Custom Ranch Houses

The Custom Ranch House

Cliff May: Evans house (Solvang, Calif.)

Evans house, 1967-1968; Solvang, Calif.

After Cliff May’s foray into prefabricated tract housing, he returned with enthusiasm to designing and building custom homes. The last house he designed for himself, Cliff May House 5 at 2200 Old Ranch Road just outside Riviera Ranch and renamed Mandalay by May and his second wife, is the apotheosis of his late ranch house style. Begun in 1952, he remodeled the house many times through 1978. 

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 patios, and a semi-enclosed pool with a shaded roof with skylights are all signature custom features in this house.

Cliff May: Philbin house (Woodside, Calif.)

Philbin house, 1959; Woodside, Calif.

Many of his postwar, custom houses are similar to 2200 Old Ranch Road: large, simply detailed, with a central high-ceilinged living space and glass gables. Not as picturesque as his classic ranch houses, these last houses appear to be more urbane, more modern, though they have peaked roofs and are sheathed in board and batten. 

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 custom style. Woodside, a small wealthy suburb of San Francisco, was the site of a few commissions for houses in the late 1950s and early 1960s, as the cost of land rose and the market for large, custom homes also increased.

Cliff May: Lear house (Los Angeles, Calif.)

Lear house, 1958; Los Angeles, Calif.

Other architects also continued to work with the ranch house type, sometimes directly, often obliquely. Paul Sterling Hoag created rambling wood houses that recall the material warmth of the classic barn and the spreading form of the ranch. Albert Frey, a European-born architect who settled in Palm Springs, designed houses that suit the wild beauty of the desert. Such houses have many of the qualities May insisted were necessary for living well: flexibility and informality, close connection to the ground and outside views, and suitability to the landscape. 

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 some of the common features for May's custom houses. But as with some of his later custom homes, the scale of the patio and pool are increasingly grand, the motor court is larger, and the scale of the house has grown dramatically over his early ranch houses of the mid-30s.

Cliff May: Hauser house (Borrego Springs, Calif.)

Hauser house, 1949-1951; Borrego Springs, Calif.

May would have his delineators—he rarely drew himself except to direct his staff—work cinematically with perspective, as if from a high boom or airplane. The perspective drawings always indicate the siting of the house, emphasizing the close relationship between the plan and the landscape. Many of the presentation drawings are bird’s-eye perspectives, showing the roof plan nestled in the landscape.

Starting in the late 1950s, May’s custom houses show a dramatic shift in scale. Along with the increase in scale, May emphasized roof beams, window walls, roof ridge skylights, and open-air atriums. Some monumental spaces emerge, but the domestic scale and the loose languor of the ranch house, a carefree spirit anchored in a traditional pattern and scale is lost. May’s monumental rescaling of the ranch house was his last reinvention of this California icon.

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 wing with service rooms and garage, then the bottom of the U forms the living room and dining room, along with a large patio. With desert heat being an issue, the patio has a canvas 'skyshade' and a covered patio adjacent to the kitchen, which overlooks the pool. Another unique feature is the walled off 'play yard' outside of the children's bedroom-- a separate area from the parents' patio, so that each group can enjoy their separate outdoor space.

Cliff May: Cliff May house #5 (Brentwood, Calif.)

Cliff May house #5, 1955-1961; 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, dining room, and music room separated by a kitchen from the bedrooms. Enclosed on three sides by the house and carport, the terrace had radiant heating so it could be used for entertaining.

Elizabeth Gordon declined to publish this house in House Beautiful, saying that the size, over 7,000 square feet with nine outdoor living areas, was out of scale for her readers. May brought it to House and Garden, where it was published as the first “Hallmark House.” The magazine described how the Mays lived in the house and its innovative features, such as kitchen island counter with sink and a sprinkler system for the skylight.

All the elements of the ranch house are still here: the low-lying forms, the board-and-batten walls, and the permeability of indoors and outdoors, but the scale is enormous. It is here that the skylight appears along the roof ridge line, a feature May continued to use in his custom ranch house designs after the house was completed in 1956. Cliff May and his second wife named the house “Mandalay” after a big band song by Abe Lyman. Subsequent owners demolished the house in 1994.

Custom Ranch Houses