Stepfather of the Ranch

San Diego’s Cliff May might not have been the pioneer of the classic California house style, but he certainly acted like it

House Calls | Michael Good

Few American cities can claim even one major architect. San Diego can legitimately claim two: Irving Gill and Cliff May.

Cliff May inspired a world of imitators, like this homage in Talmadge. (Courtesy Michael Good)

Gill, who arrived here in 1893, set out to build something entirely new and ended up laying the groundwork for modern architecture.

May sought to revive the Mexican Hacienda of the imagined past, and ended up creating America’s most popular house type, the California Ranch. He portrayed himself as the reluctant hero, a musician who just wanted to play the saxophone with his dance band. According to May, he turned to furniture making and home building when his music career stalled.

Next thing he knew, he had transformed the landscape of suburbia.

“I never ever thought of building houses,” he said in 1984 to Marlene Laskey, who interviewed him for UCLA’s Oral History Program. “Never. Even when I was in college it never occurred to me.” The story, as he told it then, was that he and his fiancée Jean Lichty went furniture shopping, saw some nice Monterrey-style furniture at Barker Brothers that they couldn’t afford, and – while Lichty distracted the salesman – May measured the furniture and then went home to built the stuff.

He had learned furniture making from a neighbor, Kole Styris, who had been a carpenter for Irving Gill. Soon May had a whole house full of furniture with no house, so he “stored” it in the model home of a friend, who was a builder in Talmadge. The house sold, along with the furniture.

The friend, O.U. Miracle, partnered with May to build a home based on the houses of May’s ancestral childhood: The Estudillo House in Old Town (he was a descendant); and the Las Flores Adobe on Rancho Santa Margarita y Las Flores (where his aunt grew beans). The house sold, and with the profits he built another, on speculation.

By the time May moved to Los Angeles in 1938, he’d built some 50 houses in San Diego and was well on his way to designing 1,000 more custom homes. Over the next four decades, about 18,000 tract homes were built based on his designs.

Or so the story goes.

After May’s death in 1989, a few holes began to appear in the myth. Mary van Balgooy, in the Fall 2011 Journal of San Diego History, pointed out that May’s friend Miracle was 60 years old at the time he entered into a partnership with May, who was then 23. Furthermore, Miracle was the grading contractor for May’s future father-in-law Roy Lichty, who was the manager of Talmadge Park, where the house was built.

As for his architectural inspiration, the 1827 Estudillo house in Old Town was in ruins by the time May was born. It was restored by Hazel Waterman, an Irving Gill protégé, but the result, in the Spanish Revival style, would not have been recognizable to its original owner, Jose Antonio Estudillo. By the time May saw it, van Balgooy wrote, the Estudillo house had been filled with “Native American handicrafts, wagon wheels and other Spanish-era curios,” and was being promoted as “Ramona’s Marriage Place” by a minstrel performer named Tommy Getz.

Where it all started: Cliff May’s first house. (Courtesy Michael Good)

“He said he was a furniture maker, but that’s not really who Cliff May was,” said historian Ron May (no relation). “He was a saxophone player. He was dating Jean Lichty, whose father Roy Lichty was manager and co-owner of the Talmadge Park development. May took his furniture sketches to a carpenter, Wilburn Hale, and Hale and his family of carpenters would set up shop at the end of the work day, put out lights in the front yard, and make furniture. They made it, and Cliff marketed it, and Roy Lichty put it in model homes in Talmadge Park. One of the wives even painted the little flowers on it.”

Ron May was interviewing Wilburn Hale’s granddaughter when he discovered the proverbial smoking gun – more of a dusty basket, as it turns out – filled with Cliff May Hacienda house plans, all drawn not by Cliff May, but by Wilburn Hale.

“May learned how to build and how to draw from Hale,” Ron May said. “That’s how he built his career.”

Why didn’t May just come clean, instead of pretending he was some kind of untrained genius, descended from the Spanish Dons?

“The truth probably didn’t fit his marketing plan for how he wanted to be perceived as father of the Ranch House,” Ron May said. “His strength was more marketing than architecture, or maybe a little of both.”

Of course architects are always being accused of taking credit for others’ work, and if you look hard enough, you can find plenty of Ranch-like house designs prior to 1932. But to get hung up on whether the beehive fireplaces, the corredors, the brightly painted wooden window grills, the painted flowers and faux-painted doors and beams were genuine Old California or just part of some crazy promotional scheme is beside the point.

It was 1934. If you wanted to sell a house in San Diego you needed a crazy promotional scheme.

Cliff May’s main contribution to American architecture was turning the entire nation around. He took the traditional 1920s bungalow and he turned it inside out. He took away the porch, put it in the backyard and called it a corredor, put up a wall, tossed the garage in the front yard, hid the front door behind a heavy gate, and turned the windows, the house’s gaze, inward. It was the Great Depression. The economy was tanking, the Wobblies were marching, the Oakies were at the borders, the Russians were everywhere, and Hitler was giving a speech. It was time to get the wagons in a circle.

“The early Californians had the right idea,” Cliff May said in 1938. “They built for the seclusion and comfort of their families, for the enjoyment of relaxation in their homes. We want to perpetuate these ideas of home building.” To that end, he pioneered the family room, with a kitchen island, stools and a counter, so mothers could be in the middle of family life, and keep an eye on the kids through the kitchen window as they played in the fully enclosed backyard. Every house had a patio, and when that new space-age technology, the sliding glass door, arrived, he put one of those in every house as well.

By 1950, when the federal government made low-cost home loans available to almost everyone, most of the hand-wrought details of his early houses had disappeared as they were too expensive for the middle class. There was no longer a place for Mrs. Hale’s flowers and Ramona could have never figured out how to operate the sliding glass door, but the 1950s Ranch House was still quintessential California. I asked Ron May if he thought Cliff May really was the father of the Ranch House.

“Well, he liked to think he was,” Ron May said.

And in this place called California, land of the Dons and home of the dream, sometimes believing is enough.

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