookies and dad’s pulling up in their brand new Ford straight from the Doraville factory or GM."