Robert Stacy-Judd, 1884-1975 Guest house in the Indian Village at Soboba Hot Springs (San Jacinto, Calif.)- Maricopa, circa 1928 hand-colored postcard- 3 1:2 x 5 1:2 in. Robert Stacy-Judd Papers, Art, Design + Architecture Museum, UCSB
Above image credit: Robert Stacy-Judd, 1884-1975 Guest house in the Indian Village at Soboba Hot Springs (San Jacinto, Calif.)- Maricopa, circa 1928 hand-colored postcard- 3 1:2 x 5 1:2 in. Robert Stacy-Judd Papers, Art, Design + Architecture Museum, UCSB
Philbin house (Woodside, Calif.)- bird's eye view, 1959 Rendering by F.W. Jamison gouache on board- 20 ⅛ x 24 ⅛ in. Cliff May Papers. Collection of the UCSB Art, Design & Architecture Museum.
Philbin house (Woodside, Calif.)- bird’s eye view, 1959 Rendering by F.W. Jamison gouache on board- 20 ⅛ x 24 ⅛ in. Cliff May Papers. Collection of the UCSB Art, Design & Architecture Museum, UCSB.

In this post, we take a look at the illustrious career of Cliff May, the American architect who dreamed up the California ranch house. A symbol of breezy modern living with an intriguing flare of local tradition, the ranch house saw several transformations under May’s watch. The history of this residential design style was the subject of a 2012 exhibition at the renovated Art, Design + Architecture Museum at the University of California Santa Barbara, called Carefree California: Cliff May and the Romance of the Ranch House.  As the online portion of the exhibition summarized the show, along with Catherine Opie’s contemporary photos of his structures:

These exhibitions are centered on a significant figure in Southern California design, Cliff May, and the origins and development of the ranch house. Much of the success of the ranch house derived from reworking regional architectural traditions, wedding local history to ideas of modernity. The romantic myths of the western frontier inspired a generation of architects looking to cultivate a domestic architecture that expressed a distinctively Californian way of carefree living.

The first incarnation of the ranch house was the old-style hacienda, made of regional adobe, brick, tile and stucco. The large windows and sprawling floor plans were years off from the style portrayed above. This older style utilized regional adobe, brick, tile and stucco.

Cliff May, Smith house (La Habra Heights, Calif.)- entrance, 1935 Photograph by W.P. Woodcock photographic print; gelatin silver- 1 1/16 x 13 15/16 in. (Cliff May Papers, Art, Design &
Cliff May, Smith house (La Habra Heights, Calif.)- entrance, 1935 Photograph by W.P. Woodcock photographic print; gelatin silver- 1 1/16 x 13 15/16 in. Cliff May Papers, Art, Design & Architecture Museum, UCSB

Later came the modest wood and glass tract houses of the 1940’s, and then the near-minimal system-built ranches that May designed and sold in the late 1950’s. His luxury ranch homes, the apex of his ranch-inspired legacy, had these attributes:

  • open floor-plan
  • emphasis on patios and glass corridors to suggest addition space
  • integration of house and garden, encouraging and indoor/outdoor lifestyle
  • deliberate asymmetry
  • single-story, horizontal emphasis
  • flexible and informal

May’s early departures from rectilinearity were conceptualized as a visualization of freedom and adaptability, much like the “free plan” of the modern house.

Cliff May, 1908-1989 House Beautiful demonstration home  (Los Angeles, Calif.)- patio perspective, circa 1945 pencil and watercolor on board- 10 ½ x 16 ½ in. Cliff May Papers, Art, Design + Architecture Museum, UCSB.
Cliff May, 1908-1989 House Beautiful demonstration home (Los Angeles, Calif.)- patio perspective, circa 1945 pencil and watercolor on board- 10 ½ x 16 ½ in. Cliff May Papers, Art, Design + Architecture Museum, UCSB.

In the 1920’s California was increasingly visible in American popular culture as a paradise, and places like Santa Barbara and Ojai implemented new design guidelines that minimized the monumental haciendas that recalled Spanish-Mexican origins. They brought in fresh designs that were smaller and more landscaped.

