Features of a Midwestern Ranch you should Recognize

10 min read I’m going to be talking about what I know best: the builder basic Midwestern ranch, built by the millions across the country.

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Knowing the history and key features of midwestern ranch will help you make good decisions as you work on your home.

Understanding what’s unusual about some of those original features – and also the history and the reasoning behind how they were built – will help you identify what’s rare, cool, quirky, or valuable about your home. And in other cases, it will help you know when something about your home isn’t that important to its overall character and you can modify it with a clean conscience.

In today’s episode you’ll hear …

  • The basic form of a ranch: garage, living space, and sleeping area all tucked under one continuous roofline. Plus, why the original MCM builders chose gable roofs over hip roofs and vice versa. [3:40]
  • How to check your own neighborhood for interesting additions using google maps [4:45]
  • Common cladding types: wood siding, brick and stone (spoiler alert: its mostly wood around here). [6:29]
  • Window shapes [7:12]
  • Mid-century front doors and what to do if yours has been replaced [9:05]
  • Materials that tie in from outside to inside the house … and why [10:37]
  • WOOD … structure, trim, flooring, panel and built ins [11:25]
  • Built ins and privacy panels [12:55]
  • Picking MCM appropriate paint colors [13:23]
  • Why you might like to use my DIY Home Assessment Workbook to get to know the great features of your own MCM home and record all of it’s key data points in one place. Become the expert in your own house! [14:53]


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Why you should know the Key Features of a Midwestern Ranch

In the first podcast episode, we explored why the owner of a mid-century home has an extra challenge in their remodel.

People like you and I are swimming upstream against a tide of HGTV style trends. They don’t necessarily mesh well with a mid-century home and certainly don’t take a long view of what will last over time. (I’m looking at you painted brick!)

Following current trends while updating historic homes is how we got all those horrific eighties kitchens hacked into our charming atomic ranches.

We are better than that. To avoid this outside pressure, you need to be the expert in your home remodel. Today we’ll break down the notable features of a midwestern ranch so that you can find – and improve on – them in your own house.

When you know what you’re looking for, you can make the most of your homes finest mid-century features!

We’re talking about the Midwestern ranch, here

 if you live in another part of the country – out West, on the Eastern seaboard, or down South – you probably have some ranches like the ones I’m going to describe. You ALSO may have other much more common house types from the mid-century period like Cliff May-style ranchos or spreading flat-roofed Eichlers.

I’m going to be talking about what I know best – the builder basic Midwestern ranch, built by the millions across the country.

The midwestern ranch, built by the millions

There are also other variations on mid-century modern here in my native Madison. You’ll find the occasional jazzy flat roof, mid century home. Or even something more adventurous like a dramatic A-frame or the very rare butterfly-roofed house which has two roof slopes pointing down towards the center to form a valley. That’s not very common in places with snow loads like we have.


Your most typical (built in the millions) ranch is going to be rectangle or L-shaped with a low-slope, triangular roof.

Layout of a Midwestern Ranch

Your basic ranch has three main parts: a garage, shared living area, and bedroom area. It might be arranged in an L-shape, but is more typically just a simple rectangle in plan.

Two common Roof types: Gable and Hip

It has that low-slope roof in one of two variations: either a gable end or a hip roof.

The gable end ranch roof is the most easy and cheap to frame – a simple triangle that just extends along the entirety of the roof. These houses don’t perform quite as well under wind loads or snow loads. Wind can catch that end triangle edge of the roof and lift up on it.

A hip roof has a sloping element on all four sides. It’s more stable in wind and snow and you can run a gutter to manage rain runoff around all the edges. It’s more complex and expensive to build – which is why it’s slightly more rare from the early mid-century period.

These early midwestern ranches are typically built in the form of a single rectangle or an L. You may have a C-shaped plan or a Z-shaped plan or an S. That’s probably because some part of the house has been added onto over time: an added rec room or an increased garage.

How Ranch floor plans change over time

Here’s a study of my own neighborhood. Every one of these houses was originally a simple rectangle. Now we have infinite variety of different gable additions that have been added on in the intervening generations.


It’s kind of a fun exercise you can do for yourself with just your phone and your Google maps.

These houses were intended to be added onto. Their simple structure and form makes them very easy to remodel and put on an addition.

  1. The single-story construction just means everything is a little bit less complex.
  2. That 2X4 framed structure rather than post and beam, means you don’t have to do a lot of complicated engineering.
  3. The low triangular roof structure, particularly with a gable end, is very easy to throw a cross gable on.

Typical cladding on a Midwestern Ranch

Most midwestern ranches have wood siding. That mid-century era siding is wide eight inch boards of Cedar in lapped horizontal lines. If you see narrow 4″ width siding its probably a later vinyl siding (sad face).

There is often a little work done to decorate the house front by mixing in an area of vertical siding – usually right by a front door, often around an area with a picture window in it.

You often also find a decorative knee wall or one area done in stone or brick. This increases the ground-hugging, elongated character of a mid-century ranch and shows a bit of builder individuality.

Fully brick ranch houses are much more rare, although you’ll find regional variations. For example, in Bloomington Indiana where stone quarrying is THE local business, many ranches are clad entirely or partly in local limestone.

Windows and Doors on the MCM home

There are a wide variety of window shapes on mid-century ranches depending on the preferences of the original builder and owner. But the rule of thumb is that they’re going to be more horizontal than they are vertical.

Bedrooms need one vertical egress window. However, a bedroom facing the street will often have a strip of high windows that give a view out, while keeping privacy for the inside.

