Ranches regain some respect

Jul. 29--It's easy to ridicule the ranch.

They're modest, one-story houses with small closets and low ceilings, little insulation and old pipes.

And they're common. Ranches were the predominant style in Raleigh and across the country for a couple of decades starting in the 1950s.

Now, they're a regular victim of the trend of tearing down old houses and building larger ones.

But even as the once innocuous style disappears, there is new awakening to its subtle appeal. The affordable but bland ranch home is becoming hip to a new generation and an object of desire to an older one.

Younger people love them for their kitsch. Baby boomers seek them for their stairs-free living.

A survey by the home builder KB Homes found that 8 percent of recent home buyers would have preferred a one-story home. The company is marketing new ranches with billboards across the Triangle and featuring them in several neighborhoods, including a section of the Martha Stewart-inspired neighborhood in Cary called Twin Lakes.

Jeanne Lambin, who works with the National Trust for Historic Preservation and is author of "Preserving Resources from the Recent Past," has been tracking interest in ranch homes.

She has seen a spike in the number of Web sites, advocacy groups and neighborhood associations devoted to preserving ranch homes. Surveys and studies show that cities, including Raleigh, are beginning to note their historical importance.

"It's the iconic American building type aside from the skyscraper," Lambin said. "It's kind of the domestic interpretation of how the American Dream should take shape."

Manufacturers are selling retro kitchen appliances in shades of that earlier era -- beach blue, buttercup yellow, jadeite green. Linoleum is making a comeback.

The original ranch-style homes were often on actual ranches.

In California, Mexican settlers were building the single-story houses with rooms opening up into an interior courtyard, where home life was focused, said Jim Brown, publisher of the three-year-old Oregon-based Atomic Ranch magazine.

The public face to the street was modest and the front door was almost invisible, he said. Livestock roamed the streets, he said, and they didn't want cows to walk through the front door.

Part of postwar boom

The style became popular after World War II as veterans moved back home and started families. Government mortgage programs sparked a building boom.

In 1950, 2,000 homes were built in Wake County, according Wake's revenue department, up from 869 the year before. About 1,860 were single-story homes.

Ranches were easy and inexpensive to construct. Builders used prefabricated wall units or standardized wood-framed windows and sliding glass doors.

Some have basements. Others don't. Local builders used native materials, Brown said. In the Triangle, brick ranches are common on top of North Carolina's red clay.

What they generally have in common are simple, open floor plans with a separate wing for bedrooms and bathrooms.

Large windows help the interior almost melt into the backyard.

Many families could afford them. The first planned African-American postwar neighborhood in Raleigh was Rochester Heights, a collection of ranches and, their cousins, split-levels, in Southeast Raleigh, according to a survey of the city's neighborhoods built from 1945 to 1965.

The study found that collections of ranch homes, along with some other styles, in 10 Raleigh neighborhoods are worthy of the National Register of Historic Places.

They include the custom-designed, upscale ranches in North Raleigh's Lambshire Downs neighborhood and the middle-class Rochester Heights.

"They are important to Raleigh," said M. Ruth Little, the architectural historian who did the survey. "They are Raleigh landmarks." She thinks they should be preserved.

Not quite historic

Is the ranch the new Victorian? Well, not quite yet.

"If someone stands in front of a wrecking ball for a ranch house, some people might be a bit perplexed," said Lambin of the National Trust.

In the 1960s, she notes, people didn't see the need to save Art Deco buildings. People thought they were just old structures with a dated style. Forty years later, they're historic.

"Every period of architecture goes through this," she said. "For some reason, I think we've forgotten our collective memory."

Nationwide, ranch houses are a regular target of redevelopment. They often stretch across large lots big enough to subdivide. And few people mourn the loss.

"That's the marketplace we are in," said Louis Cherry, an architect. "People think the house will sell only if people can drive by it at 15 mph and be dazzled. But that's not what most of the houses in the area were about."

Cherry and his wife, Ann Marie Baum, opened Cherry Modern Design a few years ago. It's a favorite spot for ranch- dwellers looking for modern furnishings.

From the outside, the home of Linda Satterfield and Oliver White in the Coley Lakes neighborhood looks nondescript, almost like the house on "The Brady Bunch." But on the inside, it's open and airy. Large windows look out on a spacious backyard.

"It's a surprise," said Satterfield, who renovated the house nine years ago. Several ranch homes on her street have been torn down to make way for new houses.

Brown of Atomic Ranch says it will be another decade before a broader range of people learn to appreciate the ranch.

"It's still kind of a committed little group, and city governments aren't convinced yet," he said. "They still see them as old, uninteresting homes and cheap homes not worthy of saving."

Ahead of their time

Until then, there will be folks like the Learys or the Hubbles.

The Leary family moved into a 1950s ranch in east Raleigh's Longview Gardens neighborhood last week.

"This is my last house," said Mike Leary, the father of two young children, a real estate agent and publisher of the Spanish newspaper La Conexi-n. "No more kids. No more houses. There's not any more than three steps in the whole house. It's big enough so whenever I'm old and decrepit, I can put a ramp in pretty easily."

Jodi Hubble felt an instant affinity when she walked into her house for the first time a couple of years ago. It reminded her of her grandmother's home, also a ranch. Jodi and her husband, Marc Hubble, moved in with their young son, Aidan.

"When I first walked in here, the basement, the layout, everything reminded me," she said. "The smell, everything, reminded me of being at my grandmother's house."

The Hubbles love the wide, open living area with large windows that look out onto the backyard and a dark pink camellia bush. The home was originally built in 1954 for photographer Burnie Batchelor.

The Hubbles were drawn to the style of the house -- the exposed brick wall, the wood paneling.

They look for furnishings at Cherry Modern Design or Father & Sons Antiques, a store downtown. They're looking for a giant sunburst clock to hang in their living room.

"It keeps us tied to a time that is very different," Marc Hubble said. "The ranch defines an era."

Staff writer Sarah Lindenfeld Hall can be reached at 829-8983 or sarah.lindenfeld@newsobserver.com

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