1950s Ranch House Redux

A classic ranch home proves that if you work with the elements you’re given, the result can be uniquely charming—and very Western indeed

The owners, a cattle rancher born and raised in Montana, and his wife, an interior design professional who built her career in New York,  say that unlike most ranch houses, theirs was not built for its site. Rather, an argument that escalated to a proper falling out resulted in a home being chain-sawed in half; half stayed put on its site, the other half was dragged up the hill and repositioned.

With its glorious flowering trees and its stone root cellar built into the hillside, one would never suspect that the house wasn’t site-specific in its design. Elevated by several hundred feet off a quiet country road of twists and turns, the home is snugly tucked into the landscape while boasting far-reaching views and much sunlight. 

The home’s exterior is pleasingly simple: two horizontal volumes, one double height, with a brick chimney between them; wood siding painted brown; and a long covered porch, perfect for outdoor dining. Its interiors, though, seem to tell a story.

When they first saw the house, recalls the owner, they were immediately charmed, despite the home’s obvious lack of drama. “One of the reasons we were able to work with it so well was that we had the benefit of seeing it when the previous owner was still living in it, with all its layers of history,” explains the designer. “If we had seen it after they moved their things out it would have looked like a carcass of the 1940s. But their [belongings] made the house feel very relevant and current, each decade leaving its mark.”

She sought to re-create that feeling, not of a home that had been “decorated,” but of a home filled with family mementos, ranch-life artifacts and an eclectic mix of period furnishings. “When we went back and furnished it,” she recalls, “we used furniture from mid-century to current; we had some heirloom pieces, Western antiques and European antiques as well.”

The result is a confident mixing of styles that’s a tribute to the owners’ willingness to work with an existing slate rather than ripping out the old to create a blank new one. In the living room, there’s a 1950s upholstered couch with narrow wooden legs, wicker saucer chairs, and an old wood desk on turned legs; a dark carved mirror hangs above it. 

The mildly Midcentury Modern details pair with old oil paintings of Western wilderness scenes, a wood-topped table on an antler base, vintage lighting fixtures suspended from the ceiling, 1940s lantern-shaped brass lamps with green shades, and a buffalo hide thrown across the floor. A green leather chair shares one end of the room with a card table and three velvet-upholstered chairs. A portrait suggesting someone’s grandfather presides over late-night poker games.

Although a beamed ceiling and river-rock fireplace are not typical of ranch-style homes, in this case they are authentic. “The fireplace was in the original drawing but was probably rebuilt after the house was chain-sawed in two and this half was dragged up the hill,” explains the owner. “The beams were oak scraped with a steel brush, which gives interior structure. It was so cool we decided to leave it. All the elements were there; we left it exactly how it was and just added furniture, rugs, lamps, and lighting.”

The home’s three bedrooms, two baths, living room, kitchen, and dining room all benefit from what the designer calls “layering,” which she achieves through a variety of means, starting with color. For example, she explains, “When we did the kitchen, we said, ‘Let’s renovate to 1920 instead of 2006.’ The kitchen had been renovated, but instead of designing a new kitchen we found the original plans for the house. We went with a cabinet design that we could see from the drawings; we wanted that old-fashioned hygienic feeling. Each wall is a slightly different color so that it doesn’t feel like it was all done yesterday. It feels like different layers of paint that don’t match up perfectly.”

Simplicity was important in this space. “There are barely any appliances,” the designer says. “There’s no backsplash, no tilework. There’s a seat that lifts and underneath that is a laundry chute into the basement. There’s a little desk with a household phone. It has a painted wood floor. We wanted to keep it as ranch-y as possible.” Now, she says, “The kitchen has become a gathering place.”

Clearly the success of the house lies in honoring the structure’s history and highlighting what’s interesting and unique rather than seeking transformation. “It’s about the house and the house’s history,” asserts the designer. “It’s not an expression of our style, but an homage to this house and its history as a family cattle ranch.”   

—Excerpted from “New Western Home,” reprint permission by Gibbs Smith    

Categories: Contemporary Homes, Rustic Homes