Cliff May

In 1934, Architectural Digest published another edition presenting beautiful black-and-white photographs of elegant houses and imposing buildings by prominent southern California architects. This particular issue included works by Gordon B. Kaufmann, designer of buildings such as the Athenaeum at the California Institute of Technology (1930), Denison Library at Scripps College (1930), and the Times Mirror Building in Los Angeles (1931-1935); George Washington Smith, renowned for his Spanish colonial revival style homes in and around Santa Barbara, Bel Air and Pasadena; and Wallace Neff, noted for his Spanish colonial revival houses in Bel Air and the Pasadena area. In addition to these well-known architects, the magazine also featured a house designed by Cliff May, who had no architectural training and little building experience. Moreover, the home included in this publication was only the second house May had designed and built. But it would mark the beginning of a long and prolific architectural career for May. When he died in 1989 at the age of eighty-one, he had designed numerous commercial buildings, over one thousand custom homes, and several tract house plans resulting in more than eighteen thousand tract houses. But out of all of his work, this southern California native is best known and remembered for developing the suburban dream home of the 1940s and 1950s—the California ranch house.

This blog provides regular postings on research and events related to Cliff May and his work in southern California, although it will occasionally include mentions of his work elsewhere.  We also invite recommendations,  clarifications, and questions—just add them as a comment or send an email to mvanbalgooy@gmail.com.  Our goal is to make this a place to discuss the work of Cliff May and his impact on architectural design.

For a start, read “Designer of the Dream: Cliff May and the California Ranch House” by Mary A. van Balgooy in the Southern California Quarterly 86, No. 2 (2004), which received the Doyce B. Nunis Jr. Award from the Historical Society of Southern CaliforniaThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License, so you’re welcome to copy and share it freely with others.

Other major articles and books that feature  Cliff May include:

  • Bricker, David. “Cliff May” in Toward a Simpler Way of Life: The Arts & Crafts Architects of California, edited by Robert Winter.  Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.
  • Bricker, David.  “Ranch Houses Are Not All the Same” in Preserving the Recent Past 2, edited by Deborah Slaton and
    William G. Foulks.  Washington, DC: Historic Preservation Education Foundation, National Park Service, and Association for Preservation Technology International, 2000.
  • Gallegos, Laura.   “Cliff May and the California Ranch House.”  Research paper for History 184, Dr. Jones (28 May 2005).
  • Gregory, Daniel.  Cliff May and the Modern Ranch House.  Rizzoli, 2008.
  • Kaplan, Sam Hall. “Cliff May: Designer of Dream Houses.” Los Angeles Times, 29 October 1989.
  • May, Cliff and the Editorial Staff of Sunset Magazine. Sunset Western Ranch Houses. 1946. Reprint. Santa Monica: Hennessey and Ingalls, 1999.
  • The Editorial Staff of Sunset Magazine and Books under the Direction of Paul C. Johnson, editor of Sunset Books. Western Ranch Houses by Cliff May. 1958. Reprint. Santa Monica: Hennessey and Ingalls, 1997.

Some other significant resources available on the Web:

  • Cliff May Architecture” on Doug Kramer’s Rancho Style. Doug Kramer is a real estate agent and the co-founder and co-creator of Rancho Style, which he established with his wife Rochelle as a resource for the homeowners of the Cliff May Ranchos and those interested in post and beam architecture by Cliff May. His information on Cliff May hasn’t been updated for a couple years.
  • Heirloom Hacienda” is a 2002 story by architecture critic Ann Jarmusch of the San Diego Union-Tribune on the restoration of the Lindstrom House by the Roper family.
  • The Man Behind the Ranch House” is a 1986 story in the New York Times by Joseph Giovannini based on an extensive interview with Cliff May.
  • The Cliff May Registry provides maps, floor plans, and individual listings of Cliff May-designed buildings throughout the United States—and you can add your information.
  • A Yahoo Group devoted to “Cliff May Rancho Homeowners and Enthusiasts” with nearly 200 members.
  • Forthcoming is a Web site devoted to the houses Cliff May designed in Pomona (California) after the War.  They’re tucked in the foothills on the southwest corner of Mission Boulevard and the Chino Valley Freeway (#71).