Cliff May

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Cliff May
American architect, Cliff May.jpg
San Diego, California
Los Angeles
BuildingsCalifornia Ranch-style modern house

Cliff May (1903–1989)[1] was an architect practicing in California best known and remembered for developing the suburban Post-war "dream home" (California Ranch House), and the Mid-century Modern.

The Ranch-style house[edit]

Interior of a mid-century ranch-style house designed by Cliff May, c. 1960s

May built Monterey-style furniture as a young man. As a residential/building designer, May designed projects throughout Southern California, including the regions around San Diego, Los Angeles, and Santa Barbara, California. He is credited with creating the pitched-roof, low-slung California Ranch-style house in 1932.[1] He had very little training as an architect, and never had the need to formally register as a licensed architect.[2]

During his career, May designed numerous commercial buildings, over a thousand custom residences, and from model house prototypes more than eighteen thousand tract houses had his imprint.[1] May synthesized Spanish Colonial Revival architecture with abstracted California adobe ranchos and Modern architecture.[3] Robert Mondavi chose May to design his winery in which he incorporated features found in construction of California Missions.[4]

In 1932 May's first house sold for $9,500. His work drew attention and the second home he built was featured in Architectural Digest in 1934. He continued to build 50 additional houses in San Diego before moving to Los Angeles in 1935. Many of his 1,000+ houses were built in Southern California, however some were built as far away as Switzerland, Australia and Ireland.[5] During the 1940s and 50s, his work was featured in many publications including Architectural Forum, American Home, California arts and Architecture, Architectural Digest, House Beautiful, Sunset Magazine, Modernism Magazine, Southern California Quarterly, among others.[2]

During the 1950s May, along with colleague Chris Choate designed prefabricated tract ranch homes which they sold to builders across the US. Many of these prefab tracts like Rancho Estates in Long Beach were popular and resulted in many homes in the tracts being built and sold. Some, particularity those outside of California, were unprofitable and only resulted in the model homes being built. The partnership between May and Choate ended in 1956 with May's departure.

May said of his architecture, "The ranch house was 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."[5]

The HGTV television show Flip or Flop featured remodels of two Cliff May homes.


Selected works include:[6][7][8]

Personal life[edit]

May grew up in San Diego, California. On his mother's side he is related to Jose Antonio Estudillo, one of the founders of San Diego. His father's side of the family held a lifetime lease on the old Los Flores Rancho in San Diego County.[1] May lived in his 10,000 square foot "ultimate ranch house" located on a 15-acre site in one of the canyons in the Santa Monica Mountains near Brentwood. May was a record collector and amateur saxophone player and piano player; his home had a sound system that piped-in music to every indoor and outdoor space.[5]

May was also a pilot; he made many trips in his plane to Mexico during his lifetime.[5]


May died in 1989 at the age of 83, at his estate "Mandalay" in Sullivan Canyon in the Brentwood neighborhood of Los Angeles, California.[citation needed]


In 2012, the UC Santa Barbara Art, Design & Architecture Museum and the organization Pacific Standard Time mounted a retrospective exhibition, Carefree California: Cliff May and the Romance of the Ranch, 1920-1960.[1] Several books have been published about his work, including the 2008 Rizzoli publication, Cliff May and the Modern Ranch House.[2]

An archive of Cliff May's papers, c. 1931–1989, consisting of 350 linear feet of papers, correspondence, clippings, photographs and ephermera is held in the Architecture and Design Collection of the Art, Design & Architecture Museum at the University Santa Barbara.[8]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e Hawthorne, Christopher (1 April 2012). "Modern style for the masses". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 9 April 2021.
  2. ^ a b c "Cliff May Library". Rancho Style. Retrieved 9 April 2021.
  3. ^ "The California Hacienda". Crosby & Doe. Retrieved 9 April 2021.
  4. ^ Hubler, Shawn (April 24, 2012). "California wine came of age under him Vintner elevated state's wines". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved October 9, 2010.
  5. ^ a b c d Giovannini, Joseph (3 July 1986). "The Man Behind the Ranch House". New York Times. Retrieved 9 April 2021.
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h "Cliff May's First Houses 1932-1936" (PDF). Archived (PDF) from the original on 2015-09-14.
  7. ^ "7 Classic Cliff May Houses". Archived from the original on 2018-02-20.
  8. ^ a b "Finding Aid for the Cliff May papers, circa 1931-circa 1989 0000156". Art, Design and Architecture Museum. Retrieved 9 April 2021.
  9. ^ "Cliff May: Smith House (La Habra, Calif.)". AD&A Museum UCSB.
  10. ^ San Francisco Examiner, April 26, 1953, p49; The California ranch house oral history transcript - Cliff May interview
  11. ^ Strawther, Larry, "A Brief History of Los Alamitos and Rossmoor". p131-135. Pages briefly cover the May-Choate-Ross Cortese partnership on the Lakewood Rancho homes (now called Rancho Estates) in Long Beach and the ensuing Frematic Homes in Anaheim.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]