Book Review: Living the Dream in a Cliff May

Prospective buyers of Cliff May homes are sure to be interested in two relatively new books, both of which are readily available in libraries or through Amazon. Taken together, they provide different perspectives on these extraordinary homes.

Carefree-California-Olsberg-Nicholas-9780847837823Carefree California: Cliff May and the Romance of the Ranch House was created for the extraordinary Architecture and Design Collection at the Art, Design & Archives Museum at the University of California, Santa Barbara by Jocelyn Gibbs and Nicolas Olsberg.

The authors’ thoughtful approach is immediately evident in how they culled through thousands of design documents, floor plans, and photos for this volume, which includes May’s original 1930’s drawings, mid-century black and white photos, and many contemporary color shots. Even better are the essays by specialists in mid-century contemporary architecture, which show how this house emerged, the context that produced it, and how the ranch house appealed to homeowners from difference classes and regions.

In establishing the context for these designs, the authors draw heavily from May’s 1984 oral history about how the ranch how is “all about the plan” and “how people who didn’t live in ranch houses don’t know how to live” and from works published in the 1940’s and 50’s by the Lane Publishing Company (publishers of Sunset Magazine).

What makes this book unique is how it places May’s designs among those other designers and architects such as R.M. Schindler, Gregory Ain, Roland Coate, Henry Palmer Sabin, Paul Sterling Hoag, and proto-modernist Irving Gill. Particularly interesting was May’s response to Gill, who also tried to find a path to modernity through the California architecture. May dismissed Gill’s work as “just boxes” whose stucco and poured concrete hid the environment from which the homes arose.

downloadIn contrast, Cliff May and the Modern Ranch House by Daniel P. Gregory is a rich tour of individual Cliff May homes. In his forward to this volume, Joel Silver asserts, “these houses have to be experienced in person.” This 275 page volume responds to that assertion by taking you on a tour of Cliff May #3, the Pace-Setter House, the Long Beach Ranchos, Mandalay, Cliff May #5, the Robert Mondavi Winery, Rio Bravo Ranch, the Menlo Park Sunset Magazine headquarters, and other Cliff May buildings. Even the Bronzewing Farm in Newcastle, New South Wales, Australia is included.

Richly illustrated with photos by Joe Fletcher, the author leaves no stone in his exploration of these homes. If many of the pictures have a very 1970’s feel, it is only because they come from a time when many of the homes, such as Mandalay (May’s last personal residence) were still standing.

Just as it is in the real world of May homes, the green and living world is inescapable in these photos. The outer world dominates these homes, even if it’s just a reflection of trees in the huge glass walls. These homes are so tightly integrated into the landscape, they seem to have sprung organically from the ground.

The focus on individual homes doesn’t mean that that the author shied away from their marketing. While the word “rancheria” refers to California Native American settlements established by the government, May coopted the word, whose California-sounding name was a selling point for less-expensive homes, which satisfied the pent-up post-war demands for new homes. Indeed, it was these homes, such those in Riveria Ranch subdivision in Los Angeles, that brought May national acclaim.

Taken together, these books ground the reader in the architectural response to the question that screamed from the 1949 headline from the Los Angeles Mirror: “What is this thing called California?” We inherit that question. The lives of those fortunate enough to live in these extraordinary California homes continue to provide an answer.

Carefree California: Cliff May and the Romance of the Ranch House; Jocelyn Gibbs and Nicolas Olsberg, University of California, Santa Barbara in association with Rissoli International Publications, 2012; 276 pages.

Cliff May and the Modern Ranch House; Daniel Platt Gregory, Rissoli International Publications, 2008; 256 pages.

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Cy Ashley Webb

Cy Ashley Webb is a professional writer and educator whose work appears regularly at After moving to Palo Alto, home to 2,700 Eichlers, she became enamored with midcentury architecture. When not reviewing theatre or working with students, she can be found exploring local Eichlers and other mid-century homes, including those on the Stanford University campus.

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