A ranch is not a cottage (and it never will be).

21 min read There are key difference between cottages and mid-century ranch homes. Your ranch is not a cottage, so steer clear of trendy cottage style updates.

Your ranch is not a cottage and it never will be. These are two different types of houses right down to their bones to the floor plan that is, and right up to every little detail that makes each of these different types of houses great. 

Modern cottage style (and it’s cousin pure white modern farm house style) are all the rage on social media, shelter magazines and HGTV right now. And there’s nothing at all wrong with those design choices … for houses that started out as cottages, farm houses, or with no style at all because they were built in 1980 or later.

But cottage style choices are just not right for your mid-century home. Let’s talk about why …

What even is a cottage?

The term cottage has been around for a long time and it has had many varied meanings in the US and in Europe. In the US, the word came to mean a small freestanding rural(ish) home.

The original flavor “cottage style” home in America came into vogue in the early part of the 1900s. The Craftsman Cottage of the early teens was a California offshoot of the Arts and Crafts movement happening in Europe. It became tremendously popular and then spun off a bunch of variations across the country. 

Some were very modest. Some a little more ornate. But they were typically modest in scale, with living social spaces on the main floor and maybe one beddroom, and then some bonus sleeping space in a second floor space tucked under pitched roof eaves. They had simple woodwork FOR THEIR TIME, but still show a level of craft that we would find very high end today.

One of my personal favorite sub-types of cottage style is the Chicago bungalow.

Let’s talk about the chicago bungalow

The Chicago bungalow has a similar footprint to a modest, early Midwestern ranch home. They both have a basement, originally left unfinished. And they are typically raised slightly meaning the main floor is above the grade so you don’t walk straight out to the yard from the floor level, rather you step onto a porch, deck or down to a patio. 

Comparing the floor plans, they each have the same set of rooms: an entry that goes into a living room, a combined living-dining room and a seperate kitchen space, plus two or three bedrooms and a single bathroom. 

However, the arrangement of the rooms is subtly distinct. 

Layout of a typical Chicago bungalow cottage

In the typical three bedroom Chicago bungalow, you enter through the small vestibule or porch that’s on one side of the front of the house. Then you pass through that into a parlor that stretches most of the house width across the front, adjacent to but separate from a dining room. And beyond that lies the kitchen. 

The kitchen is always separated from the dining area, usually by a built-in hutch, a pantry or even the stairs. From the kitchen there’s usually a connection out to the backyard and garage. And then on the other side running parallel to those living spaces you have two bedrooms and a bathroom usually separated with their own tiny access hallway.  The general design style of a cottage, and this holds true for bungalows, is charming detail – multi-pieced trim, built in cabinets, stained glass accents, leaded glass windows. 

Layout of a typical early midwestern ranch

A Midwestern ranch has the same set of rooms. Often a combined living room and dining room that you enter into, a kitchen nearby and the bedrooms and bath along their own hall. But it flows very differently. The the entry space of a ranch is dissolved in a mid-century house. It’s often separated only by a column from the living and dining rooms, which are often a shared space, and the kitchen. The bedrooms are typically side by side across the short end of the house with a bath between or beside them. Simple, low-maintenance details and new technology are the hallmarks of 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. 

And before you say … Della, these two houses still seem pretty similar. Take a look at what happened to the typical lot size and house orietntation in the intervening 20 years …

The bottom line is that while these houses have some ideas in common. They are not the same. Their layouts aren’t the same. And their detailing is not the same. Trying to “turn” one into the other with decoration is never going to work out well.

Watch out for the “churn” of remodeling fashion!

But as we revisit bygone eras through the constant cycle of trends, we can lose the context of those historical styles and apply key elements in the wrong context.

The result of forcing the wrong style onto a house is a home that feels distant from its era and “off” in key ways.

Hewing closer to the original flavor of a home, whether that home is a ranch or a bungalow, always results in a remodel that feels more timeless.

In Today’s Episode You’ll Hear:

  • How ranches and cottages are related. 
  • Where the two styles came from.
  • The hallmarks of cottage design that do not belong in your mid-century ranch.     

