× Expand Perron Nicholas The Postweiler house adapts all the classic design features of a ranch, from the shallow gable roof to the large picture window. The eye-catching Postweiler house sits on a quiet street in Madison’s Midvale Heights neighborhood.
A 1955 ad called it “tomorrow’s home…TODAY.” Characteristic stack bond masonry, with bricks set in a grid rather than offset, wraps a shaded entry and highlights a trapezoidal window wall, seeming to both showcase and protect the open living room. Every element — from the slim proportions of the thinner Roman brick to the double garage door with its three horizontal windows — amplifies its elongated, ground-hugging character.
Perron Nicholas and his wife, Mary Lauten, wanted to simplify their lives, relocate from Mount Horeb to be closer to work and friends, and find a home with distinctive qualities. Many are basic, but others have truly remarkable designs, featuring dramatic roof lines, envelope-pushing floor plans, and subtle modernist detailing.
The real estate website Trulia lists the ranch-style house as the most popular type of home for sale in 34 states, including Wisconsin. Mid-century-era homes were not on my radar until I moved back to Madison, my hometown, three years ago looking for a hands-on renovation project. The ubiquitous simple ranch house is a form of modernism for the rest of us — an accessible conduit to tap into the great ideas and design of the mid-century period.
In many ways, the Postweiler house epitomizes the features of a classic mid-century ranch: a single-story home, clad in brick and/or wood siding.
It is divided into three roughly equal spaces for the living area, bedrooms and cars, all tidily tucked under a shallow, gable roof. × Expand Carolyn Fath Ashby The Postweiler house, now owned by Perron Nicholas and Mary Lauten, doesn’t quite look like an everyday ranch.
Several years ago, when researching how to properly replace their low-slope roof, they learned the house was a candidate for historic designation. The United States experienced a huge post-World War II building boom as the housing industry raced to catch up with demand. West-coast builders favored a post-and-beam structure that allowed them to substitute glass for exterior walls, in some more visionary designs.
Combining living and dining rooms saved space and suited newly casual middle- class lifestyles. Before World War II, builders favored two- and three- story homes in revivalist styles. “Dating back to the 10th century, two-story houses have always been the mark of gentry,” says Tom Hubka, professor emeritus at UW-Milwaukee’s School of Architecture.
Older houses indicated status with a generous front porch leading to an entry hall, parlor, and dining room. Working spaces like kitchens and pantries were set at the back of the house, and family areas — bedrooms and even private parlors — were located upstairs.
The Midwest wholeheartedly embraced the ranch idea, adapting it to suit cold winters and humid summers.
Practicality meant reducing glass walls to picture windows, adding frost-protected basements and increasing roof slopes to shed snow. That Parade showcased 18 modest ranch homes (priced between $11,000 and $17,000) along De Volis Park, just south of the new Beltline highway. An advertising pamphlet for one of these houses cites the “large handsome mirror above the basin” in the bathroom as a notable feature.
× Expand Philip Ashby The combination of patterned glass, shoulder-height windows in the bedroom wing and a protected deck wall outside the living area give Nedra Pierce’s ranch a strong, but still private, connection to its front yard view. The post-and-beam structure is so sturdy that when an oak tree fell on the house five years ago, the only thing that needed repair was the roof’s surface.
The Mendota Hills raised ranch is striking, with multiple low-sloped roof lines, a fieldstone chimney, redwood plank ceiling, and large plate glass windows overlooking Warner Park.
“The Taliesin influence is strong here,” notes Anna Andrzejewski, a professor of art history at UW-Madison. Andrzejewski sees Madison’s mid-century building boom as a unique laboratory for a regionally specific form of modernism under Frank Lloyd Wright’s long shadow. It groups bedrooms at one end and open living area, entry, dining and kitchen spaces at the other.
A number of local architects studied with Wright at his Taliesin school, then set up their own practices in Madison. × Expand Carolyn Fath Ashby This owner-built mid-century home, now owned by the Muich family, deploys classic design elements using simple or inexpensive materials.
They were a neighborhood anchor; the side yard pool was shared by all the local kids and their basement hosted the area Cub Scouts troop, says Muich. Longtime — even original — homeowners are selling to younger families looking for first homes and newly retired folks downsizing and wanting a one-story house. Matt Silvern is a real estate agent who specializes in mid-century modern homes and is updating his own ranch. He looks for clean-lined, subtle wood trim, large picture windows, decorative brickwork inside and out, and interesting vintage tile and hardwood floors.
He also helps his clients keep an eye out for elements that might need work, like outdated electrical and heating systems, damage to the foundation or roof, or hazardous materials like asbestos and lead paint. × Expand Carolyn Fath Ashby The Schumacher’s 1959 modern was a vacant foreclosure in rough shape when they found it. Brianna and Kenny Schumacher moved into their 1959 modern in the Mendota Hills neighborhood two years ago.
Since moving in, they’ve replaced the roof, demolished interior walls and changed the layout, repainted inside and out, and most recently spent the summer removing and trimming overgrown trees from the property.
“When we opened the wall to the kitchen there were sliding glass doors hidden in there from the original design.” As new parents, they really appreciate single-level living. And all those early-era single-car garages, with one-lane driveways, create logistical hassles for multi-car families.
The simple gable roof structure and high quality materials of most mid-century ranches make them good candidates for additions. Plus, even the most basic ranch can adopt the design features of its higher-end cousins in a remodel: highlight the indoor/outdoor connection, add wood paneling, floors and built-ins.
× Expand Carolyn Fath Ashby The Oaks’ cedar knee wall wraps the front patio, adding privacy while playing off the contrast between the vertical siding and the low flat roof.
This simple design move reclaims part of the front yard as social living space. It’s usually easy to increase overall insulation by focusing on the attic space and the exposed foundation of basements (where outside air sneaks in). They are modestly sized, suited to casual modern lifestyles and located in walkable, well-connected, neighborhoods, close to schools, libraries, parks and shops.