A Short History of Mid-Century Ranches in the Midwest

13 min read We can all use a reminder that history comes with context — what was important and why –before we make informed choices about what we change, and what we shouldn’t.

sketch of a 1953 ranch with sectional garage door

This week, I’m digging into the history of mid-century ranches in the midwest. After all, it helps to know where we’re coming from before we plan where to go next.

The main message here is that history happens in a context. The materials, style, choices, and culture that add up to a mid-century ranch all come from somewhere.

Knowing the history, helps us recognize what’s still important about our homes (and what might not be). Knowing what’s important to you will help you streamline decisions about remodeling your house.

Hear the History of the Mid-Century Ranch in the Midwest now on:

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Why the history of Mid-Century ranches even matters

Maybe this is a no brainer for you. Maybe you’re listening because you are an MCM history buff. I’m one too.

But learning MCM history is key for anyone planning to update a mid-century home. We can all use a reminder that history came with context, what was important and why before we make informed choices about what we change and what we shouldn’t.

Regional MCM history matters, too

I just had an amazing example of MCM regional differences pop up in my Instagram community this week.

I posted a few shots of a house just down the block from mine and commented that I was envying this original mid-century garage door. (Mine was replaced with cheap metal, and I wish it hadn’t been.)

I got a response from @modarchitecture. That’s Darren Bradley, who is an amazing mid-century architecture photographer. He chipped in to tell me that this garage door could be original because mid century garage doors of that period would always have been a tilt-slab designs.

I was fascinated because I’d barely heard of tilt-slab garage doors. Was this a chunk of MCM history I was missing out on?

I took that back to Instagram and updated my story to say, looks like I’m wrong. @modarchitecture says that this house would had a tilt-slab, and then I threw it open to crowdsourcing. Who else knows about this?

People commented back, telling me that their house did or did not have an original tilt-slab, PLUS WHERE THEIR MCM HOUSE WAS LOCATED! It started to sound like there were other people in the midwest who believed their segmented garaged doors were original.

I thought about it a little more and realized that it didn’t seem very practical for a Midwestern house to have a tilt-slab garage door which could get blocked in by winter snow drifting. So, I did a little research, and sure enough, I found that advertisements for contemporary houses with that and even earlier ones in this area did have sectional roll-up garage doors.

Here’s a sketch from a 1953 Parade of Homes model for Madison, WI showing a segmented, roll-up garage door.

sketch of a 1953 ranch with sectional garage door

I still need to do more research on the subject, but the bottom line is — this is a regional variation in mid-century homes.

It’s so important to consider how the region affects the history of your house, and it’s really important to know what that history IS before you make choices about what is hypothetically correct or aesthetically pleasing for you to consider.

When was Mid-Century Modern

Mid-century modern is not they would’ve called this style back when they were building my house.

The term was actually coined in 1984 by Cara Greenberg for her book, Mid-century Modern: Furniture of the 1950s.

The term mid-century modern has a lot of broad definitions. It can mean different things to different interest groups. If you’re interested in industrial design, furniture, interior decorating, or homes. Region by region, MCM faded in and out at different times.

For myself, speaking for Madison, it’s an easy shorthand to say 1945 to 1965.

What came before Mid Century Modern

Let’s put this mid-century postwar building boom into a bigger context. What were the big changing movements that were going on? Before we talked about the mid century, we need to talk about what came before.

International Modernism

Modern, as in modernism, is tied to the idea of International Modernism, a new idea that came out of Europe after World War I and eventually spread all over the world.

Big names in this movement you may have heard include Walter Gropius, Le Corbusier, Richard Neutra, JP Oud, Phillip Johnson.

In very broad strokes, these guys were all interested in renouncing historicist architecture that looked backward and tried to emulate old parts of history.

They wanted to explore the possibilities of new and newly improved construction materials like steel frames and glass used in curtain walls. They wanted to strip away extra ornament and focus on the beauty of each material doing the thing it was meant to do. You might have heard the phrase by Louis Kahn, ‘What does the brick want to be?’ That ties right into the same idea.

