One way to consider what makes ranches houses what they are is to compare them to the housing types that were popular before they existed. I’ve spent some time recently comparing the midwestern ranch to the classic Chicago bungalow.
These two building types are very closely related. Specifically, the Chicago Bungalow is very closely related to the Midwestern or “tract” Ranch. They each share an older California cousin which features more variation, more drama and was originally designed as one-offs by architects. They are similar in square footage, in class and in initial cost. Their differences are useful in highlighting the modernism and innovations of the ranch type. Let’s look more closely!
When were the Chicago Bungalows built?
The Chicago Bungalow was THE residential building type constructed in Chicago between 1910 and 1930. The so-called Bungalow Belt was the then outer most ring of city development ranging from 4-7 miles from downtown. Street car lines ran from the city center out to these new neighborhoods and 80,000 bungalows were built (still a third of Chicago’s single family home stock). There is some variation in style and form but it is a very consistent and recognizable type.
NB: I made a study of the Chicago Bungalow while I was working at Moss Design as part of a series of posts examining common Chicago Building Types. Other examples I researched were the Fire Cottage, Worker Cottage, Greystone, Courtyard Apartment Building, Residential Hotel and, of course, the Skyscraper.
Who Built the Bungalow Belt?
The homes of the Chicago bungalow belt were not “tract” housing in the way that midwestern ranches often are. They were not the product of one developer buying up a tract of land, filling it with homes and then selling them off to individual buyers but they were often built several or even several blocks at a time by builders who wanted to profit on the population boom. They were more or less mass produced from basic plans and using the same stock of local building materials. Blocks of homes in the area are intensely visually consistent (a criticism often made of ranch developments).
The Chicago Bungalow “Type”
The Chicago Bungalow has roughly the same footprint as a modest midwestern ranch but a couple of significant differences.
Like the Midwestern Ranch, they are built on basements which were originally left unfinished and have since been turned into living space. That is less a quality of type and more one of location. Ranches and Bungalows have basements when they are built in the upper midwest – anywhere the frost line is deep enough to require a 3′ or more frost footing it becomes cost effective to dig a few feet deeper and double the potential square footage of the house.
Floor Plans: Side By Side
The typical Chicago Bungalow and early Midwestern Ranch have a similar square footage and dimensions. The Bungalow is a low-eaved 1 1/2 story and the Ranch always one story but the main floor of both contain entry, living, dining and kitchen spaces plus two or three bedrooms and a bath. The arrangement of rooms is subtly distinct, however. I’ve chosen a three bedroom variant of the Bungalow (22 by 40 feet sans porch) and the floor plan of my own ranch (three beds, one bath and 28 by 38 feet) for comparison.
At first glance they seem pretty alike.
In the bungalow, you enter through a small vestibule or porch to one side of the house front and pass through into a parlor that stretches most of the house width. Adjacent but separate is a dining room; beyond lies the kitchen.
That kitchen is always significantly separated from the dining area, not just by a wall but by a built in hutch, pantry or even the stairs going down to the basement or up to the attic. The idea was to keep the sight and the smell and heat of the cooking process away from the rest of the house and out of the public eye. From the kitchen there is a connection to the back yard and garage.
On the other side of the house you’d have bedroom, bathroom, bedroom, usually off on their own small hallway. Occasionally a three bedroom layout would locate two bedrooms across the back of the house but in that case the kitchen would still have a back/side door access to a little walk leading to the back of the house. Here’s a link to that variant.
A ranch has the same list of rooms: living/dining, kitchen, bedrooms and a bath but it will flow very differently. The foyer is usually disolved into the living area often separated only by a column or knee wall with a mid-mod shelving unit dividing it from adjacent living area. The living and dining rooms will almost certainly be a shared space. The kitchen (while theoretically open in the California version) is probably its own room but usually separated only by an open doorway from the living spaces. The bedrooms will be typically side-by-side across the short end house with a bath between or beside them.
The kitchen may be next to the dining room in both versions but in a bungalow the kitchen is very much part of the service spaces of the house even in a middle class family with no servants. In the ranch it has been absorbed into the living areas. There is often an eat-in component, home work is done there, it is thoroughly connected to the rest of the house and has a similar level of finish.
With the break down of room separation within the house from the bungalow, where each activity had its own space, to the ranch, where all day time living activities could flow together in door-less open space, it became more important to give the bedrooms a bit more privacy. This often resulted in condensing them (with the bath) around a semi-private hallway.
The Changing Influence of Driving on Urban Planning
But you actually CAN’T compare these two floorplans side by side.
The image above shows the same two buildings in context. The size of the lot and the relationship of the house to the street are dramatically different. Changes in life style and land usage (plus the growth of family car ownership) between the 20’s and the 50’s meant that not only had the buildings changed but so had the urban layouts and lot lines.
The new orientation of individual houses on their wider lots (often less deep) had the houses turned long end toward the street (mostly). You still enter through the living area and access the back yard through the kitchen but the amount of house you pass through to get there is shallower. The yard has become more important and larger per lot.
The garage was attached to the house and made a part of the visible facade. Although early ranches like mine don’t actually give access from the garage into the house, the garage door fronts on the street to show of the family’s car status and a single roof line connects the two units to present a cohesive (and larger) whole.
Unintentional Similarity in aspect
In a Chicago Bungalow the main floor of the house is typically situated 2-4 feet above grade, allowing for larger, brighter, basement windows, a little more privacy from the street for the front rooms and a graceful then-stylish piano nobile effect, elevating and separating the living spaces from the world outside. I would compare this with the similar idea of elevated main space in the Carnegie Libraries flooding the country at that time or with any similarly Neoclassical public buildings.
A midwestern ranch is also arranged with its interior floor level up at least a foot above grade to allow for good drainage from rain and snow-melt and to reduce the cost of excavating deep basements. The CONCEPT of the ranch, however, is to have the floor level as close as possible to grade so that the interior spaces flow freely to those outside. This at-grade (often basement-less) style is typical of a California ranch but not common in the midwest.
Ironically, then, although the Chicago Bungalow and Midwestern Ranch might share the same three steps up from street to interior level, each is a compromise driven by cost-effectiveness. A Bungalow is as high as the builders cared to built and in a Ranch it is as low to the ground as the builder could stand and both are averaged into a lowest common denominator of cost and practicality.
The ideas of the original California architects of Bungalow and Ranch were much more dissimilar but in their translated midwestern form they become more similar
Decor and Detailing
For their times, both the bungalow and ranch had the most basic, acceptable level of trim, detailing and general decor. The bungalow, for its time, was considered to be a very plain, basic, example of home building. It was often constructed by middle class family who did not have extra cash to pour into their houses. In Chicago the Bungalow is exclusively a brick building.
What both of these housing types share is a their status as the most economical family home for a middle class family – the gateway to single family home ownership. The standard for detailing had slipped in some ways but it was also more style than simplicity. The people who lived in the early ranches probably didn’t think they were getting less than the first bungalow homeowners. They were not missing gingerbread, they were reveling in the easy maintenance and new technology (the hallmark of a ranch was its array of modern cooking and washing appliances).
Why a Ranch?
In many ways American homes changed more between 1930 and 1950 than they have since. Part of the reason I find ranches so interesting is how modern they are in their essential nature. Dated fixtures and finishes aside, a ranch built in 1952 is essentially a modern home.