By the 1930s, west coast architects needed to find some cold hard solutions for people wanting to immigrate to the region on a budget. Depression-era resettlement and material shortages had challenged them to come up with small, inexpensive dwellings, and these pressures didn’t abate in the post-war period when there was more money– there were also more people. A lot more. Kit houses like this were May’s solution:

Cliff May, 1908-1989, and Chris Choate, 1908-1981 Cliff May Homes leaflet, 1955 printed ephemera- 10 ⅝ x 8 ⅛ in.  Cliff May Papers, Art, Design + Architecture Museum, UCSB.
Cliff May, 1908-1989, and Chris Choate, 1908-1981 Cliff May Homes leaflet, 1955 printed ephemera- 10 ⅝ x 8 ⅛ in. Cliff May Papers, Art, Design + Architecture Museum, UCSB.

Becoming popular across the nation once May got press coverage, these construction “kits” afforded people small, inexpensive homes with customizable interiors. Approximately 18,000 Cliff May kit homes were sold on the “Factory Model,” with preassembled panels and post-and-lintel construction.

The modest wood and glass tract houses of the ’40s opened up into May’s system-built ’50s ranches. Wealthier clients could afford to stretch their legs a little more, and May was happy to design luxury ranch homes for them. Patios and glass corridors not only gave the illusion of spaciousness, but also integrated indoor and outdoor spaces toward a lifestyle that is uniquely SoCal.

Cliff May, 1908-1989 Hutton house (Montecito, Calif.)- preliminary study for plan, 1955 Drawing by Jack Lester ink and pencil on paper- 8 1⁄2 x 11 1:16 in. Cliff May Papers, Art, Design & Architecture Museum, UCSB
Cliff May, 1908-1989 Hutton house (Montecito, Calif.)- preliminary study for plan, 1955 Drawing by Jack Lester ink and pencil on paper- 8 1⁄2 x 11 1:16 in. Cliff May Papers, Art, Design & Architecture Museum, UCSB

May’s designs expanded into long sections that emphasized movement throughout the space. He believed in using the whole plot of land in a building plan- that architecture couldn’t work without landscaping and the proper decorating. As he began to more ambitiously engage with the land, his buildings became asymmetrical, flourishing into a principle of freedom and modern adaptability.

Americans were encouraged to participate in “A New Adventure in Living,” as one of the show’s antique magazine images says, by buying homes and living the carefree California life. This section of the exhibit, near the end, is full of interesting paper artefacts but is somewhat awkward to maneuver. There’s not a clear traffic pattern so if you want to follow a chronology through this section, it’s going to take some doing. Personally, I think the topic of the show is confined enough that a “carefree” (ha!) trot around the room will bring you to the final section without much loss.

In the last portion of the show, curators Jocelyn Gibbs and Nicholas Olsberg and their team have given us a pop cultural background on how the west was marketed. In an especially interesting piece, Laura di Zerega and Anis Haron have compiled a looping film showing “ranchjamas” for your sleepy little cowboy and clips from Richard Rosson’s Shootin’ Irons.

What do Cliff May’s houses look like today? Noted photographer Catherine Opie was commissioned by the AD+A to shoot May’s structures as they are today. This image shows one of his “Skylight houses,” which were rectangular and compact. Originally designed as an experimental solution to needs for low-cost housing (just $10,000), they included a retractable glass cover over inner patio courtyards. They also included temporary walls allowing dwellers to customize their interiors.

Old_Ranch_Road_4
Catherine Opie, Old Ranch Road #4, 2011, 20 x 26.5 inches, inkjet print. Courtesy Regen Projects, Los Angeles. Art, Design & Architecture Museum, UCSB.

In Cliff May’s own words,

Every good house has an element of surprise.

Contact us today- give us the chance to surprise you.

1 Comment

  1. Jack Lester is my father-in-law. He worked for Cliff May in the 1950’s. He designed Cliff May’s house! He died 10 years ago. We have a whole lot of his drawings from that time period. He worked for Cliff May again briefly from his Phoenix area home in the early 1980’s.

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