They started a school of architecture, the Bauhaus, but were basically run out of Germany in the 1930s for being too socialist and having too many Jewish members of their design community. They ended up all over the world – hence International – including here in America. Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer came to the Harvard graduate school of design and basically remade it in their image. Mies van der Rohe came to Chicago and founded a program at IIT.

Here is Mies’ Farnsworth House, built in Plano, IL in 1952.

Read more: RESIDENTIAL ARCHITECTURE IN THE AGE OF THE RANCH: FARNSWORTH HOUSE

Together, they trained a generation of American architects in modernism; the prevailing style of big architecture that would be office building, schools, government, etc., well into the 1970s.

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Organic Modernism

Frank Lloyd Wright was a dedicated iconoclast who refused to be categorized into anyone else’s idea of modernism or design styles.

He went through a number of iterations in his own design career, starting with the Prairie School, with long, low, broad houses with wide overhanging gable roof lines.

Then he moved into a period where he spent a lot of time in Arizona and got interested in designing with sort of Mayan style concrete blocks.

Eventually, he decided to create a new American suburban landscape with a house type he called Usonian, that’s U S A — Usonian — small houses for individual homeowners that were meant to be built in car-access suburbs.

The first Usonian House was designed for the Jacobs family right here in Madison, Wisconsin, and just got listed on the UNESCO world heritage site along with seven other Frank Lloyd Wright buildings.

Read more: USONIA 1: THE JACOBS HOUSE IN MADISON WI

Wright was really pushing the idea of a new kind of living, a little bit more open plan, and yet not quite as harshly grid-based. His designs weren’t mid-century ranches but they might be called older uncles or cousins to the “modern” mid-century ranch!

The Cape cod cottage, America’s favorite house … until the ranch

Neither Frank Lloyd Wright nor the International Modernists were having a huge influence on what the regular American house looked like before the post-war building boom.

One of the most common house forms basically at any point in American history, was the Cape Cod cottage.

A cape cod is a very simple house form a plan, one or two stories under a steep pitched roof. This style goes all the way back to settlement of New England. It typically has a central door lined flanked by symmetrical windows.

If you’re interested in the design history of Cape Cod houses, check out architect Royal Barry Wills, a Massachusetts designer who was a huge booster of the style. Here’s his best biography: At Home in New England: Royal Barry Wills Architects 1925 to Present by Richard Wills. Royal Wills was a strong proponent of traditional-looking houses, updated for modern living, with slightly modernized floor plans. His work was featured in national better homes competitions and won prizes in the late twenties and early thirties. He continued to practice and promote traditionalist design right up until his death in 1962 — much to the disgust of architects trained in modernist schools everywhere.

The Post War Building Boom

So let’s get into our period.

The mid century homestyle was created by the postwar building boom, and it was basically a perfect storm in history.

The great depression and World War II created a huge housing bottleneck, compounded by the population boom and an industrial leap forward propelled by the war.

It all added up to a giant pressure cooker that as soon as the war ended released a couple of things: GI is coming home and ready to get on with their delayed lives and households, industries desperately looking for ways to switch from full wartime manufacturing mode into something they could sell to peacetime.

Things like:

  • war nylon supplies being turned into a wall to wall carpeting,
  • the float glass technology developed during the war turned into a large-scale window manufacturing,
  • and the plastics that have been created to replace limited availability of metal and wood during the war were recycled into a myriad of home goods.

The Levitt brothers had perfected their mass home manufacturing techniques while making fast, temporary-housing for servicemen during the war. They basically just rolled that business model over into new tract home development.

Harvard professor Barbara Miller Lane in her book, Houses for a New World: Builders and Buyers in American Suburbs 1945 – 1965, cites four major events responsible for the dramatic shift in housing types during this period.

  1. increased car ownership.
  2. the new interstate highway system.
  3. the low interest longterm government loans that are available for veterans, and
  4. the rise in the bottom line for lower and middle income families.

The result was a huge expansion of urban areas with the new highway connections, making it possible for people to live farther from where they worked. That, combined with the FHA loans, gave us the broad reaching American suburbs.

