New Kansas City ranch houses pay homage to midcentury modern design

08/15/2014 7:00 AM

08/18/2014 9:27 AM

The hall in Sharon and Dave Byers’ 3,700-square-foot home is long and, well, rather sterile.

It’s lined on one side with doors to a bedroom, bathroom, exercise room, den and storage/mechanical room. Framed artwork by their son, Preston, hangs on the opposite wall beneath clerestory windows.

“We have friends that call it the clinic hallway, which is not very flattering,” Sharon Byers says with a laugh.

Of course it’s easy to shrug off such comments when the rest of your home looks like it sprang from the pages of Architectural Digest.

The home, on four acres just off East U.S. 50 on the outskirts of Lee’s Summit and near Lake Lotawana, is a testament to today’s sophisticated modern ranch home.

Turn left onto the Byerses’ street, and there it sits: a low-slung, cedar-clad marvel that embraces its terrain and the picturesque sky.

The Byerses worked with Josh Shelton of the El Dorado architectural firm to design the home. Shelton says the Byerses came to him with very specific ideas. He also said it never occurred to him that the home is a modern ranch.

“They didn’t use those words at all,” he says. “They came with the site, which had a strong relationship with the horizon line to the west. The house is hugging the prairie and open to views of the setting sun and storms rolling in. I never thought of it as a ranch, but as something responding to its site in a specific way.”

Nevertheless, he says, if he had to point to one style of architecture that he has been most influenced by, it would be the midcentury modern ranch homes built by Donald Drummond.

“(They) are a classic example of low-slung architecture, built around a courtyard with a nice relationship between the indoors and outdoors,” he says.

Motorists stop and ask about the home all the time, Byers says. “When we were building, people would stop and ask if it was going to be a clubhouse or a QuikTrip.”

Recently, she says, a large, hulking stranger knocked on the front door asking for a tour. Turns out he was a former Kansas City Chiefs player. Her husband showed him around.

The ranch resurrected

Typically, modern ranch homes, also known as midcentury modern-, atomic- and California ranches, are single-story structures with a low-pitched gable roof, deep-set eaves, large windows and a rambling horizontal floor plan that’s either rectangular or shaped like an L or U. They often lack decorative detailing and have few interior walls, which creates an open feeling.

The modern ranch originated in California during the 1920s. Cliff May, a self-taught architect from San Diego, is widely considered the style’s father.

According to Doug Kramer, a California Realtor and proprietor of the website RanchoStyle.com, May combined the western ranch house and Spanish hacienda with elements of modernism. He believed in building outward, rather than upward, and in using large windows and doors so that every room could meld with the outdoors.

A lot of elements he adopted originated in Prairie-style architecture, most famously created and perfected by William Morris and Frank Lloyd Wright.

May designed close to 18,000 tract homes and more than 1,000 custom homes nationwide during his lifetime, Kramer writes. Ranches became extremely popular with the middle class following World War II.

The style caught on locally during the mid-’40s, when Drummond, an engineer, teamed up with architect David B. Runnells to build post-and-beam, glass-walled modern ranches here. Drummond built as many as 1,100 homes in the area between 1946 and 1964. There are still pockets of midcentury ranches sprinkled through Prairie Village, Overland Park and Leawood.

During the ’70s, the historic preservation movement started to gain steam, and the modern ranch began to fall out of favor.

“People began asking, ‘What is it about old buildings that we like?’ And that led to the post-modern movement,” says Eric Piper, a principal at Piper-Wind Architects. “They looked at traditional ways of living and those dwellings and were trying to re-create new buildings that replicated that.”

The post-modern movement resulted in new homes with more traditional architecture. It continued through the 1990s, spreading like prairie fire through suburbs. Then, about 20 years ago, Piper says, there was a resurrection of interest in the modern movement.

“It’s kind of one of those skip-a-generation things where you have younger folks looking at what their grandparents lived with rather than what their parents live with,” he says.

An urban suburban fit

According to Jerad Foster, a partner at Studio Build, his firm gets three or four calls a week from potential clients looking to renovate a ranch, though not as many to build them.

Overall, the interior of the new modern ranch is not much different from its 50- and 60-year-old predecessors.

“There are more modern materials, but they’re still quite similar,” he says. “It’s a more open floor plan. The kitchen in the 1950s was often tucked away. Now they’re open to the living space. With flooring, cork is coming back. It was popular in midcentury and is popular again, which is unique. Hardwood has always been synonymous with ranches and is still popular.”

