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Ranch Home Allure: The Dazzling Watercolors of Chris Choate

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By Ruth Wallach

In 1946 the editorial staff at Sunset magazine collaborated with the architect Cliff May (1908-1989) in publishing a book called Sunset Western Ranch Houses, still a definitive history of this architectural style. As is true of much vernacular architecture, the ranch house is not defined strictly by form. Rather, any house that "provides for an informal type of living and is not definitely marked by unmistakable style symbols is called a ranch house."

The ranch house is typically a spread-out and rambling one-story structure with a low roof line that encourages free movement through its interior and exterior spaces. Its floor plan composed of separate wings is flexible and can be expanded to accommodate various family functions: "One wing, such as the nursery, can be closed off with sliding doors....This arrangement allows the children to retire and arise early...without disturbing the rest of the household." The ranch house seamlessly fits into the landscape, so that the garden and the patio are part of the living area. It spreads out to allow maximum view on all sides. In other words, the ranch house is a prime example of indoor/outdoor living, a style particularly suited to Southern California's mild climate.

The architect Chris Choate (1908-1981), Cliff May's collaborator, produced watercolor renderings of some of the ranch houses for presentation to clients. Figure 1 shows his rendering for the Woodacres demonstration home, painted for the magazine House Beautiful, whose editor, Elizabeth Gordon, was a champion of the ranch house:

[Figure 1. <em>House Beautiful</em> Demonstration Home, Woodacres.  By Elizabeth Gordon and Cliff May, watercolor rendering by Chris Choate, n.d., ca. 1946-1947.] | Courtesy of the USC Libraries' Helen Topping Architecture and Fine Arts Library.

Surrounded by lushly painted trees that tower over it, the house looks out toward a valley with a hint of other human habitation at the foot of the mountains across. The vegetation is reflected in the pool and throws shadows on the roof. The trees are drawn unnaturally tall, guarding the privacy of the house. Choate's painting style borders on the impressionistic, yet it definitively conveys the informal lifestyle promoted by the house, with the sloping-roofed lanai as its focal point. The floor plan in the lower half of the rendering gives another spatial reading of the house as a marker of a lifestyle [Figure 2].

[Figure 2.  <em>House Beautiful</em> Demonstration Home, Woodacres. Detail of the floor plan.] | Courtesy of the USC Libraries' Helen Topping Architecture and Fine Arts Library.

The large motor court to the right adjoins the small courtyard that separates the service areas from the main house. The first living quarters a visitor encounters are the lanai and sun terrace that surround the dining room and are in turn framed by the pool on one side and a vista on the other. The living room separates the two wings containing private spaces to the left from the more public spaces located at the center. Choate added notations in the floor plan to suggest certain kinds of activities: in the living room there is a schematic drawing of a piano; adjoining the living room and facing the pool is a conversation area around a central square, possibly an open hearth. The artist's hand shifts our perspective from an angle that allows us to see the massing of the house and the landscape around it in the upper half of the rendering, to a bird's eye view of the floor plan, where shapes are set off as separate fields of color. The pencil-drawn small structures at the bottom right and left are rather mysterious, and do not appear to have a corresponding location in the rendering.

The presentation rendering of the house for Mr. and Mrs. Whiteman is stylistically somewhat different [Figure 3]. The symmetrical abstraction of the façade of this very large house rises from the flat color expanses of the patios and the surrounding landscape, and is mimicked in the geometric lines of the fields beyond. Details such as people and horses are drawn very quickly, almost as an afterthought. The trees in the Spanish garden, drawn unnaturally tall and slender, center the pinwheel flow of the rooflines, while throwing long graceful shadows that seem to extend toward the mountains in the background.

[Figure 3. Ranch House for Mr. and Mrs. M. F. Whiteman, San Fernando Valley, California.  Design by Cliff May; watercolor rendering by Chris Choate, n.d.] | Courtesy of the USC Libraries' Helen Topping Architecture and Fine Arts Library.

Choate took advantage of the painterly medium to generate an aspiration for a life-style in the clients. His colors tend toward shades of green and yellow for the landscapes, and toward creams and reds for the homes. There are also other colors such as deep hues of rose, purple, blue, and black. In the rendering that shows the elegant interior of the Blow house [Figure 4] a muted color palette dominates in such a way that the exterior, framed by the large glass window in center background, becomes part of the interior.

 [Figure 4. Residence of Mr. and Mrs. Frederic Blow.  Design by Cliff May, watercolor rendering by Christ Choate, n.d.] | Courtesy of the USC Libraries' Helen Topping Architecture and Fine Arts Library.

Watercolor was a common medium for these sketch-like renderings, since it could be applied quickly. Choate's style seems effortless, as if it took him just a few minutes to paint. The drawings are on cardboard backing which has yellowed and become brittle. At the USC Libraries we recently discovered that Choate was blending watercolors directly on the board when the cardboard frame came off the Blow drawing [Figure 5].

 [Figure 5. Chris Choate was blending colors directly on the cardboard on which he drew the Blow residence.] | Courtesy of the USC Libraries' Helen Topping Architecture and Fine Arts Library.

Clearly, these were working drawings, not intended for longevity or preservation. Yet, luckily for us, they survived first in the architects' office files and now in the archival collections of USC Libraries' Helen Topping Architecture and Fine Arts Library, and can be studied both for their expressiveness and for their craftsmanship which is rarely practiced anymore.

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Top Image: Ranch House for Mr. and Mrs. M. F. Whiteman, San Fernando Valley, California. Design by Cliff May; watercolor rendering by Chris Choate, n.d.] | Courtesy of the USC Libraries' Helen Topping Architecture and Fine Arts Library.

About the Author

Ruth Wallach is the head of the Helen Topping Architecture and Fine Arts Library at the University of Southern California. She has authored and co-authored publications in librarianship, public art, and the history of Los Angeles....
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