It's Ranch Week! So … What Is a Ranch House, Actually?

This week, we're celebrating the ranch house, America's iconic, homegrown architectural archetype, the one that says "suburbia" like no other home.

But as we, ahem, homed in on the humble ranch (and discovered that -- as you shall see in coming days -- it actually has a glamorous past, and a glamorous future), we at began to politely disagree about just what a ranch house really is.

Some thought this home qualified because, as a colleague who shall remain nameless said, it's "a single-family home with the main living area on one floor," even though it clearly has a second story.

True, the home does stretch out horizontally. The American ranch arose in the 1930s as an alternative to the vertical, European-inspired styles of the 19th century: the Queen Annes, the brownstones, the Gothic cottages, and the Greek Revivals. But as an obsessive consumer of architectural stylebooks, I rejected this as ranch. One too many stories.

What about this one? I asked. One colleague answered, "I imagine ranches with a more simple roof line." Another asked if this style was bungalow. (No. It is not. How dare you.)

After some back and forth among us, and a call to Alan Hess, an architectural historian who studies ranch houses, we came to some consensus. Here are the defining characteristics of a ranch house.

This one pretty much clinches it.

Ranch houses are horizontal. Ranch houses reflected the growth of America during the mid-20th century, when land outside cities was cheap and highways were blooming across the nation. The design evoked easy, informal living, low-slung and close to the land -- as it would be at an actual ranch.

Ranch houses emphasize outdoor living. In the right climate, an L- or U-shaped ranch house might wrap around a pool. In the wrong climate, well, at least many of them have sliding glass doors and patios. The style was meant to blur the lines between indoor and out the way formal homes hadn't before.

[Traditional] ranch houses have one story. Yes, you can have a horizontally oriented home that's more than one story (see the Colonial Revival, for instance), but -- sorry to my disbelieving colleague -- a ranch is a one-story show.

Yes, we know, there is also the split-level ranch, a single-story on one side that then opens into one-and-a-half or two stories on the other. We're not ignoring you, split-level. You're just the offspring of the original. Also, there is such a thing as a raised ranch, but that's also not traditional.

Ranch houses have flat or low-pitched roofs. That doesn't mean they're completely flat (yes, that house shown above with a gable is a ranch), but the steeply pitched gables of earlier homes don't apply. That's partly because the American ranch was inspired by actual ranches in Mexico, and first became popular in California. Those in flat-roofed ranches up north have had to devote some time to snow-clearing. Ranch roofs tend to have overhanging eaves.

Ranch houses [usually] have attached garages or carports. They came of age at the dawn of the automobile, and they've got the car space to prove it.

Ranch houses have simple exteriors. No, they're not as clean-lined as Bauhaus buildings, but ranch houses are of the modernist era, and they don't have defining architectural details like Gothic's vertical siding or the ionic columns of Greek Revivals. While many of them had decorative shutters, that was pretty much it.

Ranch house illustration (in Ranch House Week logo) by Pop Chart Lab