By Dave Schwab
Save Our Heritage Organisation’s (SOHO’s) 41st annual home tour weekend Saturday and Sunday March 26-27 was a special treat offering a once-ina-lifetime opportunity to view Southern California master builder Cliff May’s early work.
“This was our big event, our biggest fundraiser of the year,” noted Bruce Coons, executive director of SOHO, which has served San Diego’s historic preservation needs since 1969.
Billed as “unprecedented,” this year’s SOHO tour featured six homes built between 1932 and 1936 in the 50-plus-year career of Cliff May, known as the “father” of the American Ranch House.
May left his indelible stamp on the architectural field in San Diego and the rest of Southern California, said Coons.
“He influenced more architects than any other architect who hailed from San Diego,” Coons said, noting May built about 50 homes in San Diego before moving to larger pastures in Los Angeles. “He later came back to San Diego and did another 25 or so homes after that,” he said, adding May’s earlier work was “more characteristic” of his literal interpretation of the Mexican hacienda.
“He knew all the Ranchos and he was really interested in the whole idea of integrating the indoors and the outdoors.”
Coons said May is notable for taking the region’s “native” Old Spanish and Mexican architecture and adapting it to San Diego’s climate and other factors.
“He modernized it, made it accessible to the masses and a whole generation of Americans,” concluded Coons, noting May “was the first one (builder) to really shove the garage forward so the rest of the lot could be used for the house. He started adding adobe sections, and that morphed over time into the ranch house.”
The 2011 SOHO tour covered several communities, including Talmadge Park, Presidio Hills, Point Loma and Loma Portal. Each featured May’s experimental, early hacienda style and his fascination with the early California adobe haciendas and ranchos. Visitors were able to view firsthand the origins of his signature style.
Kensington resident Barbara Roper and landscape architect Gail Garbini owned two homes on the tour.
Roper exhibited her 2,300-square-foot 1933, early “May,” which is on the National Register of Historic Places.
“It’s considered his oldest and most original home, which has seen the least amount of changes,” she said, noting her family is the property’s 12th owner.
The Roper’s Cliff May home is distinguished in a number of ways, particularly in the details of its five fireplaces—each unique.
“They all look different, have different elevations,” Roper noted, adding her home has a distinctive interior courtyard surrounded by high walls affording privacy. “It just has so much character and personality,” she concluded, noting they’ve embellished their home with lots of personal touches like hand painted floral designs on doors, beams and outdoor shutters.
“Roper said her May “original” is not only aesthetically appealing but eminently functional and exceedingly
“I love living in this house,” she said. “It’s wonderfully cool in the summer: We have no air conditioning
and don’t need it.”
Garbini described the SOHO Tour as “wonderful,” noting it was well attended by the public as well as by descendents of both Cliff May and his early benefactors. She added descendents of Wilbur Hale and his craftsmen, master builder of the O’Leary house, also attended the tour.
People appreciated the “authenticity” of the event.
“By virtue of the large number of people who toured the homes, there is evidently great interest in the style of architecture and furniture associated with Cliff May,” Garbini noted. “All the homes on the tour were representative of his early work in the 1930s, and the homes were documented Cliff May-designed homes.”
Alana Coons, SOHO’s events and education director, characterized the tour’s turnout as “incredibly successful.”
“We had well over 1,000 people, and most were thrilled,” she said, noting the only downside was homes, because they were required to be “early” Mays, were widely distributed geographically requiring tour participants to “cover a lot of ground.”
“The lines were long but went quickly,” Alana Coons said, adding “People also said they hope we do more tours featuring single architects, which was our plan anyway.”
Coons added SOHO’s tours—this one no exception—are noted for their educational value.
“We had a 64-page, really intense program,” she said. “We had lectures (on Cliff May) the day before for those who wanted real in-depth knowledge. Our docents on the tour have also been with us (SOHO) for years.”
Bruce and Alana Coons’ historic May home in Loma Portal was one of the six featured on the tour.
“Ours was the fourth home he built and the first he commissioned,” Alana Coons said. “All of the Cliff May homes on the tour, not just ours, are of great national importance.”
The SOHO Cliff May home tour, said Alana Coons, also clued people in on what’s involved in restoring a historical dwelling.
“People learned these houses don’t start out being picture-perfect, that it takes a lot of time—and research—to restore them,” she said.
Cliff May will always be remembered as the developer of the suburban, post-World War II California Ranch “dream home.”
Growing up in San Diego, May built Monterey-style furniture in his youth. Though he never formally registered as a licensed architect, he went on to do housing projects, both individual and tract, throughout Southern California in the San Diego, Los Angeles and Santa Barbara areas.
Over the course of his career, May designed a multitude of commercial buildings and more than 1,000 custom residences. He died in 1989 at the age of 81 at his estate in the foothills of the Santa Monica Mountains in Brentwood, California.
For more information about Cliff May consult “Cliff May and the Modern Ranch House.” To learn more about SOHO, visit: sohosandiego.org, or call SOHO at (619) 297-9327.