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Read the Full Episode Transcript

If you’ve never heard me say it before, I’ll say it right now, your ranch is not a cottage and it never will be. These are two different types of houses right down to their bones to the floor plan that is, and right up to every little detail that makes each of these different types of houses great. 

I’m not here to tell you that a cottage isn’t a lovely house and the modern cottage style isn’t the wrong type of remodel for a cottage, but it’s never going to fit properly with a mid-century home. 

So today, I actually want to sidetrack myself and talk about the cottage style in America generally. I’ll tell you about my favorite subcategory of cottage, the bungalow and why I love it. And give a brief history of the modern cottage movement. 

But at the end of the day, I’m hoping that will be obvious to you how these different, perfectly valid styles of homes are not mid-century or modern homes and why you don’t want to use the modern cottage playbook on your Minmatar remodel. Hey there, welcome back to mid mob remodel. This is the show about updating MCM homes, helping you match a mid-century home to your modern life and not turned it into a cottage. I’m your host della Hansmann architect and mid-century ranch enthusiast, and you’re listening to Episode 1610. 

Before we get into it the best way I know to keep your ranch remodel mid-century. To avoid that tractor beam pole of cottage core design that’s always trying to creep in around the edges, especially when you like me are trying to plan a budget friendly remodel, it’s to focus on the cornerstones of good mid mod design. Now I’ve done an entire podcast series on this that was back in December, but you can grab a quick guide to the concept of the cornerstones of mid-century design in a PDF at mid mod dash midwest.com/cornerstones. 

I’ll walk you through how to deploy playful asymmetry with balanced designs, the simple shapes, the trim profiles that door types, roof lines and decorative details that define the mid mod house, the material palette that makes up the aesthetic of mid-century. And as a bonus, how to plan great flow between the spaces both inside your house and between in and out. You can find the link to that in the show notes today as well and the transcript and more and some cool sketches of cottages and also mid-century ranches at midmod-midwest.com/ 1610. 

So the term cottage has been around for a long time and it has had many varied meanings in the US and in Europe. Going back to a word origin level, a cottage was once just the house of a cottager or a cutter who was a person who performed some time a full time work for a feudal lord and was granted in return the tenant or free right to live in a small freestanding home with a garden just large enough to feed their family. 

Later, the word came to me in a small freestanding rural home, which is why we also have them in America, no feudal lords here and no cutters. But I don’t really think of the early American housing types that they can fit under the label cottage but they have other specific definitions, the log cabin the saltbox, the Federalist home the Cape Cod, but cottage style as a choice. As a design preference came into vogue to my mind in the early part of the 1900s. The Craftsman cottage of the early teens was a California offshoot of the Arts and Crafts movement happening in Europe, and then spawned a bunch of variations across the country. 

The type of cottage that appeals to me most probably because it’s the variation closest to a ranch is the bungalow. And in the context of American Housing typology is a bungalow has a pretty specific meaning because a lot of them were built in rapid succession with very consistent features over a short period of time. And if that sounds familiar, well, the same is true at a slightly later period for ranch houses. There are some reasons behind that. a housing crisis building boom, the glories of newly developed suburban living, and just generally this thing we were dealing with in the first part of the 20th century, a new idea of a servant list single family home being where most people lived. 

Now, I’d like to talk to you about the Chicago bungalow as a type of cottage because it’s the one I know and love best. In my time in Chicago, I got to study this. And a bungalow is in some ways, very similar to a ranch. I know I just said cottages and mid-century homes are never the same. But there are some similarities between the Chicago bungalow and the early Midwestern tract ranch. They each share an older California cousin, which had more variation, more drama and was originally designed as a one off by architects. And then they were sort of boiled down into a working class variety that was built not as tracks not by one developer and a huge area but over and over and over again, in a small area in a small amount of time. 

So let’s look at the differences and similarities between a Chicago bungalow and a ranch. There is actually an area around Chicago that’s known as the bungalow belt and it’s basically the outer rim. At that time the outer belt of suburban development, the belt bungalows, were not tract housing in the way that mid-century houses in the Midwest often are. 

They’re not the product of one developer who bought a field and then filled it up with houses that they built themselves and then sold them off on to individual buyers. They were often built, sometimes several lots or even several blocks at a time by builders who wanted to profit on this population boom that was going on in Chicago in the 1930s. They were more or less mass produced from basic plans and using the same stock of local building materials. So they look very similar. 

