Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Guest Post: Remodeling California Ranch Houses

I am honoured and delighted to welcome Lisa from a mid life of privilege here as a guest in the Humble Bungalow.

Hello all. Lisa here, from Privilege. Where I write about style, some anxiety, and the raptures of living. All from a High WASP perspective, with my tongue very firmly in cheek. I try not to be a jerk.

High WASPS are funny about their houses. One of our more pronounced quirks is that we prefer what one might call 'authentic' house style. In other words, indigenous forms, where design takes inspiration from location and architectural history. As the Hostess described yesterday in her story of how the Bungalow came to be. Heritage status can be a wonderful thing.

For example, my Aunt Eve lived in the School House in East Aurora, New York. It had been, in fact, a one room school house of the sort common in early America. My mother's family's house on Cape Cod was, well, a Cape Cod. My father's family lived at 740 Park Avenue, an apartment building so native to New York privilege that someone wrote a book about it.

I have inherited, or absorbed, this bias. In my opinion, if you build a house it ought to at least attempt to speak the local architectural idiom. If you remodel a house, you should honor the original design.

Here in Northern California we have several indigenous styles. The Arts and Crafts bungalow (as seen in the Humble Bungalow), the Spanish mission style, and, in my neighborhood, the California ranch. Which looks something like this, in its original form.

Or this. Perhaps not found on actual ranches all that often, but built by the thousands in the 1950s, to cover acres of Northern California countryside. The architecture responded to our climate and lifestyle - no basement, no attic, an attached garage or carport for the cars that took us to all those shopping centers on all those long roads.

But these houses were built in 1953. By now, almost every one in my neighborhood has been remodeled or replaced. High WASPs have an opinion about which were done well, and which were not.

A brief aside. It's rude to say mean things about other people's houses. However, I need to illustrate my point. Therefore I've taken these photos as faux Polaroids, in the hopes that no residence is recognizable. If I have failed, if one of these houses is yours, I apologize. Please feel free to come and point fingers at the scraggly tomato plant in my front yard. I pronounce it open season on the Privilege[d] raised beds. I hope that suffices.

However, I cannot help but believe there are ways not to remodel a house.

My particular pet peeve above. Random windows. Windows don't make a house special, on their own. This little ranch has been subverted by multiple arches. I didn't even show you the circular portal. Unnecessary. Unfitting. Unattractive. (As is High WASP snobbery, when I let it show, but I am making this as true as I can. I do not know if it matters.)

Trying to remodel a classic derivative - the ranch - into another classic derivative - the mission - doesn't make much sense either. Particularly painting siding orange to resemble stucco. And using obviously artificial roof tiles to resemble old Spanish clay.

OK. Again, my apologies. Let's move on to more pleasant matters. Some remodels, when the original design is beautiful and comports with modern taste, do well to explore the original territory. But treading the 1950s California Ranch path too closely will lead you straight to Jetson-land. Plastic bucket chairs and all. Which in a groovy pad in Brooklyn might be quite, um, groovy. Here it would make one feel just a little too Stepford Wife-ish. Whether one is in fact man or woman, by the way.

Witness below a tasteful alternative to historical recreation. We shall call it Simple Modernization. Add a new front door, with redwood grain, and expand the 1950s side panel window with glass block. Put in simple dual-paned windows. Replace your cement path with brick. There's brick in the neighborhood already. It's OK. Not too historically irrelevant. And rip out those water-hogging azaleas and replace them with neat, structural grasses.

Let's say you need more space. Do you build a second story and cover the facade with mock Tudor beaming? I hope not. Just build a bigger 'ranch' house, with a porch. We shall call this, Cast A Wider Net. OK, sure, the porch is more characteristic of Oklahoma ranches than California, but good enough. Good enough.

However, my favorite way to remodel a ranch is to tie in the classic 'modern' idiom*. The people below went all sort of Mies van der Rohe on the left, and all rustic wheelhouse on the right. The porch beams are clear-stained, knots left showing. The key here is an overall grace of proportion, creating a palimpset, a layering of then and now, that remains a pretty house, with pretty flowers out front. We can call this, Modernity, Then And Now. Or, frankly, you can call it whatever you want.

For, when all is said and done, house styles come and house styles go. My father's New Jersey family home was a red brick mansion complete with carriage house. Built by dry-goods-turned-banker money, for a newish wife. Georgian without King George, if one is charitable. Were it still standing I'd probably think it beautiful, now. For all we know, today's McMansions may be the next era's nostalgic design classic. Hipsters may snap up brass door lanterns, octagonal windows, and gold-chunked brown granite counters, and cart them off to next year's Brooklyn. Stranger things have happened. I think.

*It's interesting, is it not, that "modern" is to date a timeless idiom implying an undated modernity? Someone more expert than I, feel free to weigh in.

Large California ranch image via Wikipedia
others by me


  1. Building a house of one´s own is challenging. A house should melt into the landscape and follow the style of the neighboring houses. I have never had the chance to start from a scratch, luckily. Had I the possibility now, it would be nothing like the one we live in now. Firstly, there are no vacant properties around like the one we have, secondly, our ( my families needs ) needs are quite different from the family, who built our house c.1907. Moving into an old house, we have made sacrifices of our previous standards of living for the sake of the house, not the other way around. And I believe we have done the right thing.
    I feel like walking on slippery ice, when commenting on this post, and seeing these pictures. Everything looks exotic, due much to the landscape and flora. Even the word " ranch ", sounds strange, as we do not call our houses ranches over here. However, thank you Lisa for an informative and objective approach to this post : )! Thank you Hostess, for inviting Lisa as an expert guest blogger : )!

