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Rancho Ortega Blog discusses matters of public interest in South Orange County, including the communities of San Juan Capistrano, Ladera Ranch and Rancho Mission Viejo.

The writings of Don Juan Ortega on the Rancho Ortega Blog are the personal views of the author. This blog is not authored by nor does it have any affiliation whatsoever with any other person, place or entity using the name "Rancho Ortega" (or any similar name).

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Honoring Cliff May, the Father of the California Ranch House

You may have seen the rendering of the “Ranch House” – the community center for the new Village of Sendero.  The design is distinctive and unique.  It evokes the early California adobe ranchos, but with a strong Mid-Century Modern influence.  We’ve provided the image below.  According to the Rancho Mission Viejo web site, “Cliff May [is] the inspiration for the Ranch House here at Sendero.”  But who is Cliff May and how has he inspired Sendero’s community center?

Artist’s Rendering of Sendero “Ranch House” Community Center (image courtesy of Rancho Mission Viejo Company)

Chances are, if you grew up in Southern California during the 20th Century, Cliff May designed the backdrop to your childhood.  He is the father of the classic California ranch house.  Perhaps it was your childhood home, or it belonged to your grandparents, or maybe you grew up in a neighborhood full of them – but every Californian knows the ranch house.  It is single story with large windows and an open floorplan.  The kitchen blended seamlessly into the large family room, allowing the family to congregate and socialize.  The low pitched roof and deep overhangs kept the interiors shaded and cool, even in the middle of a Southern California summer.  Often built in an “L” or “U” configuration to maximize the size and number of windows and sliding glass doors, the ranch house was designed to provide access to the outdoors from nearly every room in the house.  There may have been a palm tree in the front yard or a citrus tree growing in a pot in a courtyard just outside the sliding glass door.  Perhaps a sparkling blue swimming pool beconed from the back yard.  The modern California ranch house was informal, practical and perfectly designed to facilitate the year-round indoor/outdoor family lifestyle that is only possible in Southern California.  It was function elevated over façade.

Born in San Diego, Cliff May’s grandparents and aunt both lived in authentic early Spanish ranchos — architectural ancestors to the modern ranch house.  Reminiscing about those early Spanish structures in which he grew up, May described the benefits of the ranch house:  “The ranch house had everything a California house should be.  It had cross ventilation, the floor was level with the ground, and with its courtyard and the exterior corridor, it was about sunshine and informal outdoor living.” (Source: Alan Hess, “Romantic Mandalay: Recalling the Architect’s Dream House in West Los Angeles,” Architectural Digest (2005).)  Perhaps drawing from his own childhood, May rejected the fixed, hierarchical arrangement of formal rooms that was so popular on the East Coast in favor of informal, flexible and open areas that could be defined (and re-defined) based on their furnishings and use.  Cliff May invented the great room concept.  By incorporating expansive windows and glass doors, and extending the use of interior materials and fixtures outside the home so as to blur the boundaries, May pioneered the Southern California concept of indoor/outdoor living.  If all of these features sound obvious to you, it is only because Cliff May popularized them.  They were revolutionary at the time.  His homes were called “affordable dream homes.”  According to RanchoStyle.com:

It is not uncommon in Cliff May homes to find that every room in the house has a connection to the outdoors….creating a relationship to the outdoors that is as much a part of the home as the decor. Perhaps the San Diego Union put it best when it featured an original Cliff May design under the heading: “Home with a Garden in Every Room.”

Although Cliff May began his professional life making furniture and was never formally trained as an architect, he began designing homes in the early 1930s.  His first projects in San Diego and Los Angeles garnered near-instant recognition.  His second home was featured in Architectural Digest and subsequent designs received attention in national magazines.  May’s first tract development was in West Los Angeles, an area of 24 homes that came to be known as Riviera Ranch.  A subsequent project included equestrian homes in Rolling Hills near Palos Verdes.

May’s popularity soared and his simple, functional and inexpensive designs were ideal for the post-war housing boom.  Eventually entire neighborhoods – even cities – were being built using designs and kits sold by May’s company, the newly established Ranch House Corporation.  Ontario, Long Beach and Anaheim (see advertisement below) were all Cliff May cities.