That living room will have a picture window … but that picture window has a variety of forms. It might be a grid of smaller panes, sometimes 3X3 or 3X4, that are all fixe. Or it might have some operable parts – an awning window hinging at the top , or a hopper, hinging in or out at the bottom.

My own living room window is pretty builder grade. It has a a trio of one fixed large window in the center, flanked by two narrow double hung windows. Every now and then you’ll see this three part arrangement “wrap” a corner of the living room with a small and large window on the front and one small window on the side wall of the house.

Updating MCM windows

When updating your windows, pay attention to the style, and think about the materials when you replace your windows. Please don’t replace your windows with faux mullions made of little plastic grids that snap into the front. Avoid vinyl altogether. I recommend you invest in wood windows, possibly with a metal cladding on the outside for ease of longterm maintenance.

Trendy remodels of historic homes is how the 80's messed up so many charming atomic ranches.

Charming Mid-Century Front Doors

If your house has an original front door, you’re in luck! Retro Renovation is the acknowledged expert on all things vintage-replacement. They’ve done a wonderful survey of places you can find MCM appropriate replacement doors. This roundup shows off many of the original styles.

My own front door looks like this top left option.

Another common front door type for my area is a stack of three squares -top right – which are kind of fun because they’re sort of a view out for standing height, adult child and dog. I find those super charming.

Updating MCM doors

If your front door has been replaced with something historic-ish, for example, a big oval of cut glass – I apologize for the decisions of people in the past. I do recommend that you replace that AGAIN with a mid-century appropriate front door. The front door is the first impression of your house and really important to the overall street character.

Switching out vintage front door for a faux-historical one is one of the most heinous mistakes that people make on ranch houses. (Second only to replacing your wood cladding with four-inch wide vinyl horizontal strip – my nightmare.) If you have had a sad replacement on your front door, I recommend that you look into replacing it with either a new one in a mid-century period style. Or check out your local restore for vintage doors that someone else may have mistakenly removed from their home that you can salvage.


Connections between inside and outside

Before we move inside entirely we need to start by recognizing that many mid-century homes have a tie-in between their outside materials and their inside ones.

If you have a brick or field stone knee wall on the outside of the house, you may find that you have the same brick or field stone on your fireplace or extending into your entry.

Preserve that.

In a California MCM home, you might find an entire backyard wall of glass that you can throw open with sliding doors. Then you have flow from the living room out to the patio. In the Midwest, the parallel idea to have is the same kind of brick on the front of your house and also in the entry hall.

It’s a bit less dramatic but it’s having the same effect and playing up that same idea, so stick to that and enhance it.

Wood is EVERYWHERE in MCM homes

You’ll find wood everywhere in a mid-century house. This is one of the key features of a midwestern ranch. And this wood will be of universally higher quality than you can find today – cut from old growth forests.

This is true of the basic framing and structure. Even the pine will have a denser wood grain. It will be noticeably heavier. If you have to take any old stud or joist out of a mid-century ranch house and hold it up next to a modern 2X4, you’ll feel the difference in weight and you can see the density of the woodgrain when you look at the cut ends.

You might also find it in narrow hardwood floors. If you’re lucky, you’ll have existing hardwood floor in your house from the original dat. It might even be hidden under later added wall-to-wall carpet.


Expect to find lovely grain in your wood trim (hopefully unpainted). Consider stripping and refinishing existing trim if it has been painted.

Even plywood and wood panel are perfectly period-appropriate materials. I encourage you to think about keeping your wood panel intact if it’s in an all good shape. Some might be faux slat plywood panel; even that can be worth maintaining.

Keep an eye out for Pickwick or knotty pine paneling in your basement, kitchen, rec room, any attic space or garage. It can have an overwhelming effect to a modern eye, I know. It’s very tempting to follow HGTV and paint it all white, but I recommend that you find ways to embrace it.

Again, Retro Renovation has the full scoop on the history of Pickwick pine panelling and its reign over MCM middle America.

Other Fun features of a Midwestern ranch

Keep an eye out for

  • Built-in storage … everywhere
  • Wooden divider screens between entry / living / dining areas.
  • Telephone nooks
  • Fun brass and glass hardware and fixtures
  • Wild original paint and wallpaper choices

For more common features of an untouched Midwestern ranch, pop back to Episode 3. I discuss how life has changed since the MCM home were built and what original kitchens, bathrooms, garages and basements were like!


We're better than this.  I'm looking at you, painted brick

Get to know the Essential Metrics of Your Mid-century Ranch

So much from mid-century Midwest homes generally. But what about the essential features of your home?

To plan a successful Mid Mod remodel, you need to be the expert in your home. It can be overwhelming to hold all of the details of your house in your head, especially if this isn’t your day job.

To make it easy for you, I’ve put together this Mid-Century Remodeling Essential Home Assessment Workbook.

  • Figure out all of the basic information about your home – from square footage and major dimensions to roof pitch.
  • Note down basic useful information like how many spaces your home contains and standard door and window openings.
  • Dig into some of the history of your home: what year was it built, and its major remodeling history.
  • Use the checklist of the key photos you should keep in your phone so you can show someone at a glance: here’s what the front of the house looks like, here are the typical details that I want to respect and preserve.

With these facts in hand, you’ll be able to answer questions and lead the conversation with contractors, home suppliers, and even a designer.

Take a little time to get to know your own home as well as research other interesting mid-century houses from your region. You will be very well prepared to manage your own mid-century remodel.

You’re all set to get to know your home!

Let me know if you have any questions about the features of a midwestern ranch. I’m happy to answer them here or (even more quickly) via instagram @midmodmidwest!