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L.A.'S ARCHITECTURAL HERITAGE | FOURTH IN A SERIES

The once and future ranch

The postwar icon is wooing a new generation. Yes, your folks' house is cool again.

October 20, 2005|Scott Timberg | Times Staff Writer

ITS low-slung frame sprawled across plains and valleys of a more open landscape. The single-story footprint didn't boast, or point skyward like the self-assured colonial or Victorian. It offered a comfortable relationship with the climate and surrounding flora, and a democratic, open floor plan; it didn't section off areas into servants quarters or announce visitors in grand foyers. It was modern without being Space Age, modest without being plain, evoking history without being mere nostalgia.

If a style of residential architecture can symbolize an era, the ranch house became the iconic American home in the period from roughly 1945 to 1970: By some estimates, 70% of American homes built in the 25 years after World War II were ranch houses.

The Chicago area, where the rancher evolved out of Frank Lloyd Wright's Prairie house, and the desert Southwest, where the working ranch provided inspiration, were important centers.

But the ranch house had a special role in Los Angeles, and the fruit orchards and bean fields that fell away from the city soon became ideal laboratories for the style -- making L.A. the unofficial capital of what would be called the "California-style house."

Postwar Los Angeles, with its forward-looking community of architects and developers, took the ranch to its apogee, and Hollywood, with its powerful image-making ability, helped spread the word. Now, because of its deep-rooted connections, the Los Angeles area is reasserting its role in the style's revival.

To author and suburban bard D.J. Waldie, the ranch house is downright fashionable. "It's the late 20th century version of the Arts and Crafts bungalow," he says. "Some of that fussiness is being transferred to ranch house culture."

Alongside the fussiness is a growing preservationist movement. "The ranch house is the next emerging residential preservation issue," says Ken Bernstein, director of preservation issues for the Los Angeles Conservancy. "And while some have come to accept the high-end Modernist home, the ranch house is only now gaining recognition and acceptance." In 2002, the conservancy fought to save a Cliff May Experimental House in Sullivan Canyon. And the chair of the group's Modern Committee, Adriene Biondo, lives in a Joseph Eichler ranch house.

There is "typically a 40- or 50-year lag between the time when something is popular and when it's rediscovered," says Kenneth Breisch, professor of architecture and preservation at USC.

"My students, who look back nostalgically at the ranch house because it's from another era, are doing projects and research papers on the ranch house," he says.

Jim Brown, a South Pasadena photographer, and his wife, Michelle Gringeri-Brown, both grew up in postwar ranches in the Southland in the '50s and '60s. "And like everyone else, we took them for granted," Brown says. "We moved on and embraced bungalows. Ranches were so ubiquitous. And because it was the house that a lot of boomers had grown up in, it was my folks' house. And what could be more uncool than your folks' house?"

But the experience of the Browns, who came to value the ranch's low-key beauty and its indoor-outdoor living, shows the style's reformation. Brown and Gringeri-Brown, a former editor of American Bungalow, now publish the year-old magazine Atomic Ranch, which aims to do for the rancher what Taschen Books' 2002 release did for the Case Study Houses: frame the style in a hip, retro package, nearly fetishizing its sharp angles, post and beam ceilings, and sliding glass doors.

"The people we photograph are in their 30s and 40s," says Brown, a good-humored and enthusiastic guy in his early 50s. "They have hip, cool professions; they're animators or musicians." He calls the process in which people reject their parent's era but embrace the previous generation "the grandma effect."

THE ranch house, because of the era in which it developed, had its meaning made largely by the mass media. It was one of the first all-American architectural forms and, arguably, the first form that developed alongside its own mirror image.

The ranch's origins are tied up with larger trends in popular culture. Around 1930 -- about the same time early ranch houses went up in the Palos Verdes Peninsula and Palm Springs -- the country became increasingly conscious of its history and vernacular traditions, especially its Western heritage. Movies by John Ford showed lanky cowboys retiring to their ranches after a day riding the range, Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys had begun to record, and even composer Aaron Copland became fascinated with Billie the Kid.

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