Advertisement for Cliff May Tract in Anaheim

The popularity of the Cliff May ranch house soon exploded beyond Southern California and swept the nation.  Hordes of other architects soon embraced the Cliff May style, and ranch houses began to spring up across the country.  By 1955, an astonishing eight out of ten tract houses built in the United States were Cliff May style ranch houses!

Below is an excerpt from a fascinating brochure from 1954 advertising the Cliff May Long Beach Rancho development.  Note that May’s partner and builder was Ross Cortese, the original developer of Leisure World, including the Orange County Leisure World now known as Laguna Woods. (Full size version available here.)

Original Brochure from Cliff May’s Long Beach Rancho Tract

Cliff May was the Henry Ford of residential architecture.  Like Ford, he figured out how to make the American dream both affordable and desirable.  May did not solely design for the mass market, though.  This web site is dedicated to “La Casa de Larga Jornada,” a Cliff May custom home in exclusive Rancho Santa Fe and one of many high-end custom homes May designed.  Notably, May was commissioned to design the iconic Robert Mondavi Winery in Napa Valley which combined May’s signature ranch house style with elements reminiscent of the California Missions.  The winery, pictured below, is also incorporated into Mondavi’s labeling.

Robert Mondavi Winery designed by Cliff May (source: Wikipedia)

May’s success, and his influence on the aesthetic of California residential neighborhoods, is due in large part to the fact that Cliff May understood, indeed he studied, how Californians actually lived.  In an industry where homes are so often marketed by appealing to the unrealistic fantasy life buyers wished they had, a Cliff May designed Ranch House enhanced the life buyers actually had.

Today, Cliff May designed homes are treasured and lovingly restored by devoted fans.  This blog describes the process of renovating a Cliff May ranch house in Long Beach.  And this blog describes the process of renovating a Cliff May in Tustin.  A registry of Cliff May homes can be found here.

Perhaps May’s most cherished design was his personal residence of more than 30 years — his beloved Mandalay estate in Brentwood, set among the foothills of the Santa Monica Mountains.  In an interview just before his death, the man who pioneered the “affordable dream home” lamented the fact that his personal residence was being offered for sale  – by the new owners –  for $22 million!  Sadly, after May’s death in 1989 at the age of 80, Mandalay was demolished and replaced with a housing development.  Only the gate house in the Cliff May style remains.

We are architecture buffs here at Rancho Ortega, and we love it when today’s architects and developers pay respect to the masters of yesterday.  Cliff May is a sophisticated and appropriate choice for Rancho Mission Viejo’s new community.  And we’d like to think that Cliff May would feel at home in Rancho Mission Viejo.  Born to a prominent California family with early California roots, May was raised on a ranch and loved the open spaces of California.  Perhaps Cliff May would have even appreciated what Rancho Mission Viejo is trying to do with its property.  The Ranch Plan promises to preserve 75% of its land as open space, and does so in a way that envelops the planning areas, bringing the outdoors in from every location.  In a way, what May sought to do with his individual homes, Rancho Mission Viejo is trying to do at the community level.

One might speculate that selecting Cliff May as the architectural inspiration for Sendero’s landmark structure also says something about Rancho Mission Viejo and its vision for Sendero.

  • To embrace Cliff May is to embrace functional living.  May is not a showy architect.  His homes were designed for real families and did not aspire to trophy property status.  Even his custom and commissioned works were subtle and dignified.  All Cliff May homes were functional.
  • To embrace Cliff May is to embrace Southern California.  Cliff May designed homes that were uniquely suited for and inspired by southern California.  He was not trying to recreate a Tuscan hill town or build a Palladian monument, borrowing someone else’s architectural heritage.  Cliff May homes are authentic California and feel at home here.

Considering everything that Cliff May stood for: livability, flexibility, informality and a close relationship between the indoors and the outdoors; we could not think of a better inspiration for Sendero’s community center.

For additional information about Cliff May, we highly recommend reading Laura Gallegos’ 2005 research paper entitled “Cliff May and the California Ranch House.”  The definitive Cliff May ranch house book is available from Amazon.com here.  All of the above links and many more Cliff May resources, blogs, photos, advertisements and floorplans are available here.

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