Cliff May (1909-1989) was an architect practicing in California best known and remembered for developing the suburban Post-war “dream home” — the California Ranch House.
Although Cliff May is known far and wide as the father of the California Rancho, few people realize that he was not an architect but a builder and promoter who took an idea whose time had come and let it soar in a landscape that seemed made to order.
From his early days as a student of music in San Diego, May gradually gave up the troubadour’s life for that of a craftsman, fashioning handmade furniture that was sold from model homes in new residential tracts. But it wasn’t long until he stepped into residential design, making an indelible mark on the world of postwar homebuilding.
Working with his partner, architect Chris Choate, May drew on his early days living in an adobe rancho as he began his career as a builder. The stage was set for the design that defined California living when he took the low, languid prairie silhouette used by Frank Lloyd Wright and paired it with natural materials found in the West Coast landscape.
As fresh and innovative as his designs were, what propelled him to the top of the post-war housing boom in Southern California were his new ideas about construction, which enabled him to bring his design concepts to the average middle class family. He built thousands of airy, nature-centric residences that were quickly snapped up by former GIs lured to the area by the ideal weather and the abundance of jobs that were available once the chaos of World War II subsided.
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May had seen something no one else saw in the yet-to-be-developed land that has become Los Angeles and Orange counties. Wright’s plans hugged the earth and nestled among indigenous plants and shrubbery in a way that made them blend in with the environment. May took that concept one step further by erasing the border between indoors and outdoors, using natural materials and something revolutionary in homebuilding—an abundance of glass.
Glass was not as readily available during the war as it would be once peace returned to the homeland. But when it did become available, May was ready with designs that used glass everywhere—floor-to-ceiling glass walls, skylights in the ceilings and clerestory windows in every eave. What was unheard of in the East, where home design was dominated by harsh weather conditions, transformed the residential areas of Sunny California, turning each home into a sleek hub for social gatherings on the patio and the pleasures of outdoor/indoor living.
But the real impetus for the unprecedented popularity of his designs was an idea reminiscent of Henry Ford in his early days. Mass production had taken the world by storm and the staggering industrial capacity of this county to manufacture the equipment needed for the largest invading force the world had ever seen had pushed one-at-a-time production ideas far aside. May’s biggest contribution to California Rancho design was a method of prefabrication that allowed for hundreds of tract homes to be built in modules and transported to lots in what would become the endless residential streets that comprise Orange County today.
There are neighborhoods of Cliff May homes in Long Beach, Garden Grove and Tustin. All the homes share the exuberant style that mocks the claustrophobic dwellings of the East, throwing open the doors to the great outdoors and celebrating the astonishing comfort factor of a land where the sunshine rules.
He used native rocks, pebbles and bricks both inside and out in a smooth transition hardly noticed as you pass through the invisible walls. The bricks of a hearth continue through the glass doors to the patio walls outside, beckoning residents and guests to come on out and enjoy the party.
Post and beam construction lifts the interior rooms to form exotic enclaves with a garden view from every room. The low-slung slope of the roof barely intrudes on the locale, forming a framework for patios, atriums and lanais that pull the outdoors in, setting the stage for yucca, cactus and eucalyptus trees which, in that setting, attain their true dignity.
Beams continue outside, hovering over a patio or foyer to delineate geometric patterns with the addition of sunshine and shadows. The spacious interior functions like the open floor plans of the Pacific Rim, setting the stage for the exotic cultural artifacts of the tropics. The open design shows off every room at one time, making a place for atomic modern décor where intriguing gadgets seem to have sprung up organically.
Over the course of his career, Cliff May designed commercial buildings, more than 1,800 custom residences and more than 18,000 tract houses. His homes were widely referred to as “dream houses,” a term that addressed the hopes and dreams of ordinary men and women, but never quite matched the reality of Cliff May style.