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The ranch house rides again.

Low price was part of the promise when the original stampede on subdivision tract houses occurred after World War II. To meet the demand, earth movers and construction crews surged over open land around nearly every Western city from Denver to Honolulu. And when the dust had settled, it was the tract ranch house, with its low-slung roof line and two-car garage facing the street, that had won the West. Today, the rancher's promise lies in its remodeling potential. Remodelers--not new-home buyers or builders--are in the saddle. Nearly every month, Sunset reports how these boxy houses, where the baby boomers grew up, are being adapted to contemporary realities and dreams. This month, on the following nine pages, we dig down to the roots of the ranch house and round up a remodeler's guide to design strategies.

Ranch houses didn't really ride out of the corral and into the cul-de-sac until the 1930s and '40s, when Sunset and other magazines recognized in them a style with deep roots in the West and an easy adaptability to contemporary needs.

Though many modern architects experimented with ranch house forms, it was Southern California bandleader-turned-designer Cliff May who became the most effective at popularizing the ranch house ideal.

May updated the one story Spanish California ranch house, with its deep overhangs, by building in such modern inventions as plate-glass windows, all electric kitchens, and carports.

When Sunset editors discovered Cliff May, they hit pay adobe. In a memorable description from the '30s, Sunset editors wrote that May's houses--stretching across suburban sites "ramble almost to the point of departure, with lines as natural and satisfying as those of the hills."

Rambling also meant ease of movement between indoors and out--a feature that was hard to achieve in houses with conventional aboveground footings.

May perfected and popularized the concrete slab foundation poured over a crudhed-rock cushion In an interview conducted in 1984, he recalled: "I wanted the concrete slab to keep the house low on the ground . . . You can't get . . . continuity . . . to the garden if you are looking down steps at it."

May's ranch houses were as irresistible as the dance music he once conducted. A walk through a Cliff May wasn't just a walk; it was a ramble into nature, or a big-band two-step to Cole Porter's "Don't Fence Me In."

It didn't take long for other builders and developers to pick up the beat. During the post World War 11 building boom, when new jobs in the expanding high-technology and aerospace industries were attracting young families to the San Fernando and Santa Clara valleys, for example, builders and developers saw the ranch house as a new-but-not-too-radical way to package the affordable dream house. The style was simply shrunk to fit subdivision lots, though the shrinkage tended to eliminate key attributes.

Like the California bungalow popularized at the turn of the century, the tract ranch house became the most famous low-cost house of its era, eclipsing the two-story, steeply roofed, snow-defensive developer houses of the East. Even Barbie's dream doll house became a miniature ranch house.

Quirky ornamental details occasionally got mixed in--such as Cinderella-inspired gingerbread ornamentation along the eaves, diamond-shaped windowpanes, wagon wheels attached to a front wall, or little haylofts or dovecotes above the garage.

Affordability helped buyers overlook some obvious drawbacks: streetscapes with a cookie-cutter sameness, dark and boxy rooms, hard-to-reach outdoor spaces. To fulfill their promise, tract ranch houses often needed help.

Today, they offer the appeal of established neighborhoods with mature planting; proximity to schools, shopping, and freeways; and space to add on. With remodeling, the tract ranch house can become a dream house once again.

If you can't walk out of the living room or the bedroom or the kitchen onto the ground. . . why, you're not living like a real Californian," declared Cliff May, sounding his favorite theme about the importance of a seamless link between house and patio. A contemporary nod to his belief guided the remodel of this two-bedroom ranch house in a Southern California canyon.

Pat Barash and Herb Katz faulted their house on typical tract rancher failings: not enough windows, limited interaction with the outdoors, chopped-up rooms. Also, a two-car garage hogged a prime position bordering the patio. The owners wanted a free-flowing indoor-outdoor environment appropriate for entertaining.

Working closely with Barash, an interior designer, Los Angeles architects Ann Agnew and Don Boss rethought the entire layout to treat house and patio as a unified living space. They converted the garage to a new master bedroom--suite accessible to the patio--and remodeled the old master bedroom into a dining-family room with French doors opening to patio and pool. The old dining area became part of the expanded living room.