And the Chicago bungalow belt type has a similar footprint to a modest, early Midwestern ranch home, but a couple of significant differences. They both do have a basement, which was originally left unfinished, and most of which have later been turned into living space. And they typically are raised slightly. So the main floor, the main plan level, is above the grade so you don’t walk straight out as in a California house, you walk straight out from the floor level, onto a patio, and in a mid-century house. 

And in the Midwest, and also in a bungalow in the Midwest, you usually step down several levels. That’s because the frost footing of three feet in Chicago or more like four and five feet as you go further north from Chicago in the Midwest requires that you might as well dig down far enough to put in a basement. Once you’ve put in a basement, you need to don’t need to dig down any farther. So you might as well at the main floor of the House stick up above grade a little bit to save yourself on excavation. Some of these things did not change with time. 

But while these two buildings are very closely related, they are not the same. You can look at the two floor plans and I actually have a fun side by side comparison of the two floor plans. They each have the same set of rooms, an entry that goes into a living room, a living dining room combined, and a kitchen space that’s separated from it slightly plus two or three bedrooms and a single bathroom and the original build style. 

The arrangement of the room is subtly distinct. In the typical three bedroom Chicago bungalow, you always enter through the small vestibule or porch that’s on one side of the front of the house and then you pass through that into a parlor that stretches most of the house width across the front. Adjacent but separate will be a dining room. And beyond that lies the kitchen. The kitchen is always separated from the dining area significantly, not just by a wall but usually by a built-in hutch, a pantry or even the stairs are sometimes placed there going down to the basement and or up to an attic. The idea was to keep the sight smell and the heat of the cooking process distinctly away from the rest of the house and out of the public eye. 

From the kitchen there’s usually a connection out to the backyard and garage. And then on the other side running parallel to those living spaces you have a bedroom, bathroom and bedroom usually separated with their own tiny access hallway. Or occasionally a three bedroom house would locate two bedrooms across the back of the house. But in that case, the kitchen would still have a side door a separate access that would go out towards the back of the house. 

Now a ranch, especially an early Midwestern ranch has the same set of rooms, living dining room that you enter into a kitchen and the bedroom and bath separated but it flows very differently. The foyer, the entry space of a ranch is dissolved in a mid-century house; it’s often separated only by a column and the walls are different than the flooring. The living and dining rooms will be one shared space and the kitchen. While theoretically open plan in the California version is probably its own room, but it’s only separated by a wall usually with a doorless open doorway from the living spaces. 

The bedrooms will be typically side by side across the short end of the house with a bath between or beside them. The thing is when you talk about the floor plans of these and if you glance at the show notes page, you might find this interesting, you can’t actually compare these two floor plans side by side because the other thing that dramatically changed in America in housing context between the era of the bungalows in the 1930s and the era of the ranches in the 1950s was the way we thought about suburban development at all. 

Changes in lifestyle and land usage plus the growth of single family car ownership between the 20s and the 50s meant that the buildings changed and so did their lots. So the ranches are oriented with their long side facing the street on a much wider but sometimes less deep lot. But the bungalows were oriented long side to the other so they were stacked like cigarettes in a row. And I don’t know why I just went to cigarette in my head but stacked densely and their short end was front to the street and back to an alley. 

In Chicago there’s always an alley and again, for their times, you could describe the bungalow and the ranch as similar in style because they both had the most basic acceptable low level of trim detailing and general decor but in the bungalow, although at its time it was considered to be very plain basic under detailed home. It still had to a whole bunch of details of trim have built in cabinets of stained glass, leaded glass windows of glass panels in the built hands, and there’s just a higher level of detailing. 

As we come into the mid-century era, that style is not even so much that it is more minimalist, but it is more simple. By the time we go from the 1930s, the bungalow era to the 1950s, the ranch era, it’s not that people were missing gingerbread trim, and six panel doors. They were reveling in the easy maintenance and the low cleaning necessity and the new technology. The hallmark of a ranch was always its array of modern cooking and white washing appliances, not the details. 

