The Invasion of the McRanchions

An ascendant East End phenomenon By Lee H. Skolnick, F.A.I.A.
The humble ranch house offers a perfect base upon which to elaborate, within the considered bounds of taste, finances, and reason.

Around 30 years ago, I designed an exhibition titled “Long Island Modern” at East Hampton’s Guild Hall. Curated by Alastair Gordon, the architecture critic and historian who at the time was a columnist for The East Hampton Star, the show was a celebration of the early modernist houses built on the East End in the post-World War II period, principally in the 1950s and beyond. These houses were experimental in design but also modest and lightweight, employing conventional building technologies. They mostly featured natural wood exteriors, geometric forms, large expanses of glass, and clever but decidedly not grandiose floor plans and spaces.

The exhibition, a reminder of the distinguished heritage of these fresh and inspirational houses, was also conceived as a wake-up call in the face of the beginning of a phenomenon taking over the landscape. Droves of new homeowners and builders flocking to partake of and sell the pleasures of the East End had hit upon a product that would take off like a nostalgic rocket — the McMansion. These bloated, anachronistic edifices were purported to deliver the contextual appropriateness of the graceful, original Shingle Style houses of which the region was justifiably proud.

 The fact that most of them wound up defiling farm fields and wooded landscapes, and that their designs often demonstrated a profound lack of understanding of the basic principles of their co-opted styles, seemed woefully lost on their creators. And how bizarre that a whole swath of a population that was obsessively embracing the latest in fashion, music, technology, automotive design, and the like would choose home designs that brought to mind times redolent of petticoats, pinafores, knickers, pantaloons, and horse-drawn carriages. 

Of course, we know what they were after: an icon of taste and pedigree, a trophy for a winner, proof that one had made it. Never mind that most of these houses were unoccupied most of the time, and that when they were inhabited rarely used all the space, and spaces, they contained. They stood as symbols of success and power just by sitting there, yet ironically became as repetitive and ubiquitous as fast-food restaurants, earning the McMansion epithet.

I grew up in a four-family brick box in Queens. Eight hundred square feet somehow squeezed in a living room, dining room, eat-in kitchen, foyer, two bedrooms, and a bathroom. It felt perfectly adequate. I had no trouble imagining our lives as similar to the families in the popular and beloved TV shows of the time: “Ozzie and Harriet” “Father Knows Best,” “The Donna Reed Show,” and my favorite, “Leave It to Beaver.” But those TV families lived in free-standing houses. 

And, because I really had zero knowledge of architectural styles at the time, for some reason I knew them all as ranch houses. Were they, in fact, ranch houses? Who knows? Maybe split-level ranches, raised ranches, or not ranches at all. I remember that someone in our neighborhood lived in one of them, and we called him “Peter Ranchhouse.”

What a distinctly American phenomenon! The embodiment of the American Dream. A home of one’s own. A paean to the romance of the open road, the burgeoning car culture of postwar America. And let us not forget our 1950s and ’60s cultural obsession with the Wild West that never was, as romanticized and made epic by shows like “Gunsmoke,” “Bonanza,” “Rawhide,” “Have Gun, Will Travel,” etc. Of course, apart from the Ponderosa, it was never clear where our cowboy heroes actually lived.

While the genesis of the style was the 1920s South and Southwest, the explosion of development, home ownership, and rapidly accreting subdivisions ushered in the proliferation of the basic ranch house: low-slung, long and horizontal like the westward expansion toward the “fruited plains” and beyond. These houses promised freedom, independence, and comfort, along with the necessary economy and achievability. This was a house for Everyman. 

Originally, what they didn’t offer was a heck of a lot of choice. You could certainly choose your own color, maybe add shutters or a bay window, some artificial stone or a few courses of brick. And there were some options in siding: wood shingles, clapboard, vertical siding, or board-and-batten (the ranchiest of all).

Fast-forward 50 or 60 years and I often found myself riding my bike up in the hills of Mount Misery, just south of Sag Harbor Village — ranch house heaven, where the insane bubble that is today’s Sag Harbor real estate market — with Victorians, captains mansions, and tiny houses built for workers on as little as one-tenth of an acre — sell for $2, $5, and $10 million and more give way, just past Middle Line Highway, to a snug community of modest middle-class homes of year-rounders — at least until recently.

 What I have begun to notice is that as nouveau Sag Harbor has become glutted with the wealthy and their attendant ambitious beautifications and struggles to cover as much un-built ground as their lawyers can wrangle, there is another rippling-out occurring. With no place else to look to get some of their own Sag Harbor lifestyle, vibe, and pedigree, new waves of house buyers have created a ring around the village with a housing stock of a markedly different stripe.

These houses, largely built from the 1950s to 1970s, reflect the architectural style of their day. In an ironically serendipitous twist, their new owners are finding very favorable attributes in these previously forgotten and/or smugly belittled structures. They are modest. They have a more minimal impact on the visual and ecological environment. They are cheaper and easier to purchase and maintain. So, at the same time that there is a renewed and refreshing interest in a modern architectural vocabulary of simple lines, less overwhelming scale, and sustainable lifestyles, there is a plethora of ranch houses to be obtained and enhanced to address and satisfy contemporary taste and priorities.

And in yet another, even more specific synergistic circumstance, there has been an enormous trend toward an appreciation for, and acquisition of, midcentury modern design. Furniture, rugs, housewares, and decorative elements from this era are flying out of antiques stores wherever the cognoscenti gather and compete for status. How wonderfully appropriate that they can deploy these cultural artifacts to fill and adorn their contemporaneous environments.

But one last crucial observation must be made — and its operative impact acknowledged. Luckily for architects, designers, and builders, house buyers out East will rarely be satisfied until they make the most of their purchases, and make them distinctly their own. And, to be honest, most of these original ranch houses can use a fair amount of work.

 On the inside, wiring, heating and cooling, some structural and spatial reconfiguration, new finishes, kitchens and bathrooms, updated digital and media technology, lighting, sustainable features, and, of course, furnishings are all fair game for revision and refinement. On the outside, we’re often looking at some modest expansion or addition, pools, decks, terraces, landscaping and gardens, and perhaps some updating and/or modernization of the exterior siding, trim, windows, color palette, and detailing. All of which welcomes the ascendant phenomenon of the McRanchion. 

Of course, there will be some misguided souls who will violate these innocent and unsuspecting structures through the introduction of cupolas, Palladian windows, stunted towers, or eyebrow dormers. But based on a wholly unscientific analysis, I note that far more follow the lead that the designs suggest: casement or sliding windows and doors for additional light and views, modest new wings with compatible rooflines, perhaps a partial second story, and stylish refreshing of the exterior materials or colors.

 In my book this is to be praised and welcomed. I believe that a healthy portion of modesty and subtlety goes a long way these days. So for the sake of clarity let me offer that, unlike its crudely offensive distant cousin, the McMansion, the introduction of the McRanchion into the architectural lexicon of the East End and beyond is a cause for plaintive and humble celebration.