The Birdhouse Ranch, Another Twist on the Ranch House

Birdhouse ranches have dovecotes on the roof that look like, well, birdhouses
Birdhouse ranches have dovecotes on the roof that look like, well, birdhouses

The “birdhouse ranch,” or Mellenthin houses as they’re also called, were created by William Mellenthin, a developer who began building tracts around Southern California in 1923. By the late 1940s and into the 1950s, the ranch style was at its peak in popularity. Mellenthin built a variation of the ranch with his own twist. The Mellenthin houses have a lot of similar features to the traditional ranch house.  But they also incorporate dovecotes somewhere on the roof, typically on the garage, living room or bedroom. This is the where the “birdhouse” nickname comes from. They might seem like a small feature, but they gave these homes a distinctive quality that set them apart from other styles. The Cinderella Ranch, for instance, distinguished itself with steep gables and gingerbread trim. Since their debut, the “birdhouse” ranch has practically become synonymous with the San Fernando Valley suburbs.

Born in 1896, William Mellenthin was originally from the Midwest but made his name in the California post-war housing boom. Like his contemporaries (and more famous names), Joseph Eichler and Cliff May, Mellenthin was known for blurring the lines between indoor and outdoor living. Also, like Eichler and May, Mellenthin was building homes that were higher quality than the average tract homes of the time.

In addition to the dovecote (birdhouse), some of the features you’ll see in a Mellenthin home include:

Pitched roof

Diamond paned windows

Picture windows

Porches

Low to the ground

Double-sided fireplaces

Hardwood floors

Many Mellenthin (birdhouse) ranch homes had diamond pane windows, like this one, although it's a little hard to see.
Many Mellenthin (birdhouse) ranch homes had diamond pane windows, like this one, although it’s a little hard to see.

William’s son Michael joined his father’s firm in the 1950s and phased out the “birdhouse” style by the 1960s. Michael took the company in a more “Midcentury Modern” direction, a sleeker version of the American home that was growing in popularity at the time. The family business closed in 1978 and William Mellenthin passed away the following year. Mellenthin’s career had spanned more than 50 years and 3,000 houses in Southern California. Today, his legacy may not be as well-known as Eichler or May. But there is a still a vibrant market for those who treasure the now-classic birdhouse ranch house. Many have been modified beyond recognition but a good number of them are still relatively intact and sought after by architecture enthusiasts.

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