Woodacres and the Pace-Setter house

Cliff May: Woodacres demonstration house (Los Angeles, Calif.)

Woodacres Demonstration House

During the immediate post-World War II years, house sales were slow, producing tensions between John Smith of the First National Finance Corporation and Cliff May. The scale of their investment in their jointly developed subdivisions, Woodacres and Riviera Ranch, was becoming a financial burden. The partnership between them deteriorated further when Smith felt excluded from the publicity around the Pace Setter house. They agreed to settle by splitting the subdivisions: Smith took Woodacres and transferred the deed for Riviera Ranch to Cliff May. 

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 patio area that, in one of the renderings, is taken up by a lagoon-like body of water that provided a spectacular view from the lanai or open-sided porch and its associated corridor, as well as from the living room. The site, as depicted in the rendering, was lushly and tropically landscaped. Letters between May and Smith in the archive indicate that the land on which they planned to build Woodacres was in fact not so attractive and was in need of clearing.

Cliff May: "Pace-Setter" model house (Brentwood, Calif.)

Pace-Setter house, 1946-1947; 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. The 1944 plan for a postwar demonstration house in the Woodacres subdivision was finally realized in the 1947 Pace Setter house, built in the Riviera Ranch subdivision and financed by John A. Smith of First National Finance Corporation. Elizabeth Gordon and her staff designed the colorful interiors with furniture and fixtures supplied by advertisers. This model house was featured in House Beautiful and generated a great deal of publicity and work for May.

The basic plan of the postwar demonstration house did not change much between 1944 and 1947, though the swimming pool was removed. The final plan included a living room at the base of the U-shaped plan. A modest entry opened to a dining and cooking wing, at an angle to the right. A longer sleeping wing with bedrooms opening to a glazed corridor stretched to the left of the living room.

The outdoor spaces (the grassy and paved areas of the central patio, a smaller private patio for the bedrooms, and a laundry area for the maid’s room) made the house feel larger than it was. 

The model house was opened as the first House Beautiful Pace Setter house, promoted by two months of public tours, a cover shot and accompanying lavish spread in the magazine’s February 1948 issue. Gordon published a new Pace Setter house annually until the mid-1960s to spotlight ideal modern villas for the suburban middle-class.

Cliff May: Postwar Demonstration house (Los Angeles, Calif.)

Postwar Demonstration House, 1946; 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 build the Postwar Demonstration house (he also called it the “After the War house”) in a planned community of luxury homes called Woodacres. This was a parcel of land north of San Vicente Boulevard near the extension of 14th Street in Santa Monica that he and John A. Smith had purchased around 1940.

Sketches show the House Beautiful demonstration house as a self-sufficient dwelling in which—with its sun terraces, patio bar, and dining—beach and country club were virtually incorporated into the family home. At an evening barbeque party, the dining table could be placed in the middle of the opened patio doors to bridge between the indoors and outdoors.

Woodacres and the Pace-Setter house