Clifford May

Cliff May was born in 1908 in San Diego, California to Beatrice Magee and Charles Clifford May. His mother’s family was related to the Estudillo and de Pedrorena families and owned several ranchos in what are now San Diego and Riverside counties. The families were involved in political, economic, and socially important in this region of California. His Grandparents lived at Casa de Estudillo, a “U” shape rancho adobe. In 1910, the house was made into a museum and when the book Ramona by Helen Hunt Jackson was published the Casa de Estudillo was publicized as the inspiration as Ramona’s Marriage Place. The Estudillo house became part of the movement, initiated by Jackson’s novel, to preserve the California that she depicted during the rancho days.

May spent his childhood summers at his aunt’s house. She lived at the Rancho Santa Margarita and Las Flores Adobe. Las Flores Adobe was built in a Monterey style while Rancho Santa Margarita was a “U” shaped adobe home. It is these homes that inspired and shaped May’s vision of the twentieth century California ranch house for which he would become famous.

Cliff May, did not become a certified architect until his later life. He was a music student at San Diego State college but dropped out during the Great Depression and joined his parents and the Styris family designing and building furniture. His furniture design work sold so well that he was encouraged to place his pieces in a new home that was for sale and the house sold very quickly. So quickly in fact that it was attributed to May’s furniture designs and May continued to stage homes. It was only after his popularity as a furniture designer that he designed and built his own home.

Then he contacted Roy C. Lichty, a real estate developer and future father-in-law. Lichty owned land in San Diego and put up the land for May on the condition that May build the house, put in the labor and split the profits with Lichty when the house was sold. May’s second home was featured in Architectural Digest, and soon after, his homes were appearing in magazines such as American Home, California Arts & Architecture and Sunset. May’s houses were styled after the old rancho homes of his mother’s families, with one-story L- or U-shaped floor plans and wide overhanging eves and low-pitched roofs.

May’s career took off from there. Between 1940-1950, May was the president of the Los Angeles division of the Building Contractors Association and from 1946-1952, a staff consultant to House Beautiful magazine. May also received design awards from the National Association of Home Builders in 1947, 1952, and 1953. He also received an
Award of Merit for Residential Design and Construction from House and Home in 1956 and the “Hallmark House” award from House and Garden in 1958.

When Sunset magazine produced a second Western ranch house book it featured his work exclusively. While some believed that the ranch house did not deserve any recognition because it was decidedly middleclass, the livability of the houses he designed made them very popular with the owners and critics. Today, there is much appreciation for Cliff May and his designs.

A native San Diegan and graduate of San Diego State College, May successfully established his own architectural style. La Jolla Hermosa contains many examples of the Hacienda and Ranch House style. The best known example is at 6126 Avenida Cresta. Other May designs are at 6004, 6116, and 6117 Avenida Cresta. The similarities are striking and lend support to the conscious effort of May to follow this style to the letter.