Okay, so that’s the bungalow versus the ranch. But if we come back, every other type of cottage is more has more variety in the Chicago bungalow belt, and its uniqueness was one of the selling points, even when it was being mass produced. For example, you could buy a Sears catalog house did you know you could buy houses from the Sears catalog back in the day you could and they would ship you the entire kit with operating instructions and you’d put it up yourself on site.

My grandparents, my mother’s parents actually assembled a house not following the instructions because in my family we do not follow the instructions. But they bought two garage kits from a Sears catalog and use the pieces to put together into a very wonky shaped very modest, not quite ranch style house in my grandmother’s hometown in Monticello, Illinois. I’ve seen it and it is it’s odd, but let’s not get too distracted. 

The kit houses that were described as cottages you’d get from Sears would still have vernacular style details that were meant to be very charming and odd hoc they would have little gabled entrances or little arched curvature or faux tutor or English revival or American Southwest detailing. So you can see a lot of varieties peaked roofs, slow sloped ceilings, but everything in that form of cottage is not ornate at least cute. It’s twee. It’s charming, and I don’t know how it would have read to the people back then it might have read as minimalist and simple in a world where we didn’t have mass produced materials. 

But to us today, it’s always going to feel like the highest form of cottage is one that’s ornate it’s decorated with an arched doorway between each of the main rooms with exaggerated peak roofs with stonework or stained glass windows, wood trim that’s kind of elaborate, decorated woodwork and storage built in every possible place built in bookshelves. 

Alright, so I’ve listed a bunch of similarities and differences between the original cottages and the original mid-century ranch houses. But we’re today we’re talking about remodel. So we’re talking about modern mid-century and we’re talking about modern cottage. So let’s give a little history of modern cottage style. 

And I feel like it’s been kind of haunting me my whole life and that in a good way. In the 80s. It showed up in Laura Ashley interiors. And then in my teens, it turned into this sort of shabby chic era of faux distressed furniture, ragged sponge painted walls, and then it was definitely still harkening back to that same ethos of of faux vernacular, if not actual vernacular, rustic, cute, twee. And then we get the Pottery Barn version in the early 2000s, which sort of rolled along quietly in the background as a baseline taste. Until the moment that the sun broke the clouds or, if you view this as a negative thing, everything came crashing down when Chip and Joanna Gaines kicked off modern farmhouse style (which I class is a variation on modern cottage) with their show in 2013. 

And from there it sort of evolved into what we see today. I’m not an expert in the style details of modern cottage because I avoid it like the plague but there are a few common themes and it certainly means painting everything except a few wooden accents plaster white decorating with raw linen slipcovered furniture color theme of leather tan beige off white neutrals. 

Judging from the images that came up with a quick Google search we might be back to rag painting and sponge painting the walls again. Why why are the 90s back? I don’t want to wear stonewashed jeans with wide legs anymore, but it’s that same nostalga, the same this style to this bringing back the stonewashed jeans is bringing back this resurgence and modern cottage style. 

Now weirdly though, well actual cottages and the Laura Ashley gingham print style of the 80s that we’re kind of going back to and our minds are always cozy. The most modern version of the modern cottage actually feels the opposite of cozy. It’s this very harsh combination of all white surfaces except a few shiny black metal accents at the window and door trim. 

And it seems to look A little haunted in most of the houses that I find it now there are things we can learn from cottage style. By all means we can borrow some ideas from their space planning. Because cottages are also often small footprints like mid-century homes, they can be very cozy and we can think about furniture layouts or kitchen space planning even the footprint the floor plan can always be borrowed from one to another, where applicable, but we do not need to follow their aesthetic nor should we. 

Now again, there’s nothing wrong with the style decision to go cottage it can very well be applied to any cottage or I would argue you can apply cottage style to any house built in the 80s. The 90s are the last 24 years that lacks any other inbuilt sense of style. My general feeling is if you love the look of a cottage if cut is what draws you find an area of urban or suburban development largely developed in the 1930s or before or the 80s. And after, and go nuts add the details that the previous remodel stripped and removed or never had. 

But because I mean going back, the same kind of mistakes have been made in those homes in those kitchens, those bathroom updates that have been made in mid-century homes, the 80s were just as likely to put a Victorian kitchen with heavy oak woodwork into a cottage as they were to put in the simple bright painted cabinets and glass front doors that would have been more appropriate. 

