Cliff May and the Modern Ranch House

Written by Daniel P. Gregory

Throughout his busy career in architecture, which stretched from the early 1930s to the 1980s, Cliff May profited from and contributed to the ebullient spirit of the post-World War II era In California, his native state. He designed over 1,000 buildings, most of them houses, which came to symbolize “western living” for a national and even international audience.

May’s accomplishments were not confined to architecture, which he learned as an amateur by crafting furniture before turning to building houses. He was a dedicated horseman, a musician who in
college had his own dance band, an automobile collector, an airplane pilot, and a talented self-promoter. He seemed to live the idyllic life projected in his designs.

You might say that Cliff May inherited the archetypical Spanish colonial ranch house, which he adopted as emblematic of the California being publicized as an earthly paradise. His great, great, great grandfather was a member of the Estudillo family, builders of the San Diego adobe house that Helen Hunt Jackson made famous in her romantic novel, Ramona, an enduring best-seller published in 1884.

May’s early houses hewed to the character of the colonial adobes. Although they acknowleged the automobile by makng the garage an important element of the house front, they were low one-story structures with heavy tile roofs, uneven stuccoed walls, and other elements of the pre-industrial Hispanic culture that, while useful, also functioned as decorative features.

Although May had no architectural training, his wife Jean, had taken a college course in the subject. They collected the arts and crafts products produced by the Spanish colonial revival style and copied the furniture marketed in California in the late 1920s. But this nostalgic use of history never interfered with equipping their houses with the latest appliances. May even posed for a photograph scooping ice cream from the freezer of his 1937 rancheria.

The country’s acceptance of the modern ranch house began in the mid-1940s when this new vernacular style was presented as an alternative to the cool and hard-edged International Modernism showcased by Philip Johnson in the New York Museum of Modern Art’s 1932 exhibition, “Modern Architecture: International exhibition.” In 1944 Elizabeth Gordon, editor of the widely read magazine, House Beautiful, published a long article showing Cliff May’s house #3 on the cover.

Thus began an advocacy of California living that declared its anti-modernism in such statements as Gordon’s 1946 article description, “A House Can Be Modern and Not Look It.”

Above is the cover of the February 1947 issue of House Beautiful, which featured the Pace-Setter House.

Entering the national quest for the postwar house in the 1940s, Sunset magazine published designs by several young western architects, but ultimately adopted May’s approach as best representing the magazine’s vision for the future with its abundance of “new convenience ideas” that would make housekeeping joyful in tastefully designed homes. In addition to his continuous production of Sunset’s published tract houses, May created the magazine’s headquarters in Menlo Park, California. It was a roughly 30,000 square-foot ranch house–the crowning achievement of his long association with this so-called “Laboratory for Western Living.”

Below is May’s drawing of the proposed Sunset Magazine headquarters building in Menlo Park.

Although May’s ranch houses remained talismanic, their design was never frozen in time. In the mid-century decades the houses merged gracefully with Modernism, exchanging the overtly colonial features of the early work for the light-filled, open-plan house with glazed walls that minimized the separation of inside and outside and integrated the garden into the whole.

Photograph by Joe Fletcher

Gregory’s book follows this trajectory with gorgeous photography and detailed descriptions of the buildings. Excerpts from original publications recapture the changing colors and graphic styles of the times.

Author Daniel Gregory is highly qualified to guide readers through Cliff May’s work and the period’s history. Gregory was employed at Sunset for twenty-seven years. He served as a senior editor for fifteen of those years and is well versed in the history of the magazine. His grandparents built a seminal ranch house in 1928, designed by William W. Wurster. While Wurster never made a career of designing ranch houses, his influence on Northern Calilfornia architecture has a somewhat parallel course to Mays’s. Gregory’s account of the family “farm”, as they called the Santa Cruz property, enriches our understanding of the times.

Although Sunset magazine still publishes designs for living, Cliff May’s ranch houses no longer spread new wings over the California landscape. Instead, they are being restored and landmarked, as befits the legend they embodied.

3 Responses

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