Cliff May’s colorful tile doorbells

Doorbells on San Diego houses by Cliff May, 1930s.

Doorbells on San Diego houses by Cliff May, 1930s.

Recognizing an early Cliff May house is sometimes difficult but a good clue is a colorful tile doorbell at the front door. Although the patterns vary, they are similar to the decorative floor tiles found in 1920s Spanish Colonial Revival houses—yet I’ve only found them in houses by Cliff May. The date, design, and manufacture suggests they may be the work of California Clay Products (Calco), American Encaustic Tiling Company (AET), Hispano Moresque Tile Co., or perhaps Taylor Tilery, D. and M. Tile Company, or Malibu Potteries. There are lots of possibilities not only because of the similiarities in design but that many of them went out of business in the 1930s. When he was starting out, Cliff May bought building materials as inexpensively as possible, often purchasing remnants, salvage, discontinued, or surplus supplies. And during the Depression, this was easier to procure because of the many tile companies that were going bankrupt. The randomness of these materials actually worked well for the architectural style because it relied on finishes that were rustic, handcrafted, picturesque, and informal.

I’ve illustrated a few examples of doorbells from houses in the San Diego region in the 1930s—it doesn’t appear that Cliff May used them later when he moved to Los Angeles. I’m guessing he bought a dozen of them from a tilemaker that had gone out of business and ran out at some point and couldn’t purchase any more or they no longer fit with the rancheria style that predominated after 1940. Doorbell 1 is from Sweetwater and identical to Doorbell #2 in Coronado. Also in Coronado is Doorbell #3, which is similar to Doorbell #4 in Presidio Hills. This last one is particularly important because it is the most original, retaining the domed glass button that has been frequently replaced. And just a warning, if a house lacks a decorative doorbell, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not a Cliff May house. The doorbell could have been lost over the years or May may not have installed them consistently with every job.

For more information, you’ll find lots of examples of Spanish Colonial Revival architecture (along with decorative tiles) in Red Tile Style by Arrol Gellner and Douglas Keister (2002) and pages of historic tile from the 1930s (and more) in Norman Karlson’s American Art Tile (1998).