Similarly, if someone got to it in 1990, they might have tried to create a little slice of Tuscany in their bathroom, which would not have worked any more than it would in a mid-century house. But you’re here listening to this podcast because you live in a mid-century house and you love it. So we’re fighting the same fight as the cottage owners in a different way. We’re trying to keep some line of connection again, not to live in a museum necessarily not to turn the clock back on your build date. 

But for a successful remodel a timeless one, one that will really last, you do want to make choices that feel aligned with the style DNA of your house. Your goal is to make choices for your home that will feel like it’s the cool young cousin of what it might originally have been. I encourage you wherever you can, to avoid the advice the Home Depot standards, the what we’re going to see in a lot of the shelter magazines and most of HGTV that says the one style update the current style update, all you should do as an update is to apply cottage style detailing to your home, the beadboard the leaded glass windows, the overly constructed trim the six panel doors, all of that is great, but not for us. 

So when you are looking into how to make great choices for your house, remember your mid-century style guide, you can always come back to your style guide. And if you have any questions on how to make that happen, I’ve got a free resource and style guides for you too. That’s it mid mod dash midwest.com/style Guide. But I just want you to remember that there is a difference between a cottage style and a ranch style. 

And if you’d like to have a look at that I really do encourage you to go take a take a gander at the comparison sketches that I have between that classic the most mid-century ish house type there is that falls within a cottage umbrella is the Chicago bungalow. And it’s still it’s so clearly not a ranch, not a mid-century home. 

Alright, today’s pep talk. This week’s pep talk comes by way of our recently started mid mod Mod Squad. For those of you who don’t know this is when we have a group of new ready to remodel students all joined the ready to remodel program at once, often after a live masterclass like we just had. And I scheduled some bonus calls above and beyond our regular first Monday of the month Office Hours call so we can keep our enthusiasm high, you didn’t know each other have a sense of group camaraderie. It’s so much fun.

So as a result of kicking off a new ReMod Squad, I’ve been thinking a lot about what it takes to break the inertia to get moving to feel like you’ve made progress on planning a remodel when you’ve spent so long thinking you need to get started, but you haven’t. And one thing I’m finding is that there are so many commonalities between everyone no matter their different circumstances who’ve all joined at this moment. 

And as they get into that energy of I’ve broken the inertia, I’ve started to plan. They’ve all kind of jumped in different but overall similar ways to an endpoint question. To boil it down. It’s people just sort of getting to the nitty gritty details before they have done the internal work to figure out how they’ll answer those nitty gritty details and, and wanting to have the answer before they have properly framed the question. It’s so easy to do this. We all get to we think we’re planning a remodel. So our brain goes to the final to the purchasing decisions or the layout feet and inches or the structural challenges. 

And yet actually, the most important foundational thing is the dream phase, not a dream. Properly doing your dream phase won’t make your house magically bigger, but it will help you march confidently up to your more specific problems later when you’ve done those first steps first, and see the answer in a new way. Now Do I have the entire master plan laid out helpfully step by step and workbooks and classes inside the program. But what really helps people on these calls more than me telling them, you’re getting ahead of yourself. 

And this will all become clear when we follow the process is to see everyone else having some variation of the same stressors that they’re having. It’s so validating. So today’s pep talk is really me singing a refrain of my favorite song, which is, go find your people, find the other people who care about mid-century choices, and who are somewhere in the process of an active remodel plan right now. Because those people are going to understand you, they’re going to sympathize with you. 

They’re going to support you, they’re going to reinforce you and help you make great choices, even more than your nearest and dearest people who love you and care about you. But don’t love and care about your remodel as much as you do. You don’t have to join my Mid Mod ReMod Squad, you can go find your own. Make friends with someone in your neighborhood who’s also remodeling, create a meetup group, find people on Instagram, and DM them to ask how their plans are going. If you can commiserate about the tricky parts of your plan with theirs. 

