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Ranch housing style makes a comeback

Once ridiculed by buyers, this one-story abode with a Mad Men vibe is finding new fans.

These drawings, from a vintage building plan book, show the suburban ranch in all its glory.

These drawings, from a vintage building plan book, show the suburban ranch in all its glory.

WHEN SHE WAS SHOPPING for a house, Melissa Cicaloni told her real estate agent something a broker seldom hears: “I want a ranch.” It was a surprise even to Cicaloni, who had not started her search with a ranch in mind. “I’m much more of an Arts and Crafts/bungalow kind of person,” the 43-year-old says. “Actually, my ideal house would be a huge Victorian, but I could never afford that.” After looking at several bungalows, though, she came to the realization that the style wasn’t what she wanted at all. “They’re kind of small, and they have tiny closets,” she says. “So I looked at a ranch.” And she liked what she saw: plenty of space, a layout good for entertaining, and a house that would be easy to update and maintain. By now she should be settling into the three-bedroom ranch she just bought for $269,000 in Hyde Park.

Cicaloni is not alone in her appreciation for the ranch. Though it will never be as popular as the ubiquitous Colonial here in New England, the ranch is making a return. The simple home is being embraced by young people attracted to the mid-century modern vibe; by aging boomers who no longer want to deal with stairs; and, as always, by those looking for an affordable home.

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“I am a ranch freak,” says Stephen Lussier, a broker with Arborview Realty Inc. who lives in one on Moss Hill in Jamaica Plain. “They’re really designed for living, for comfortable living. They bring a family closer together in many ways. And it’s very easy to renovate a ranch. They’re less expensive to work on.”

And more ranches are being built. According to figures from MLS Property Information Network, the number of newly constructed ranches on the market in early April — excluding those in over-55 developments — had more than tripled over the same period a decade earlier, from 55 to 183. (Again, the figures are small, because the number of ranches in Massachusetts has never approached those of more traditional housing styles.)

In the new Easy Street development in Ayer, the ranch look has been updated with three gables. Once completed, there will be 13 energy-efficient homes, each about 1,700 square feet with a kitchen with granite counters and stainless appliances, air conditioning, a two-car garage, vinyl siding, and composite decking. Prices start at $349,900. “When the economy was booming, everybody wanted the cathedral ceiling in the family room and the 3,000-square-foot house,” says Steve Kanniard, the builder’s son and a broker with Keller Williams Realty. “We can’t afford to heat those things. Americans aren’t living beyond their means.”

Shawn Davis, the first home buyer on Easy Street, needed a home that was wheelchair accessible for his girlfriend’s mother. But, the 29-year-old says, he had wanted a ranch anyway. Having grown up in a “cookie-cutter Colonial,” Davis was wowed by the ease of a ranch.

Though most ranches were, and still are, affordable choices for first-time home buyers, that’s not true across the board. Custom-designed ranches built from the late 1940s to late 1950s in Lincoln, Belmont, and Lexington, for example, routinely sell for around $1 million and have been recognized for several years as unique and deserving of protection. The Massachusetts Historical Commission recently voted to recommend the Peacock Farm neighborhood in Lexington for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places. The homes, built between 1952 and 1958, were based on set designs drawn up by architects with the goal of making them more affordable than custom-designed homes. Yet they are no longer within reach of many buyers. A 1,791-square-foot home on Peacock Farm Road is on the market for $699,000.

Kathy Kelley of Prudential Town and Country in Wellesley is selling a $675,000 mod-looking ranch in Wellesley that has generated a lot of interest, especially from younger buyers. “Ten years ago, people would have been tearing that place down or turning it into a Colonial,” she says. “So many of these homes were ruined with millwork and mantels and all these things that didn’t fit the style.” Influenced partly by the popularity of Mad Men, the retro revival has spread beyond twentysomethings, Kelley says. “I get people saying, ‘I’m going to throw away the Queen Anne furniture, and I’m going to get rid of my chintz drapes and simplify my life.’ ”

When Lussier, the broker, effuses about ranches, he’s not talking so much about a run-of-the-mill one as a “true mid-century modern ranch that’s been renovated. They’re just beautiful, beautiful homes,” he says.

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The Easy Street new construction development in Ayer features a modern interpretation of the ranch, with gables added. Prices start at $349,900.

Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

The Easy Street new construction development in Ayer features a modern interpretation of the ranch, with gables added. Prices start at $349,900.

LET’S FACE IT — “beautiful’’ is not a word most people associate with the ranch. Quite the opposite. Ranches (along with their postwar counterpart, the small Cape) were among the houses most likely to be torn down during the real estate frenzy that began in the late 1990s. Efforts to protect standard postwar housing are just beginning. “There hasn’t been much protection in this region because we’re so focused on homes that are much older than that,” says Sally Zimmerman, manager of Historic Preservation Services at Historic New England. “People don’t see them as historic.”

When ranches first appeared on the scene, they epitomized a forward-looking enthusiasm sweeping across America. In the decade after World War II, thanks to the GI Bill, low-cost homes sprang up in huge numbers across the country, often in developments where each house, typically a small Cape, looked like the next. As ideas about modernity changed, house styles did, too.

“Popular publications portrayed a confident and easygoing way of life that could be accessible to one and all; of particular interest was the casual California lifestyle, implying prosperity, glamour and optimism as embodied in a sunlit and breezy ranch house where indoors and outdoors blended effortlessly,” Betsy Friedberg of the Massachusetts Historical Commission wrote in a 2003 issue of Preservation Advocate. “In the 1950s, I think, [ranches] were considered fresh,” says Zimmerman. “They were built at the same time as Capes, which looked very traditional. If you were a person who was up to date and interested in the latest thing, then, yes, a ranch is the thing you would have chosen in 1952.”

Between 1947 and 1960, Campanelli Bros. Inc., a company founded by Brockton brothers, built an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 homes in Massachusetts and thousands more in Illinois, Maryland, Florida, and the Carolinas, according to Robert DeMarco, a partner in Campanelli Cos., which today handles commercial real estate. The homes were manufactured in Braintree and shipped as kits to new subdivisions in Framingham, Peabody, Stoughton, and other communities. Built on slabs, Campanelli ranches — with names like The Enchantress, The Charmer, and The El Dorado — offered all the latest features: electric appliances, built-in kitchen cabinets, and prominently situated, attached garages that reflected the increasing importance of cars.

“My husband made $6,000 a year at the time, and we were able to swing that house,” says Irene Gunner, 80, who moved into a “Campy” in Framingham in 1956 and a few years later bought a slightly larger one in the same neighborhood. “It was very appealing. We had a big backyard, and all the neighbors got along beautifully.”

The Campanelli ranch has its own Facebook page: “I grew up and/or currently live in a Campanelli ranch.” The 89 members share tips on renovations and memories of the way things used to be. “We idolize the Campanellis,” says Lauren Traub Teton, a 55-year-old who grew up next door to Gunner and is getting ready to put her parents’ house on the market. “They made charming housing affordable.”

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BUT EVENTUALLY, thanks to tract housing like in the infamous Levittowns, people didn’t see the charm anymore. The 1962 song “Little Boxes,” inspired by a drive through a postwar development in California, ridiculed the conformity: Little boxes on the hillside, little boxes all the same. There’s a green one and a pink one, and a blue one and a yellow one. And they’re all made out of ticky tacky, and they all look just the same.

 Why did ranches fall out of favor? “There were just too many of them, and they were perceived as too small, particularly in the 1980s, when the big-house idea took hold,” says Barbara Rhines of Lincoln, who serves on the advisory board of the Friends of Modern Architecture/Lincoln and blogs for Barrett & Company Real Estate in Concord.

But the other thing is that taste in homes, like fashion, is cyclical. “All building styles go through a period when they are unpopular,” says Zimmerman. “At one point, Victorian houses were thought of as white elephants and hard to heat and not set up for modern living and not in tune with the landscape. So, in the ’60s, we lost a lot of Victorians.” And so, the ranches often derided as “ranch burgers” — as in mass-produced by a fast-food chain — were replaced with homes that came to be known as “McMansions.’’

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WHAT MAKES A RANCH?

■One-story, sprawling layout

■Wide facade

■Low-pitched roof

■Typically with an attached garage

■Commonly with iron or wooden porch supports and decorative shutters

■Often with partially enclosed patio at rear of house

Source: A Field Guide to American Houses by Virginia and Lee McAlester

Vanessa Parks writes the Globe Magazine’s weekly On the Block column. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.
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