Tuesday, December 20, 2005


Designer Cliff May, one of the first and most influential proponents of the California Ranch House, was born on this day in 1908.

Although he had not been trained as an architect, Cliff May had a greater impact on architecture in California than probably any licensed professional. Beginning in the 1930s, May began to draw upon his understanding of the lifestyle of the familial, hospitality-oriented culture of the early Mexican hacendados who lived in Alta California during the colonial period.

With low roofs, deep eaves, profiles closely contoured to the land, built with local materials, generally one-room deep, open floor plans and extensive use of patios, May's homes advocated a modern architectural style which, while not self-consciously referring to historical antecedents, was freely inspired by the somewhat innocent, earnest home styles of the Alta Californians. They also gave families coming West an opportunity to "make the most of the climate they had come to enjoy." May worked closely with landscape architects, such as Thomas Church, to create intimate natural settings to be seen through May's carefully planned picture-window views.

His homes were cheap to build and accessible; his house plans were published by Sunset magazine during the 1940s, and by the 1950s there were so many "ranches" being built that they became synonymous with tract housing in the West -- leading one critic to refer to the May-inspired homes as "ranchburgers," with a nod to Ray Kroc's similarly far-reaching transformation of the gastronomic landscape during the same period.

May's original ranch designs, however, still survive as demure, graceful interpolations of Old World and modern values. May also designed the headquarters of Sunset magazine in Menlo Park and the Robert Mondavi Winery in Oakville, California. May died on March 29, 1989.

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