Cliff May didn’t invent the ranch house, nor was he the only designer to believe that a California house should respond to the landscape, climate, and history of the place. A small selection of drawings from the archives of the Architecture and Design Collection demonstrates the work of architects such as H. Roy Kelley, Roland E. Coate, and John Byers, who revived the Monterey two-story adobe house; Henry Palmer Sabin, who drew upon the rustic vernacular buildings of California; and Hunt and Chambers, who skillfully employed Spanish Colonial and Mediterranean details and massing. Modernist stirrings can be seen in the work of Lutah Maria Riggs, Paul László, and Irving Gill. And R. M. Schindler’s own radically modern house might be called a ranch house without looking it: low to the ground with indoor/outdoor rooms, flexible, and informal.
Cliff May remained true to his ideas about the ranch house throughout his career, but when he met the financier and oilman John A. Smith, he began building more substantial houses—ranchos deluxe—in Los Angeles and beyond, where larger lots gave him room to spread out the plan and Smith’s financing gave him freedom. May’s early works outside San Diego include a ranch estate for Smith, a house in Santa Barbara, a large speculative house in west Los Angeles, the first Frederick Blow house, and a house for himself in Mandeville Canyon.
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 his First National Finance Corporation. By the summer of 1937 they were aggressively promoting and publishing their houses, one of which is the first house May designed for Frederick Blow and his wife.
Frederick Blow commissioned May, left money in an account for him, and then left for Europe. This house has all the hallmarks of the best of May’s ranch houses. It spreads on the site, encloses outdoor rooms, and looks, with its uneven roof line, as though it grew on the site over decades.
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 living space. The street façade is straightforwardly modest and gives no hint of the expansiveness of the courtyard side.