Cliff May (1908-1989): Custom Ranch Houses

Description

Cliff May, known as 'the father of the ranch house,' was an early proponent of the California style ranch house. He first built hacienda style houses in San Diego in the 1930s, then moved to Los Angeles to create some of the most widely recognized ranch-style houses in the country. His early custom ranch houses of the 1930s follow the compact designs of his hacienda-style houses, but with central courtyards and face inwards. After the WWII years and the boom in tract housing through the 1950s, the custom houses Cliff May designed became larger, more open to the outside world, and sprawled through the home site with large motor courts and swimming pools. These changes reflected the needs of a different clientele-- as land prices increased, the wealthy wanted grand homes on large, expensive lots and the later houses reflect the changing wants and needs.

Creator

Cliff May, architect

Source

Cliff May papers, Architecture and Design Collection. Art, Design & Architecture Museum; University of California, Santa Barbara.

Date

circa 1950 - circa 1980

Rights

Transmission or reproduction of materials protected by copyright beyond that allowed by fair use requires the written permission of the copyright owners. Copyright restrictions also apply to digital representations of the original materials. Works not in the public domain cannot be commercially exploited without permission of the copyright owner. Responsibility for any use rests exclusively with the user. University of California Regents.

Collection Items

Cliff May: Hauser house (Borrego Springs, Calif.)
The Hauser house in Borrego Springs is one of Cliff May's earlier custom ranch houses, but it has all of the elements of some of his larger designs. With a U-shaped floor plan, the house has one wing with master bedroom and smaller bedrooms, another…

Cliff May: Lear house (Los Angeles, Calif.)
In this birds-eye view of the William Lear house in Los Angeles, the sprawling multi-winged house is seen perched on a hill overlooking the city. With a large circular motor court and pool with patio enclosed on all four sides by the house, it has…

Cliff May: Philbin house (Woodside, Calif.)
With this house in Woodside, Cliff May showcases the custom style he is known for. With a central enclosed courtyard, patios extending the living spaces, and the single-story, asymmetrical house on a large lot with pool, this rendering fits the…

Cliff May: Trenchard house (La Jolla, Calif.)
In this early hacienda style version of the ranch house, Cliff May creates privacy with a patio that is surrounded by the house and garage on three sides, with a walled-off fourth side, as well as a gated motor court. Each room in the house opens…

Cliff May: Smith house (La Habra, Calif.)
As one of Cliff May's first large-scale custom ranch houses for his benefactor and business partner John Arnholt Smith, this rendering and floor plan show how grand May's early work could be. The U shaped house was accentuated by the diagonal living…

Cliff May: Evans house (Solvang, Calif.)
The Evans house and property in the Rancho Alisal golf community just outside of Solvang, Calif., in the Santa Ynez valley, is a good example of the Cliff May custom ranch style. A large lot, motor court with covered garage/carport, indoor/outdoor…

Cliff May portraits
The Cliff May archive contains many personal and professional portraits and publicity images of Cliff May.
The second image was published in House and Garden in February 1957 and shows Cliff May, daughter Marilyn, son-in-law Lawrence Philips,…

Cliff May: May house #1 (San Diego, Calif.)
For Cliff May's first house for himself and his wife, Jean Lichty, he designed a house which surrounds a courtyard in an asymmetrical fashion. Cliff May house 1 is a modest hacienda house in the Talmadge Park neighborhood and the first of five houses…

Cliff May: Lindstrom house (San Diego, Calif.)
Cliff May built his first speculative house in Talmadge Park in 1931, and his second in 1933, bought by Captain William Lindstrom. The Lindstrom house and furniture cost $7,710.42 to build. The $1,636.65 profit was split evenly between Cliff May and…

Cliff May: O'Leary house (San Diego, Calif.)
Cliff May’s future father-in-law, Roy C. Lichty, gave May a lot in the Talmadge Park subdivision, where Lichty was general manager, and financed his first speculative house, which May designed and built in 1931–1932 with the help of master…

Cliff May: Horton development (La Jolla, Calif.)
Hiram and Violetta Lee Horton built four of the six speculative houses May designed for them on Hillside Drive in La Jolla, a seaside community in northern San Diego. Violetta Horton also commissioned May to build the Sweetwater Women’s clubhouse…

Cliff May: Smith speculative house (Bel Air, Calif.)
The Hollywood Citizen-News reported that though the grand speculative house May built for John A. Smith resembled an “ancient ‘dobe ranch house,” the walls were actually hollow tile and filled with plumbing, electricity, and other modern…

Cliff May: Blow house #1 (Los Angeles, Calif.)
Cliff May and John A. Smith formalized their relationship in a contractual partnership to “jointly undertake the construction of dwellings for sale in the vicinity of Los Angeles,” naming May as builder and designer and Smith as financier through…

Cliff May: May house #2 (Los Angeles, Calif.)
His second house for his family, Cliff May house 2, was built in Mandeville Canyon. This area of west Los Angeles would remain the epicenter of May’s work and life for the rest of his long career.
The wings of Cliff May house 2 enclose the outdoor…

Cliff May: Riviera Ranch photographs (Los Angeles, Calif.)
May evoked the mystique of California’s past and the proximity to the Riviera Country Club’s polo field to market his houses, as seen in his ideas to promote his Riviera Ranch development. He named his model house the “Urban Ranch.”