  2. I believe a house should suit it's surroundings, and be compatible with neighbouring houses, especially if they are in a subdivision.
    If your house is on an estate size lot, perhaps five acres or more, you have a little more architectural freedom to build what you like; but I still feel a house should suit the general tone of the landscape.

    There is a house not too far from us, that has been for sale for years. It would be a very unusual person who would consider it their dream house. I'm sure the original owner considered it her dream house; but most people consider it a bad dream house.
    It is a very poor rendition of a castle, complete with a moat. Unfortunately for the neighbours, the properties are only two acres in size, so they can't really protect themselves from viewing it's hideousness.

    I don't think a house should overwhelm the land it sits upon. It looks ridiculous to fill your entire lot, with a house, and have no green space. It would also look ridiculous to put a typical post war size bungalow on a hundred acre property. Proportion, and propriety matters, in my opinion.

  3. Lovely post. You hit the Northern Califonia home aesthetic nail on the head. Always love to hear your thoughts, LPC!

  4. Hostess - Thank you so much for inviting me. And thank you guys for commenting. I love to hear from you no matter where I am:).

  5. This is a fabulous post. The first house I remember living in looked strikingly like, (and was located in an entire neighborhood of houses that looked like) the top picture. I agree with you about the authenticity. It runs against my grain when things try to look like what they're not. One of the things I love about No Cal homes is the preponderence of exposed wood, both inside and out. My boyfriend in HS lived in an Eichler. Other than the issues with the floor heating, I'd love to have one of today, and it's really a crime what some people have done to them in the name of "remodeling."

  6. What fun to have you visiting here -- and your thoughts on remodeling and architecture echo so many of my own convictions and tastes. That said, we live in a bit of an architectural mish-mash here, exigencies being what they are (our house began its life as a Lindal modular cedar vacation home which we lifted onto a proper foundation and built a two-storey addition on -- our goal being to preserve a footprint nearer the water than would now be permitted AND to keep materials out of the wastestream), and our funny little island is dotted with a colourful mix of the idiosyncratic. I appreciate the way you couch your preferences within a context that allows for others to live their tastes, however untasteful we may find them. (although perhaps a moratorium on vinyl siding, however practical it may be . . .;-)

  7. The world needs ugly houses! How else would we know how darling our own are?

    And the Humble Bungalow is gorgeous! I can't wait to look around in here.

  8. Dear Ms Lisa and my compliments to Mme Hostess, I found your second photo of an illustrative Californian Ranch house quite arresting as it could be my house in Canberra built in 1958. Our neighbor, Mrs K, who is a character, recalls it being built and said that beyond my house it was all sheep paddocks and kangaroos. Mind you, there is still the odd paddock and plenty of sheep and kangaroos to be found in Australia's capital city. How lovely and curious that my house was once quite the thing straight from the USA.

  9. I agree with your remodeling perspective but hope I never live to see the day Hipsters "snap up brass door lanterns, octagonal windows, and gold-chunked brown granite counters." Before we worked on our house in 2005 I had a dream about the house and I awoke understanding that we shouldn't change it very much at all. We didn't

  10. "humble" is key, but today there are many elements such as coloumns,
    stained glass doors that clearly would not be a good fit for a humble home. So many homes are renovated with little regard for the architectural history or origin. Modern homes were all about practicality and off-centered layouts. What fun to read other perspectives.
    Thanks for being such a gracious and humble hostess.

  11. It is interesting that we all have experienced homes that make us cringe...
    renovations gone awry, design without expertise or advice from a professional.
    (I married "my expert")

    There is a bungalow a few blocks away that a local engineer
    (not architectural) added a second story to and it is literally a 2 story block stuck on top...we call it the Pump House and it is an abomination...

    Welcome to visitors who followed Lisa

    I will do an updated post of the Humble Bungalow interior views in the near future.

  12. you nailed it lisa.

    the desecration of the ranch in california has reached epidemic proportions. i mean really, embrace it people. if you've got it, flaunt it.


  13. Love the nod to Mies in the last image.

    Starting about ten years ago there was a big push by Mayor Daley to preserve and rehabilitate Chicago bungalows (which are distinguished from others mainly by their parallel, rather than perpendicular, orientation to the street). There are a few interesting blogs out there documenting the rehabilitation process, like House in Progress--their efforts to be as faithful as possible to the original are labors of love, and the attempts at "updating" by previous owners they are having to undo are just acts of desecration. What were these people thinking?

  14. OK, Lisa, you will not be mean but I will, if not be mean, at least comment with asperity.

    Just like everyone thinks he or she is an editor (and notice, that is not "they"), everyone thinks he or she is an architect. If a person wants to alter a residence, hire an architect who understands- or best, is devoted to- the type of house you have. The architect may take liberties, tweaking or merely referencing the style; a great one will approach this with grace and intelligence.

    I'm a huge fan (and occasional patron) of architects, probably the most unappreciated of professions.

  15. Thought provoking guest post, Lisa.

    Thank you,

    SSG xxx

  16. Lisa....

    1. I regret very few things about my divorce. Butcept one...I should have kept our eighty year old bungalow that had THE BEST bones. I'll never find another one as good again.

    2. I lived in a shotgun house in New Orleans and it was a really great little cottage. But all around me one of two things occurred daily. Either a bulldozer demolished completely one of the charming and appropriate compatriots to my little house or some absurd goiter-esque addition would attach itself to one of the charming abodes overnight.

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