The ranch house in America was so popular after World War II that, in retrospect, it seems to have been a grass roots development. But architectural historians trace its invention to a single architect - and he is alive, well and living in his own sprawling ranch house in California.
''Everyone tells me I invented it; it's been said so many times but I still don't believe it,'' says the 77-year-old Clifford May speaking in perhaps his ultimate ranch house, all 10,000 square feet of it, in a canyon of the Santa Monica mountains. ''But I guess we were there first.'' ''First'' was 1931, when Mr. May - who never attended architecture school, but had designed furniture - built a one-story, tile-roofed courtyard house on speculation in San Diego, inspired by his family's own adobe ranch houses in the area. His aunt had lived in the adobe house on the old Los Flores rancho, and his great-great-great-grandfather Miguel Estudillo had lived in the San Diego house where Helen Hunt Jackson, author of the romantic early California novel ''Ramona''set Ramona's wedding.
''I rebelled against the boxy houses being built then,'' says the architect, who still practices. ''The ranch house was everything a California house should be -it had cross-ventilation, the floor was level with the ground, and with its courtyard and the exterior corridor, it was about sunshine and informal outdoor living.''
The first house sold easily, for $9,500 despite the Depression, and Mr. May repeated his success, doing over 50 other houses in San Diego. By the mid-1930's, Mr. May was offering, as a developer-architect, a choice between old ranch houses based on native California adobe models, and what he calls a Yankee version. Both had the same plan but the Yankee house was surfaced in board and batten: shingles rather than tiles were used for roofing. In 1935, he moved to Los Angeles, where over the decades he has designed more than a thousand custom houses, some situated as far as Australia, Ireland and Switzerland.
He also sold plans for about 18,000 ranch houses and designed ranch-house tracts, some of which he developed himself.
With bedroom wings stretching into yards, and courtyards and patios mingling with interior spaces, the ranch house proved a comfortable, likable, adaptable and enormously popular family house, one that also offered a life style.
Already imitated by the mid-1930's, the ranch house went on to conquer many American suburbs with its charm and simplicity, and, especially during the 1950's, encouraged the country's informal backyard way of life. There were many variations of Mr. May's California ranch house across the country; contractors simplified it in the 1960's into a more modern-style structure that kept the long, low lines and outdoor orientation.
Unlike most suburban ranch houses today, Mr. May's comes with the ranch. Electric gates about 10 feet high and 20 feet wide noiselessly part at the foot of his 15-acre West Los Angeles estate, to reveal split-rail fences and long rolling meadows spotted with sheep and horses grazing among California sycamores and native live oaks. A low gatehouse, with a manger next to the corral, has sycamore trees growing up through the heavy, hand-split shake roof. The bell that can be heard ringing up the canyon, at the main house, once used to call farmhands to work at his aunt's.
A visitor enters the front door of the main house to the soft beat of Big Band music, piped through a sound system that reaches every indoor and outdoor space of the sprawling house.
An amateur musician, Mr. May played the saxophone in the Cliff May Orchestra from 1924 to 1932. He owns a large collection of tapes and records.
When he is not playing Big Band recordings, the architect accompanies a baby-grand player piano in the living room on a second baby grand next to the first. Both instruments have had their legs shortened, to parallel the horizontal lines so consistently used in the house. The only tall shape in the house is the pigeon tower, home for white roller pigeons, which, when they fly, sometimes abruptly roll.

Built in 1953, what was first a 12-room, 6,500-square-foot house was expanded many times. The children's bedrooms were doubled and a separate dining area and a library were built; bathrooms were improved. Always, the rooms kept their close relationship to the patios. What was originally a raw canyon landscape evolved into a gentle, pastoral setting: California poppies coat the bank of a hill and white iris border the meadow, The house's board and batten siding, its hand-troweled masonry, the antique doors and decorative wrought-iron give a rustic and romantic look to the picturesquely composed building, but its feeling is modern, with the easy flow of the space inside, the brightness and its openness to the outside.
''A house doesn't have to look modern to be modern,'' says the architect, ''and a modern-looking house isn't necessarily modern.'' The 55-foot-long living room, with a sheltering roof 14 feet high, has a surprising continuous skylight at the peak, which opens the room to the sky, silhouetting the beams. The long room leads the eye straight out through the plate glass windows to the bucolic south and north meadows. The volume of space inside is huge. Mr. May has chosen low furnishings, to keep the space intact. An entire side of the living room is lined leather and vellum bound books; there are groupings of pre-Columbian statues, gathered during Mr. Clay's many flights to Mexico (he is a pilot). The living room has country-style walk-in fireplace.
The easygoing house is, however, only apparently simple: Mr. May, an engineer by instinct, has planted the house and grounds so that they are a land mine of gadgets. The sprinkler system is automatic, and Mr. May knows where every valve is.
There are motion sensors throughout the house; copper pipes heat the patio paving. In the corral, there is an electric horse ''hot-walker,'' to keep the horses exercised; an electric flytrap, set over the compost heap, immolates passing flies. Even the layers of wood shingles in the roof are separated by sheets of metal, to protect the house in case of a canyon fire.
Recently the architect installed a fish-shaped faucet at one of the kitchen sinks: water is activated by an electric eye in its mouth. On a recent evening, as night fell, Mr. May adjusted the complicated indirect lighting system that had automatically come on outside. He showed that by setting the lighting level outside higher than that inside, he avoids black expanses of plate glass windows at night.
With a turn of the dial, the living room was transformed into an outdoor space, seeming to extend into the meadows, to the most distant light on the last California sycamore. The setting was fit for the sequel of ''Ramona.''


Source: Cliff May and the California Ranch House
Laura Gallegos, Dr. L. Jones , 28 April 2005

Van Balgooy, Mary A. “Designer of the Dream: Cliff May and the California Ranch House.” Southern California Quarterly 86 (2004): 127-144.


Published: July 3, 1986

SDHSThe San Diego Historical Society,

Copyright © 2008 Ronald V. May and Dale Ballou May, Legacy 106, Inc.,