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Ranch House: Suburban Informality : Design: Homes opening out onto the back yard and emphasizing outdoor living symbolized post-World War II prosperity in tracts across the U.S.

November 05, 1989|LEON WHITESON | Whiteson is a Los Angeles free-lancer who writes on architectural topics.

"The ranch house is everything a California house should be . . . to serve the California life style of informality, outdoor living and sunshine."

This typically simple statement came from the father of the California Ranch House style, Cliff May, who died recently in his Brentwood office at the age of 81.

May was describing the homes whose ground-hugging lines, low-pitched shake roofs with deep overhangs, sheltering porches and patios and open interiors leading out through sliding glass doors to ample back yards, became the prime symbol of post-World War II prosperity in suburban tracts across Southern California and the United States.

From the late 1940s onward, these homes sprang up in new subdivisions throughout the Southland, particularly the San Fernando and San Gabriel valleys, creating new suburbs within reach of the jobs offered by the expanding Angeleno metropolis, but still far enough away to seem insulated from the urban ills of inner-city crime and poverty.

With its tree-grown yards and rolling lawns, the ranch house preserved some vestige of the natural landscape in the midst of rampant urbanization, and was hotly sought after by young couples seeking a safe environment in which to raise a family.

The desire to escape the city's clutch, epitomized in Los Angeles by the postwar flight of the middle class from the urban core, has a long pedigree in American social sentiment.

"I view large cities as pestilential to the morals, the health and the liberties of man," Thomas Jefferson wrote in the early 19th Century.

In 1862, Henry David Thoreau declared that: "A man's health requires as many acres of meadow to his prospect as his farm does loads of muck."

In the postwar decades, the suburban expansion was so rapid and widespread that America became the first civilization in history to have more people living in suburbs than in the traditional city.

Between 1950 and 1970, the U.S. suburban population doubled to 74 million. In the greater Los Angeles area, three-quarters of the population live in areas classified as suburban by the U.S. census.

Designers like Cliff May--who was never trained as an architect--foresaw the coming spread of this yearning for suburban living and began to dream up a style of house that would serve it.

As early as 1931, in the midst of the Great Depression, May began to experiment with his first ranch house prototype in San Diego.

"I rebelled against the boxy houses being built then," May said in a 1986 interview. "I wanted a design that was about sunshine and informal outdoor living."

To achieve this aim, May cross-fertilized two established Southern California house types.

He merged the traditional 18th-Century Spanish adobe ranch house--which featured a sequence of rooms linked by a sheltered porch--with the popular open-plan California bungalow that developed out of the late 19th-Century Craftsman style.

May's creation was a thoroughly Southland marriage of Ramona--the fictional heroine of Helen Hunt Jackson's famous novel--and the romantic Arts and Crafts architecture of Pasadena's Charles and Henry Greene.

As he worked with the ranch style through the 1930s, May added innovations of his own.

He moved the garage from the back yard to the front of the house, making more space in the back for the family's outdoor living and added to the privacy by screening the yard from the street.

May built more than 1,000 ranch houses and sold plans for many thousands more.

In the 1960s and '70s, the single-story style he pioneered was elaborated and adapted to a host of variations, including fancy split-level and shrunk-down "ranchette."

As the style became commonplace, many typical ranch house layouts were masked by mock-Colonial, pseudo-Regency or fake-Cottage facades.

Ranch houses retain a strong appeal for young families seeking fresh air and easy life styles in the suburbs.

Family psychotherapist Barbara Rosenbaum bought her 1950s Woodland Hills ranch house in 1978 because she "liked the openness of the rooms leading into one another, and out to the patio through sliding glass doors."

Rosenbaum's home features the interlinked living-dining-family rooms focused on a brick fireplace that is typical of the ranch-house style.

"It's easy to watch the kids if I'm in the kitchen, and the place is filled with light," she said. "Above all, this is a relaxed house that doesn't impose its personality on you or force you to live your life on its terms rather than your own."

Her husband, Sanford Sklar, sums up his feelings about the house in one word--comfort.

"It's like a loose and airy shirt worn on a summer's day," he said. "The house is easy on the body and the soul, it's cool and unpretentious. It's easy to live in and maintain, and great for relaxed entertaining by the pool. And it seems very safe."

The suburban life style that the Sklars and millions of others enjoy was born in the second half of the 19th Century.

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