This is exactly what the Middle Class was asking for

Now, it’s easy to poke holes when we look backwards. We can sing songs about the houses all being made of ticky tacky and complain (as I do) about the damage we’ve done to our society by creating a world built around cars and highways — when we used to have this amazing interconnected transit system of trolley lines and street car lines that we took out and threw away.

But you have to remember that these early suburban ranch neighborhoods were exactly what middle and working class families had been clamoring for — for a generation.

The war/depression era had put an unbearable squeeze on new housing development and congested cities were becoming unlivable. The depression and war had drawn people into urban areas from their origins in small towns, rural areas and other countries.

Cities were packed with dense, out of date housing that didn’t meet modern standards of light, fresh air, privacy, or even electricity. People were demanding a change.

Note: A lot of emphasis is put on white flight, which is part of it, but while there were a number of moves to close the door behind white families that were moving to the suburbs and keep black ones from following them, the reason that everyone was racing to the suburbs was because they thought it was a better life for their families.

Racism and the history of Mid-century ranches

This is a good time to call out the racism that is baked into mid-century housing history. The expansions that were accelerated by new housing laws aimed to make home buying more affordable, lower down payment costs and introduced the 30-year, fixed-rate mortgage were available only to white families. They made the dream of home ownership possible for some, and they entrenched historic inequities in our communities for many other people.

The federal housing authority loans were not available to black families.

A policy known as red lining basically divided up cities into maps and small neighborhoods to see which would qualify for the loans. A good quality neighborhood wasn’t determined by infrastructure or any other factors. It was basically, do any black families live here? And if so, how many? And so, basically, you could downgrade the federal mortgage rating for a whole neighborhood if even a single black household moved in.

The segregationist lending policies and realtor association policies (which would basically club together to refuse to even show families of color a house in a nice, new neighborhood that was going in) did huge damage.

Red lining, that policy of downgrading neighborhoods, wasn’t outlawed until the Fair Housing Act in 1968, which means that families of color basically missed out on the potential for home equity-derived prosperity of the entire mid-century era.

Do you want to learn more about this horrifying element of America’s housing history? I recommend that you start with Ta Nehisi Coates’ The Case for Reparations, published in the Atlantic.

Culture war: Mid-century modern vs Mid-Century Traditional

There were two major design styles in play during the history of the Mid-century ranches. One was the ranch, representing modernism and future thinking. The other was the cape cod style, representing a look back to American history.

During the immediate post war, the Cape Cod house was the most common house type. But in the early fifties the ranch surpassed it.

The Cape Cod remained a staple of American home design all the way through the period. Professional architectural magazines were publishing only modernist houses, but popular home magazines, like Home and Garden and House Beautiful, were showing both modern and colonial Cape Cod style homes.

In either case, they often had the same kind of layout inside.

The open plan was the defining element of modern home design, and it reached America via the ranch house. Here’s a perfect example in this spec home rendering:

the history of mid-century ranches shown in a rendering for one modest house

The floor plan is exactly the same, and it has two options for how you can build it – either build it with a little peaked roof, like a little cottage, or you can build it with a California flat roof. Suddenly it’s very modernist and avant guard, but it is exactly the same house.

Cliff may and the California ranch

The California ranch is credited to a fellow named Cliff May. He was not an architect or even trained as a designer. He was a saxophone player, turned furniture designer, who created the first ranch house as a fancy showroom to show off his furniture.

For May, his design of the ranch house had three basic tenants: livability, flexibility and unpretentious character.

His ranches had open floor plans that were informal and created a seamless flow between rooms. He wanted attached garages to integrate the car into modern life, and he wanted a friendly informal and as he put it, gay environment within the house.

He liked multipurpose rooms -casual family dens – rather than formal living rooms which could be adapted as children aged, and family needs changed.

image from book cover cliff may western ranch

May wasn’t designing a fancy, highly-embellished type of house with a formal entry or a symmetrical front on the street. He was looking for a casual home, where you could throw an informal party or host a barbecue.