But what you need, wherever you go is to find someone else who’s sharing this common sense of a remodel plan. And when you see them jumping ahead to the endpoint, and then your instinct is to tell them hey, let’s go back to the beginning and frame the question properly, you’ll catch yourself doing the same thing and it will all feel so much more possible and easy. This is how we make all the hard things seem easier. The secret is to follow the process from dream at the start all the way through to the end of the master plan method. But don’t go it alone. Go find your team, go find your people will make it easier. 

Okay, here’s this week’s quick fix or level one update for your mid-century home. Raise your hand if you work from home. Now even if you don’t, you may still have a space in your house that is designated as an office space or to get work done. Choosing to go full Vintage Decor in your work area is a personal decision everyone has to make for themselves. Those center of the room double sided vintage desks are a delight to my eye and a very inefficient space of my small home office. I’m much more likely to talk to someone on Zoom than in person. So I have a practical stand up Sit down desk that is not mid-century at all. You need to make your own choice in this way. Ergonomics has to play into your decision making. 

So as you adjust your setup or create from scratch and mid-century style home office, you need to think about what is going to avoid repetitive stress injuries. Think about the proper height of desk chair, monitor table, etc. These days, like I say, I don’t mess around with it. But there is one obvious choice you can make in an office that will satisfy your mid-century style eye and not create any injury to your back or risks. And that is storage shelving. I’ve gone slightly practical over full mid-century and my choice I’ve got a 70s era I have our IKEA set of wood shelves. They’re modest, but please meet and they fit with their pine boards and they’re simple shapes into the ethos of the mid-century era. 

But a little more effort and a little more floor space could be achieved with a wall mounted set of shelves and these can go super high end with a gorgeous custom antique vintage combination of bookshelves, magazine display shelves, writing desk, closed box storage and more. If you ever find these listed on Facebook marketplace for any reason for a reasonable price, run, do not walk to your car and buy them immediately. You can also sometimes find these in higher end mid-century antique shops. 

There’s one that’s been on the wall at the back of atomic antiques for over a year now and it’s not cheap, but I want someone to bring this into their home for themselves. There are however much more affordable DIY viable options. All you really need is a set of pine boards, and some of those basic wall mounted brackets and the little brass adjustable bracket strips you can find in any Container Store.

You could even do them in white for a slightly less authentically mid-century look a little more searching like I say we’ll turn them up for a brown metal, metal or black finish. There’s also accompanying modern shelving that will help you to put together a semi custom system. These are in the end not just appropriate for offices, but also for bedrooms for living rooms if you want to surround a TV in a graceful way on a wall. 

Remember, you don’t have to fill those shelves with stuff. Mid Century decor often left a lot of negative space that is open areas to display a few art objects that could be switched out for seasonal decor, or store a music system, maybe a smart speaker that would have made your mid-century grandparents green with envy or framed photos. Remember that the watchword of mid-century design is asymmetry. 

Don’t be tempted to frame in something regular or rectilinear when you don’t have to so think about drawing some strong diagonals with object placement or shelf lengths and think about offsetting the balance so that a few larger heavier pieces stretch out long More than others and you have an eye pleasing, off centered arrangement on the wall in front of you or behind you to form a nice zoom background. For more on the benefits of asymmetry and how to deploy it in your mid-century house, make sure you check out that podcast episode from last December. That would be episode 1501. 

All right. Let me know how this goes for you. Find the transcript of this episode and a link to the resources I mentioned those sketches of the bungalow and the ranch side by side with a side by side floorplan comparison of a bungalow and ranch at the show notes page, mid mod dash midwest.com/ 1610. 

One more thing before I go, I haven’t really talked about one of the biggest modern cottage design moves. And in my opinion, one of the biggest mistakes you can make on a mid-century house, which is to paint everything white. And the reason I haven’t really addressed that today is that that is such a big topic for me. It’s so important. I have so many things to say about it that I’m going to break it out into a separate episode and talk about it next time. 

So stay tuned for next week when I talk about why white paint is great in moderation. But why you’re going to want to avoid it in several key places. And how if you’re feeling the urge or being urged by some outside advice giver for reasons to paint something, or a lot of things white, I’ll talk to you about what other design moves to drive first before you go to covering your original walls, woodwork, brick, stone, etc. With thick white paint that you will never be able to as easily or at all take back off. So stay tuned for next week. See you then.