Tyringham — To most buyers, it was simply a dilapidated, mid-century ranch, nicely sited to be sure, but not much more than a problematic “fixer upper.” Not so to my clients Richard and Jim; they recognized a true diamond in the rough.
For one thing, the house even came with its own story. Designed by an architectural student as his thesis project, he – amazingly, given the fate of most academic architecture projects — actually built it in Tyringham in 1963, as his family’s “summer home.” Set high on the hill off George Cannon Road overlooking a pond and a gently sloping field to the southwest down to Main Road, Santarella and the Tyringham Cobble beyond, this house personified contemporary ranch design at the time. Interestingly, Richard noted that, “the house was built by descendants of a prominent Gilded Age family on a carve out of the family ‘farm.’ The ‘future’ literally overlooks the ‘past,’ which the family still owns.”
My McAlester’s “Field Guide to American Houses” (Alfred A. Knopf, 1997), gives a very good overview of this type of house, its influences and its origins:
“This style was originated in the mid-1930’s by several creative California architects. It gained in popularity during the 1940’s to become the dominant style throughout the country during the ‘50’s and ‘60’s. The … ‘rambling’ ranch houses were made possible by the country’s increasing reliance on the automobile.”
My contention has long been that everything we create is a lens through which we can understand the entire culture of the time; we really are what we build. Why? Primarily because the process of building is so inclusive – clients, architects, engineers, bankers, neighbors, town officials, and building officials, among others all have a say in the outcome — the end product represents a consensus of the values, aspirations, myths and fears of the cultures at that time and place. Equally important, construction is expensive; buying or building a home is the largest single expenditure most people will ever make in their lives, so it is done with great care and deliberation. And there’s one other vitally important aspect to this: what we create, in the aggregate, tells us who we are whether we are aware of these truths or not.
So, what does this house tell us about ourselves when it was built and what does its recent renovation tell us about ourselves now?
At the time of this house’s construction, the proliferation of automobiles signaled a significant change in the average American’s lifestyle, allowing for far more autonomy and exploration. As post-World War II America increased in wealth, families could afford cars – and increasingly, to own their own home. As a result, we could “decentralize,” living further and further away from urban areas. Once the domain of the wealthy, a single-family home on a private lot was now affordable.
Americans also developed an expanded sense of space. Home sizes started slowly but inexorably to increase in area, a trend that lasted until the Great Recession of 2008. Cheap oil allowed for centralized heating and a lot more glass. Given the openness of the country sites – as opposed to a row house or apartment building — windows on all sides could connect the outside and the inside, bringing in the natural world visually.
This house in Tyringham did all those things, and did them quite well. For several years prior to Richard and Jim’s purchase, the red clapboard-sided house had been neglected and that neglect is evident in the “existing condition” photographs shown here. Despite that, its basic design – low and flat with simple interlocking roofs — allowed it to survive reasonably well in the Berkshires. Most importantly, its architectural “bones” were good, and its pedigree as a “ranch” were impeccable. McAlester describes the prototype:
“Asymmetrical one-story-shapes with low-pitched roofs dominate. The common roof forms are used: the hip version is probably the most common… There is usually a moderate or wide eave overhang…Both wooden and brick wall cladding are used, sometimes in combination…”
With the exception of the “one- story,” this house is a perfect match. The reason this house has two stories is that no good architect – and the architect here was certainly a good architect — would design on a sloped site like this without adjusting the prototype to the grade; in this case a lower level is practical and sensible. Site is always paramount in good architectural design.
And the site here is spectacular. Views of the pond, field and mountain beyond open to the south, but there is natural beauty on all the approximately three acres that surround the house. “Never before,” McAlester writes, “had it been possible to be so lavish with land, and the rambling form of the Ranch home emphasizes this by maximizing façade width…”.
This Ranch – and Ranch houses in general – was also, for better or worse, part of a movement redefining the relationship between human habitation and nature. No longer were large, densely populated cities and town interspersed between vast areas of undeveloped land, with farming between. Like everything else, it had its good and bad points: the desire to own one’s own estate – house and grounds, regardless of size, has always been a powerful draw, but the inevitable resulting “sprawl” we are so well aware of today is its obvious down side. While this is not the point of this column, it is worth noting that the proverbial pendulum of development is swinging again, and the desirability of urban living appears to be on the increase. I recommend Leigh Gallagher’s The End of the Suburbs for one such analysis.
This house – and many others like it — regained its lease on life for yet another reason: the emergence of the “second home” in the latter part of the 20th century. Gains in productivity and the resulting increase in wealth made this option possible for more people. The Berkshires, and many other rural areas within a two- to three-hour driving radius of large cities like New York, Boston, or Philadelphia, are testaments to this phenomenon.
Now for the specifics of this house. The primary intention was to work with the existing house as much as possible; this was no “gut rehab.” The only significant demolition was the removal of the small extension originally built to conceal trash receptacles on the northwest side of the house. The remaining demolition was limited to removals required to install new finishes throughout the house. More extensive construction was focused on the redesign of the bathrooms and the kitchen and the construction of a two-car carport on the rear of the house combined with some wood and outdoor equipment storage. Finally, the complete landscape/hardscape plan featured a pool with “infinity edges” designed to float above – and to emphasize – the pastoral views to the southwest. The accompanying “after” photographs give a good sense of the final product and how it is both similar to, and different from, the original house.
So what is an “Atomic Ranch”? Atomic Ranch Magazine defines it this way:
“After World War II, there was a huge building boom to alleviate America’s severe housing crunch. Across the nation, millions of tract homes were constructed in virtually every state and the ranch house and its stylish cousin, the modernist tract home, became king. That appeal lasted through the ‘atomic age’ well into the 1970s, an era when 75 percent of all new homes were ranches. Postwar neighborhoods — from Levittown on Long Island to the Eichler tracts in the Bay Area— are now considered historic, and the houses are embraced by a new generation of owners.”
While it may be fair to argue that we are far from beyond the atomic age, the “Cold War” atomic age having hopefully abated, the important point is that these houses were flexible enough to survive – and thrive, as is certainly the case here – into the present.
It should be noted that unlike many “Atomic Ranches” out there now, Jim and Richard did not chose to make this renovation “retro.” We figured that this house needed no stylistic machinations to thrive today, and we were right.