Book Report: ‘Cliff May and the Modern Ranch House’

"Cliff May and the Modern Ranch House" by Daniel P. Gregory, with photographs by Joe Fletcher and a foreword by Joel Silver. (Rizzoli; 256 pages; $60) Reviewed by Robert Nebolon (Robert Nebolon, a Berkeley architect, designed a contemporary Hermosa Beach home featured previously on this blog.) Cliff May, the father of the California ranch house, is finally getting his due. Thanks to Daniel P. Gregory’s superb book “Cliff May and the Modern Ranch House,” the work of this prolific Los Angeles-based architect is finally being recognized. As much as members of the Los Angeles architectural community rave about their modern architectural history (they should; it’s quite impressive), Cliff May seems never to get mentioned. Maybe it’s because of those wagon wheels out in front of his houses. Yet it’s hard to imagine an architect whose work affects more Westerners on a daily basis than Cliff May. Most of us have either owned a ranch-style house ourselves or had friends who lived in one. These houses are found everywhere. Gregory’s book explains how May blended Spanish courtyard houses with modern open plans filled with modern conveniences to create an elegant contemporary house well suited for the hot, dry climate found in the Southwest.

Born and raised in San Diego, May understood and embraced the region and its weather like no other architect practicing at the time.

Through the use of beautiful photography in this book, we see May’s vision of the California ranch-style house and, just as important, the California lifestyle this architecture promoted. The long, low-slung houses open up and embrace patios and gardens through large doors, taking advantage of prevailing breezes and the warm weather, with outdoor rooms everywhere, swimming pools deftly integrated into the house and garden, glass walls looking out at lush landscaping all around, romantic references to Spanish architecture sprinkled throughout.

One can easily see the California dream manifested in these houses. The whole picture is incredibly seductive.

We also get to see some houses that Cliff May designed for himself. All are wonderful, but my favorite is Cliff May No. 4 where the house is essentially an outdoor room with a huge operable skylight. Rooms below are defined and enlarged by movable cabinetry. To me, this house should be considered among the most original houses built in California at the time (1949).

The book also chronicles May’s close association with Sunset magazine and House Beautiful, which featured Cliff May’s houses on a regular basis. These magazines and the highly influential “Sunset Western Ranch Houses” published by Sunset with Cliff May in 1946 (amazingly, still in print) helped the spread of the ranch house and the lifestyle throughout the United States. Because of this exposure, the Sunset book, and the ease of construction of this building style, knock-offs of May’s houses were reproduced everywhere by developers to varying degrees of success.

Gregory’s book is especially relevant today for two reasons in addition to rediscovering Cliff May.

First, the book is terrific “idea” source for ranch-style homeowners: These houses are remarkably receptive to remodeling and additions, and this book may aid those homeowners who dream of remodeling their house and garden, and even for those who are building their house.

Another reason to buy this book has to do with today’s interest in “green” architecture. Cliff May’s work is a remarkably pragmatic, yet romantic, response to warm/hot-arid climates. In sync with its surroundings and micro-climate, blended with technology in the right amount, his houses are remarkably “green.” There are lessons to be learned from a Cliff May house that are applicable today.

The book has few if any shortcomings. I would have liked to see more examples of May’s custom mid-sized houses and a few less examples of his tract houses done for developers. Frankly, May’s tract homes, as nice as they are, simply don’t have the sweep, elegance and power of his larger houses. And that is the realm where we can begin to imagine the possibilities of our own house and California living.

Examples of Robert Nebolon’s own California-influenced architecture can be seen on his website.