What Every Ranch Owner Needs to Know about the History of the Midwestern Ranch

6 min read The Midwestern Ranch arrived in the middle from both East and West Coast influences. Plus there was a local influence (pssst – it was Frank Lloyd Wright).

The Midwestern Ranch has many influences. If you’ve been following me for any amount of time, you know how much I love a ranch. Today I’m digging into what I see as the  major inspirations of my local variety.

The Midwestern Ranch arrived here from both the East and West Coasts, where the two movements met and melded.

Note: I’ve adapted this post from the first part of a lecture on Perfecting Your Ranch House, given at the Seqouya Library in Madison, WI on Mar 21, 2019.

The Western Rancho: from the west

Historians attribute original idea for the “ranch house” to Cliff May. He was a saxophone player turned furniture designer. Starting with a show home to promote his furniture, he built and promoted a new style of houses he called ranch homes. He came up with his new ranch idea in the mid 1930’s. However, it took the post-war building boom to really gain traction.

I’ve posted about May and the origins of the California Ranch here. May designed wide spread, single story homes. They featured low pitched roofs and lots of connection between indoor and out door living spaces. In his own words:

‘The ranch house was everything a California house should be -it had cross-ventilation, the floor was level with the ground, and with its courtyard and the exterior corridor, it was about sunshine and informal outdoor living.”

From the air, a Cliff May tract looks a lot like what you might find in neighborhoods across the midwest. This is the Lakewood Rancho Estates tract in Long Beach California.

If you’re a midwesterner, an actual Cliff May Ranch might look a little unfamiliar, however. Here’s one of his tract homes from Harvey Park in Denver Colorado.

His designs used a post-and-beam structure to support the roof. This meant that he was able to do away with many interior and exterior walls. He replaced exterior walls to the back yard with glass and separated interior spaces with partial height partitions.

The Levitt “Cape Cod”: from the East

Meanwhile, out East, another developer was pioneering fast construction of single family houses. William Levitt started his first sub-division in 1947 and rapidly changed the face of American housing. His idea was to take the tools of mass production and extrapolate them from the factory to a neighborhood scale. At his peak he was producing 12 new houses a day.

His signature design was a sort of boiled down version of the traditional east coast Cape Cod. We call this style “minimal traditional.” It has a peaked roof, multi panel front door and (faux) shutters on the windows.

The Levitt houses were “open plan” in the sense that they had a connection between the kitchen and living space. Still, they had a much more traditional structure – the walls supported the roof – and layout.

This style references an American patriotic ideal that appealed to many during the post war baby boom.

Note: Levitt’s developments had restrictive covenants that dictated who could live in them. Levitt explicitly prohibited black families from buying his homes. He was not alone in this. For more

The Cape Cod house – with its traditional references – was the favorite home style through the boom years immediately after the war. By the 1950’s, the ranch edged it out as America’s house preference but it remained a strong runner up of home design .

A Race to the Middle: The Midwestern Ranch

So, during the frenzied demand for post war housing, ranches and the minimal cape cods, both went up at astonishing rates. Despite a few outliers, the Cape Cod Cottage was most popular on the east coast. The more modern Ranch held sway to the west.

The two styles met in the middle. You’ll find many of both through out the midwest.

Both styles maximized efficiency as a defining feature during this high-speed housing boom. The average house built in 1950 was under 1000 square feet. In fact, two thirds of houses built in that year had just “four rooms.” Note; that means kitchen, a living room and two bedrooms – they didn’t count the bathroom. One reason for the mid-century emphasis on patio living was that there wasn’t quite enough space inside the house.

As the pressure to house all the baby boom families eased, houses became slightly larger and the casually sprawling nature of the mid-western ranch was able to take the lead.

Mid-Century houses in Madison WI

In Madison it happens that this east vs west style battle is written in our geography. On the East Side we have many minimalist traditional cottages –  the Levitt style house. On the West Side, where I live, I’m surrounded by ranches.  

If you want a little help spotting the mid-century areas around your home, check out my post on Finding Mid-Century Neighborhoods!

Home Grown Inspiration: Frank Lloyd Wright and the Usonian Ideal

We can’t discount the effect of home-grown hero Frank Lloyd Wright on the design of Midwestern Mid-Century homes.

At the time that ranch houses were being “invented” in California. Wright was a well established architect. The Great Depression had dried up many of his more expensive projects, and he was at a stagnant period in his career as. Then, he met a young couple hoping to build an affordable house. They asked him for a $5000 (about $80,000 today) house, and he made built them this:

Jacobs House, Madison Wisconsin, Frank Lloyd Wright

Usonia 1: the Jacobs House

The Jacobs House was the first “Usonian” house – read that as USA-onian. Wright conceived it as the ideal home for the ideal American future. (He was nothing if not a big thinker.)

I’ve profiled the Jacobs House before . If you want to dig into more of its history, there is a recent and AMAZING podcast episode of 99% Invisible on the subject. For the moment let’s talk about how ranch-like it is … especially for a house designed and built in 1937!

Usonia 1 is a single story building with a low (flat) roof and deep extending eves. It has a modest and asymmetrical street front. It connects the car space (a carport, in this case) with the rest of the house to further elongate its form. The back of the house is lined with windows, making a strong connection between interior and exterior spaces. The living and dining room are connected and close to the (small, utilitarian) kitchen. The bedrooms are separated from the more open public spaces on their own hallway.

That sounds A LOT LIKE A RANCH.

Later, Wright went on to design more than a hundred Usonian houses around the country. Here in Madison we can see his influence in the work of his Taliesin Apprentices.

Here are a few more Wright- inspired uniquely Midwestern mid-century local houses that influence our local design ideas.

Oak Leaf House by James Dresser

This is “Ode to an Oak Leaf” by Wright disciple, architect James Dresser, in Shorewood Hills, WI.

The Oak Leaf house was built in 1950. Its meticulous, magnificent design includes stone all sourced from an old quarry on site, a hole in the roof for a site tree to grow through and custom ironwork air ducts. (It is listed in the State and National historic registers).

True to mid-century modesty, it has two beds, one bath and is only 1400 sf. Bless the 50’s for their reasonable extravagances!

Mid-Century house by Herb Fritz

I wouldn’t complete any collection of favorite Mid-century houses around Madison without adding this Herb Fritz design.

This tiny jewel box, no more than 20′ wide. You can see his Wright influences in the mitered corner soffit boards, the combination of reaching roofline, and grounded placement. The Cherokee Red paint was also Frank Lloyd Wright’s favorite color.

The Midwest is home to millions of of these specifically midwestern ranch houses – from builder’s basic to amazing flights of architectural fancy. They are starting to be appreciated again for their livability and flare.

Keep our Midwestern Ranch forebears in mind for your own updates!

Remember, as you upgrade your midwestern ranch to meet modern needs, you can still preserve – and even improve – their mid-century features. Now you’ve got some great midwestern design inspiration to do just that!

What’s your favorite home grown mid-century home or designer? Are you a fan of Wright and his Taliesin disciples? Let me know in the comments.