Monday, December 10, 2018

HOWDY, FOLKS: The California Rancher Rides In

Long, low, and simultaneously modest and chest-thumping:
The Rancher bespoke American values of the 1950s.
Author's note: This is another in Architext's occasional essays on American residential styles.

America was riding high in the 1950s. The country had recently returned from trouncing the Axis, despite a late entrance into a war whose odds were far from certain. The economy had been launched out of the Depression, first on the strength of wartime contracts, and then by a pent-up postwar demand for consumer goods. As a result, U.S. industry was now far and away the mightiest on earth.  And America’s faith in democracy, so shaken by the Depression years, had been restored to granitic solidity by its great triumphs both overseas and at home. 

What better time for a home style that managed to convey all this and more?

Extremely elaborate examples, nowadays
referred to as "Storybook Ranchers",
featured diamond-pane windows, knee
braces, and other over-the-top rustic details.
That style was the California Rancher, and it became the architectural emblem for a yet-unsurpassed time of prosperity in U.S. history. The Rancher’s design was emphatically native--a melange of homegrown vernaculars ranging from the Spanish Colonial-era hacienda with its full-width porch, to the functional ranch building with its shaggy simplicity, to the bungalow with its ground-hugging lines and low-pitched roof. 

Dutch front doors, shown here with the
ubiquitous crossbuck motif, were a red-hot
fad during the Rancher era.
Ranchers also reflected a classic paradox of the American character: On the one hand, it embodied Yankee modesty with its countrified, aw-shucks motifs;  on the other, it glorified power and consumption with its rambling street frontage and chest-thumping double garage. It simultaneously managed to proclaim:  We’re Americans—we’re real nice folks, but we kick butt when we have to.

The Rancher is a breeze to identify. It’s the first popular style to flaunt an attached double garage, for those two cars Herbert Hoover had promised us decades earlier. But the Rancher’s garage made up for its late showing by being impossible to overlook: it projected well forward of the house, with the huge door itself becoming a broad billboard often tricked out in moldings or x-shaped crossbuck motifs, all underlined by a vast swath of concrete driveway. 

 Rancher loor plans—not to mention front elevations such as
this one—were stretched out to outlandish proportions.
Every Rancher worthy of the name also had a front porch, though few were really usable as such.  Rather, the point was to provide a showcase for all those down-home details:  Bandsawn knee braces sprouting from the tops of posts; crossbucks on the front door; and yet more crossbucks in the gawky wooden porch railings and on garage doors..

The classic Rancher exterior typically  had rough-sawn vertical board-and-batt siding (batts being narrow wood strips that covered the gap between boards), or else rustic horizontal lap siding. Later mass-produced versions used stucco on the majority of the house, reserving the more costly siding for accents on the facade and gables.

Eventually, things settled down to your basic stucco Rancher,
perhaps with a few features such as the wood wainscoting
and false dovecote in the gable of this tract-built example.
A genuine Rancher’s roof was invariably covered in shakes, a material that bespoke America as well: a little uncouth, perhaps, but tough and resilient as all get-out. In classic examples, a false dovecote topped by a weathervane might be found astride the roof ridge, while at each gable end, false beams jutted out to carry the rake boards with unshakable confidence. Rancher interiors emphasized the same plain-spoken, native materials as the exterior: used brick, copper, hammered iron, and coarse woods such as knotty pine.

Functionally, there's little to criticize in a Rancher. The floor plan is straightforward, with rooms methodically strung along each side of a long hall--much like a stretched-out bungalow turned crosswise. The style’s main structural problems stem from the fashion of making the houses ever longer, lower and closer to the ground. Often the effort was too successful--yielding a ranch-size meal for termites and dry rot.

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