Cliff May’s Basic Design Vocabulary

By 1937 May had constructed over fifty houses and several non-residential buildings in the San Diego area. His early houses were very much based on the nineteenth-century ranch houses he had come to know in his childhood. Generally, May designed his houses as asymmetrical, one-story dwellings with a low-pitched roof and wide overhanging eaves. One room deep, it was crucial that the house take an L- or U-shaped configuration to form a patio or courtyard in the back so that the rooms of the ranch house faced or opened into these areas. Like the California adobes of the nineteenth century, May’s houses did not include an interior hallway. Instead an exterior corredor or covered veranda served as the primary hallway of the house. May also designed his houses so that they presented a blank façade to the street, however, he modernized his ranch houses with the use of large picture windows for the rooms facing the back.

May built his houses in two styles. His “Mexican Haciendas” were in the Spanish colonial revival style and featured red tile roofs, coarsely plastered walls, and deeply inset windows and doors with rough-hewn wooden lintels and shutters. By deliberately creating a crude, handcrafted appearance on the exterior of his haciendas, May’s houses are very similar in look and feel to nineteenth-century California adobes such as the Estudillo House in San Diego. In contrast, his “Early California Rancherias” resembled the vernacular architecture of the West in the nineteenth century with their wood-shingle roofs and board-and-batten walls. Clearly, both styles worked well for May and he continued to elaborate on them after he moved to Los Angeles in the late 1930s.

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