Read more: CLIFF MAY AND THE ORIGINS OF THE RANCH HOUSE

The Mid-Century Cape Cod (or Minimal Traditional)

The flip side of that coin was the mid-century Cape Cod, or as it’s also known, the minimal-traditional house.

The idea behind this kind of house was basically efficiency. The Levitt brothers at the height of their era were building this type of house incredibly quickly, and they had an assembly line system set up in open air. One truck would come and start pouring the concrete slab for one house. It would go on to the next property and to the next property. Meanwhile, another truck would come along and deliver all of the studs, wood framing, and finish materials in a giant pile. Then a crew could come along and start framing. A different crew would work on finishing. A different crew would work on painting, and these houses could be smacked together as quickly as possible.

Common features of the MCM home

The most urgent factor for postwar home design, whether ranch or Cape Cod, was low cost.

Right after the war, there was such a crunch that houses had to be very low cost and very small, usually under a thousand square feet in 1950 and only a third of new houses built in 1950 had five or more rooms — a three bedroom house, basically. The rest were SMALLER – just two bedrooms.

Thomas Hubka is a professor of Architecture at the UW-Milwaukee School of Architecture, and he specializes in vernacular, or basically regular people, housing. He says that the ranch was a shocking departure from everything that had gone before. Up until the mid-century era, going back to 10th century, a double-story house, two or more floors had always been the aspirational house, the Mark of Gentry. So the idea that middle-class families were aspiring to single floor houses, and that even wealthy people were building high-end ranch houses, single floor – just with a few more bells and whistles was really a dramatic change.

He sees the defining qualities of a ranch as being divided into separate areas for car, for living, and for sleeping – often lined up right next to each other: garage living, kitchen, bedrooms area. But that on the outside, it’s presented as a unified whole with little differentiation between the three.

So , the ideas that started out really big in California back in the day had been boiled down to smaller, more modest ideas here in the Midwest. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t tie back and forth between them.

Learning from the history of mid-century ranches

The bottom line is you can never go wrong by learning more about the history of your home.

That might be learning more about what was going on in the year or decade when it was built generally across the country. What was going on in your region specifically? What was normal? What was the contemporary best building practice? Why designers, builders, and homeowners did what they did.

One of the best resources to do your own design research is to just look around your own neighborhood. Study other neighborhoods in your area. Talk to your elderly neighbors and ask them questions about how the neighborhood has changed. You may also be able to find primary sources.

Knowing what’s important from history will help us place things into context. It will help us recognize what’s still important about our homes and what isn’t, and it’ll help us make important decisions that’ll streamline the remodeling process for each house we take on.

Listener Shoutout(s)

mid mod remodel podcast review reading “informative, useful and fun to listen to.  Della’s love and deep knowlge of mid mod architecture shines thorugh.  Can’t wait to hear more.”

That’s so sweet. (In the interests of full disclosure, Denise is my mom.)

mid mod remodel podcast review  “great first episode.  I’m excited to hear more.”

But I’ve never met Go Hatters. Thanks for your support!

Finally, I got this via instagram

"Listened and thoroughly enjoyed! So relieved to hear the hurdles of conveying mid-century design vision to a contractor are not only mine. It can be so disheartening when you ask for something mid-century specific and the contractor looks at you like you're out of your mind. How do I say nicely that I'm remodeling for my own living, not for resale, and I don't want to maximize square footage? Thanks for the encouragement. Can't wait for next week! "

Abigail, I can’t tell you how much that means to me.  You are literally WHY I AM DOING THIS. You made my whole day with that comment. Thank you for sharing your struggle.  You are not alone.

Want even more MCM resources?

If you want to dig a little deeper, I’ve put together a list of my favorite mid-century resources, books, articles, websites, product suppliers, etc., and you can find all of that here: YOUR MUST HAVE MID-CENTURY RANCH RESOURCE LIST (43 AND COUNTING)

Alternately, you can download it and explore at your own pace.

Tell me what you think

As always, if you have ideas, comments, or questions about your mid-century home remodel, drop me a message in the show notes or hit me up via direct message on Instagram. I’m @midmodmidwest.