To comply with local requirements for covered parking, Agnew and Boss designed a new carport (see tone on plan). For the street view of the updated facade, turn to page 85.

Proof that you can teach an old ranch house new rope tricks lies in the remodel of Barbara and Rob Pressman's 1,650-square-foot 1950s house in Sherman Oaks, California. The original small, dark rooms cut off the outdoors; one felt trapped inside an architectural Edsel.

The Pressmans wanted increased spaciousness and natural light, and a more streamlined look. They enjoyed gathering around a makeshift fireplace in the back garden and dreamed of a more permanent arrangement there. They also wanted to update the kitchen and add a new master suite.

Los Angeles architect Jeffrey Michael Tohl's solution was to develop the remodel from the inside out. He left the front facade essentially untouched, which helps preserve the character of the neighborhood and adds to the surprise behind.

Tohl designed a 625square-foot addition at the back of the house to allow a 5-foot expansion of the living room, a 9-foot expansion of the dining room, and a new 25-foot-long master suite. All three rooms open through glass doors to a handsome new courtyard.

This patio is the heart of the design. With a fireplace on one side, a dining platform on the other, and a floor of 2-foot-square concrete pavers framed in grass, the patio functions as the house's freshair living room.

To update the interior, Tohl exposed rafters and added skylights over the living and dining areas. A newly opened wall between the kitchen and dining room brings garden views deep inside the house.

The ceiling in the new master bedroom rises 6 feet higher than in adjacent rooms. Resulting irregular roof profiles add architectural interest and create a village look suggesting a world apart.

Mr. Pressman, a landscape designer, collaborated on the exterior design.

Call it the saddlebag approach to ranch house remodeling: you build additions at front and back. Because of side-yard setback requirements, the front and back yards are usually the only areas where you can add on to a typical subdivision rancher (without adding a second floor).

This was the basic approach used by San Diego architect Ralph Roesling, of Roesling Nakamura Architects, in expanding Candy and Vito Quaranta's four-bedroom, two-bath tract ranch house from the early 1960s. The Quarantas wanted a new master suite and a family room in an overall design that was as open and bright as possible.

For many homeowners, the L-shaped ranch house with the big garage close to the street has an inherent drawback: a wide front yard that has no privacy and serves little purpose because it's inaccessible from living areas. You end up taking care of a garden that only your neighbors can see. In the Quarantas's case, the bedroom wing faced the street, so privacy was always an issue.

Ironically, Roesling managed to solve space and privacy problems in a single gesture by placing the new master suite--complete with a study and round shower tower--in the front yard! It is reached from the original hall of the bedroom wing. Narrow slits of glass and high clere-story windows along the street front and entry walk preserve privacy while bringing in daylight.

As in many tract ranch houses, the kitchen was a minimal galley with no room for a breakfast table. Roesling treated the family room addition as an expansion of the kitchen into the garden. By borrowing space from the dining room, he created a single kitchen-family room opening to the outdoors.

The expanded room extends 12 feet beyond the old rear wall of the house. The kitchen proper is separated from the family room by only a counter and a built-in glass-topped breakfast table. The room narrows at the end, so the view is tightly focused on the garden view. Curving one wall also allowed daylight into the adjacent dining room, which had been very dark.

For a greater sense of spaciousness, Roesling raised the kitchen-family room ceiling height to 12 feet and installed clerestories to balance light.

Like any mass-built form of housing, tract ranch houses often exhibit design flaws. They may be the result of economy in materials, poor planning or construction, or the simple fact that such houses are not designed for specific sites, climates, solar orientation, or client needs.

Some of the commonest drawbacks in ranch house design are too much space devoted to the automobile; hidden or abrupt entries; dark, boxy rooms with few windows; dead-end living rooms; characterless or awkwardly scaled fireplaces; insufficient closet and storage space; gloomy hallways; and poor outdoor access.

We end our architectural cattle drive with examples of straightforward but effective solutions to some of these problems. In a future issue, we'll suggest design strategies for adding a second floor to the ranch house.
COPYRIGHT 1992 Sunset Publishing Corp.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1992 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:includes related articles
Author:Gregory, Daniel P.
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Mar 1, 1992
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