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Continued: Atomic Ranch inspires rambler redux

  • Article by: KIM PALMER , Star Tribune
  • Last update: April 23, 2012 - 9:01 AM

If you used to consider vintage ramblers architectural eyesores but now appreciate them, Michelle Gringeri-Brown probably deserves some of the credit.

Rambler-bashing was the norm when she and her husband, Jim Brown, launched Atomic Ranch magazine (www.atomic-ranch.com) in 2004. At that time, ranch-style houses were dismissed as the ugly ducklings of design, the home of last resort for first-time buyers.

The magazine quickly became a cheerleader for simple postwar homes, advocating for their preservation and helping owners find home-improvement resources.

Now ranch-style homes are finding new fans who appreciate their clean lines and open floor plans. And the Browns have published their second coffeetable book, "Atomic Ranch: Midcentury Interiors" (Gibbs Smith, $40), a detailed look at eight drool-worthy homes and how their owners have reinvented them for 21st-century living. We caught up with writer/editor Gringeri-Brown at home in Portland, Ore., to seek her dos and don'ts for remodeling and decorating "the regular old ranch house."

Q What's making ranch houses retro cool?

A It remains generational. People who are attracted to a more retro house, with its original elements, tend to be in their late 20s and early 30s, and it can indicate a whole lifestyle -- going to scooter rallies, bowling, "Mad Men" parties. With TV promoting it as cool, it's not just your Aunt Edna's crummy rambler. And by and large, they're still more affordable than bungalows.

Q A few years ago, you were concerned about ranches being torn down to make way for McMansions. Has the real estate meltdown had a silver lining for ranch-house preservation?

A With the economy tanking, and flippers having to take a step back, fewer ranch homes are getting the Home Depot treatment, when everything becomes vanilla. There's more appreciation of what they can be, less disregard and thinking this is a housing stock that should be cleaned out and Dwell-ified.

Q Why did you decide to write a second book?

A The first book we saw as introducing the ranch to readers: the various styles, why they're great, solutions and preservation. Now we're in our ninth year of publishing the magazine. We wanted to get some unusual homes, with good geographical diversity, and go into detail. As much as I enjoy looking at eye candy, I wanted to dig a little deeper.

Q Did you have a favorite house?

A We were struck by the Alcoa house [an aluminum kit house in Brighton, N.Y.]. It's so unusual. Another one I really admired was the house in Calistoga [Calif.]. The owner is an architect who opened up the floor plan but didn't change the footprint. She made it much better, and to me, that's what's recommended. Ranch houses are so ubiquitous, and somebody who's a pro can do so much to make them more modern and friendly to modern lifestyles.

Q What's tricky about decorating the mid-century house?

A One thing to pay attention to is scale. These are not McMansions, not lofts. Big overstuffed pieces and tall armoires don't fit well in the scale of these houses.

Q What styles do work well?

A Classical things you see in old magazines. You can still get 4-inch porcelain tile. There are places to get Formica, laminate and flat-front cabinets, although not as many as I'd like. Scale is really important, and consistency of palette -- trying not to get carried away. These houses tend to be modest, so you should make modest, consistent choices. We're seeing a lot of Ikea kitchens. It works fine if you want a current, modern look, and it's hard to argue with the price point.

Q What doesn't work?

A Try to avoid incorporating everything you see on HGTV: the granite countertops, stainless-steel appliances, vessel sink. It is your home, and style is pretty personal, but the less gew-gaws, shine and pattern, the better the house looks and the better for resale. The person who wants everything glitzy and high-end is not going to appreciate your house.

Q What are some things to keep in mind when using color in midcentury homes?

A Color is really personal. In general, try to have consistency. If you have exposed beams, the inside and outside should match each other. Look at the details. Color doesn't have to be only neutral or fun '50s colors. Choose colors that appeal to you, but let the open floor plan dictate a little less going on. A ranch is more neutral largely because of all the windows.

Q What are good ways to update the pink '50s bathroom?

A I wish someone would come up with some good pink tile. Our own bathroom is pink and cranberry tile. Some people flipped our house, but they put in a shockingly good choice for flippers: 4-inch white tile, the same size as the original tile. So it's a white bathroom with some interesting pink and cranberry tile. They didn't choose subway tile, which I like, but it's more appropriate to a bungalow house.

Q What's the worst design sin you've seen committed against a ranch?

A Putting second stories on top, and large additions. My other pet peeve is having a ranch and trying to turn it into a bungalow, with a little faux front porch, some columns, stacked rocks, crown molding, a chair rail, wainscoting. You can call it a Victorian or a bungalow, but that doesn't make it one.

  • related content

  • "The Alcoa House" near Rochester, N.Y., was a prototype demonstration house when it was built in 1957. Many of its furnishings today were purchased through craigslist or at vintage stores.

  • Michelle Gringeri-Brown

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