Last year, Foster designed a modern ranch for Kim Howie, a production artist at Hallmark, on a small lot in Brookside. It includes 6-decade-old features that made the architectural style distinct, yet pushes the genre in new directions.

If the Byerses’ home is suited for Architectural Digest, Howie’s looks like it’s from Dwell. It’s smaller and more modest in some ways, but still an architectural gem.

Step through the front door and you’re in a wide-open rectangular space that serves as Howie’s painting studio, living room, dining room and kitchen. A series of tall windows run the length of the space.

The vibe is modern yet warm. The wall behind the dark metal kitchen cabinets is covered in dark metal tile and dark gray paint. The countertops and upper shelving are wood. It all blends well with her eclectic mix of furniture, which ranges from rustic and antique to modern and industrial.

“I told Studio Build, ‘I’m not really a midcentury modern girl. I’m not tidy enough. I need to be able to have dishes in the sink and books on the table,’” Howie says. “It couldn’t be so clean-lined and hard-edged that I couldn’t allow it to get a little jumbled up.”

The interior wall of the combination living space contains bookcases built into the wall starting 12 feet from the floor, sort of like a clerestory window. A rolling ladder provides access to them. The main floor has a small yet chic bedroom that’s painted dark gray and shares a two-sided fireplace with the living space; a large walk-in closet and full bathroom round out the main floor. A finished basement has a media room, two bedrooms, full bathroom and storage room.

The exterior is what’s most distinctive about the home. Half of it is clad in dark brown siding, the other half in corrugated aluminum shingles similar to those on grain silos, giving the home a rustic-modern feel. The modular landscaping comprises concrete, black mulch and gravel.

Modern and functional

The Byerses moved into their home about six months ago from a traditional home that was built in 1990. Sharon Byers had gone through several decorating styles over the years — Victorian, French country, contemporary and finally, for the last several years, modern and midcentury modern.

“We figured it was time to get an exterior that matched our stuff,” she says. “We saw this four-acre lot and loved it. Also, our 20-year-old son (Preston, who is mentally disabled) tends to lope and wander into other people’s houses. This gives him space to roam and me time to catch up with him when he gets out.”

As in Howie’s home, the Byerses’ living room, dining room and kitchen are contained in one large space that’s flooded with daylight thanks to floor-to-ceiling windows on the western wall of the living room, offering dramatic views of the sky and horizon. Sliding glass doors on the north side of the living room open onto a courtyard.

The living room is furnished with white leather Barcelona chairs, Petrie sofas from Crate & Barrel and other furnishings from Room and Board. The dining area has a long, modern table surrounded by replicas of red Eames chairs and a George Nelson bubble lamp hovering above. The kitchen has dark maple cabinets and white quartz countertops.

An open office sits across a hall from the kitchen, and the master suite is tucked behind the kitchen. Concrete floors, warmed with geothermal heating, run through the common living spaces.

Go around the office and you’ll find Preston’s bedroom suite, which opens onto a courtyard, and the “clinical” hallway that contains the bedroom for the Byerses’ daughter, Molly, 16. All the bedrooms have plush gray carpet and clerestory windows that let in light while providing privacy.

Again, it’s the home’s exterior that pushes design boundaries. In this case, it’s clad in horizontal cedar planks, stained two shades of brown, that accentuate the home’s low profile. Look straight on at the home’s long front, and the door is invisible. In the style of a lot of Prairie homes, it’s hidden in an alcove, fronted by a light stone wall. The roof is mostly flat, with the western portion over the living room tilting slightly inward.

The Byerses’ elderly parents like to visit, and Sharon Byers has arthritis in her knees. So stairs were not on their list of desires when designing the home.

“Plus, we had the space out here, so why not build out rather than up?” she says.

To reach Cynthia Billhartz Gregorian, call 816-234-4780 or send email to cgregorian@kcstar.com.

About the series

KC Dwellings is an occasional series that looks at residential architectural styles in the area. The next feature will focus on Kansas City shirtwaists. If you’d like to submit your shirtwaist for consideration, please email photographs of its exterior and several rooms to cgregorian@kcstar.com by Friday.

To see more photos of the homes featured in this article, visit KansasCity.com. To see photos of and learn more about Kansas City’s midcentury modern homes, go to KCModern.com.

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