Though…

Cliff May: Riviera Ranch drawings (Los Angeles, Calif.)
These unbuilt entrance gates indicate May’s vision for Riviera Ranch as a secluded world. The imagined landscaping is a fanciful mixture of cacti and palm trees. The building on the left is an architectural office with drafting and reception rooms.…

Cliff May: May house #3 (Los Angeles, Calif.)
When the house was built in 1938–1939, the interior was connected to the outdoors visually through windows facing a sun terrace. In 1949, May changed some of those windows to glass doors. He also added heating under the concrete floor of the…

Cliff May: Lomita Square housing tract (Wilmington, Calif.)
This wartime emergency housing tract was Cliff May's first development to use production-line and prefabrication of materials to construct a large number of houses in a short amount of time. Originally planned with developer John A. Smith and his…

Cliff May: Sunset Minimum homes
May designed these unbuilt minimum houses, a large set of model plans for low-cost ranch houses, for Sunset magazine. May’s strategy was to create garden-oriented, two-wing plans. The entrance was indirect and understated. Thin partitions defined…

Cliff  May: Good Housekeeping house
In 1947, Good Housekeeping magazine published May’s design of a small ranch house for a 60 x 120- foot lot, with the tag line, “Five rooms indoors—five outdoors.” The article boasts that the house is only 42 feet wide and “[t]here is no…

Cliff May: Postwar Demonstration house (Los Angeles, Calif.)
The plan that evolved into May’s widely publicized Pace Setter house for House Beautiful was first designed by May during the war as a Postwar Demonstration house, in anticipation of an expanding upper middle-class housing market. He wanted to…

Cliff May: Woodacres demonstration house (Los Angeles, Calif.)
May worked on his postwar demonstration model home intended for the Woodacres development, with Elizabeth Gordon, the editor of House Beautiful, who designed these interiors. This model was to be a U- shaped plan. Rooms were to be arranged around a…

Cliff May: Lakewood Rancho Estates (Long Beach, Calif.)
In 1950 Cliff May partnered with Chris Choate to form Cliff May Homes to distribute ranch house plans to developers throughout the country. In Long Beach, they partnered with Ross Cortese, who built Lakewood Rancho Estates. Over 17,000 homes in 36…

Cliff May: "Pace-Setter" model house (Brentwood, Calif.)
May first took the plans for his postwar demonstration house to Sunset, asking the magazine to sponsor the building of the house. When Sunset declined, House Beautiful agreed to partner with May on the house. First National Finance Corporation…

Cliff May: Cliff May Homes Factory Model home (Los Angeles, Calif.)
The idea for Cliff May Homes, a business of selling designs for prefabricated tract houses, was born in 1950 out of discussions between Cliff May and Chris Choate, an architect working in May’s office. May and Choate did field research, visiting…

Cliff May: "Magic Money" ranch house
The house plans for the "Magic Money" ranch houses could vary between two and three bedroom models, as well as with or without two-car detached garage. The emphasis in these plans is on indoor-outdoor living, as exemplified by the large patio areas…

Cliff May: Norlie Construction tract (Chico, Calif.)
As the Cliff May Homes distribution of prefabricated housing supplies expanded across the nation, the speed with which a house could be constructed was still a major selling point. In this series of photos, a clock is prominently displayed to show…

Cliff May: Cliff May Homes prefabricated house
Cliff May Homes rationallized the building process and used elements of prefabricated building parts to lower costs. This very colorful presentation drawing highlights the attractive exterior of the home.

Cliff May: Cliff May Homes low cost house
This promotional image highlights the suburban nature of the Cliff May Homes tracts, with lush landscaping and ample parking.

Cliff May: Cliff May house #4 (Los Angeles, Calif.)
Cliff May house 4, or the Skylight house, illustrates May’s eagerness to experiment, something he was particularly willing to do in the houses he designed for his family. Christian (Chris) Choate and May together designed it, with landscaping by…

Cliff May: Cliff May house #5 (Brentwood, Calif.)
Cliff May house 5 represents the final stage in his design of the custom ranch house in its scale, large areas of glass, and high ceilings. The large central living space (over 1,600 square feet and 53 feet long) was a combination of living room,…
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