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Cliff May, inventor of the ranch house

Hugging the ground

Casa de Estudillo, Old Town - Image by Peter Jensen
Casa de Estudillo, Old Town

For two days in the early ’70s, as a very young staff writer at Sunset magazine, I was Cliff May’s chauffeur. Famous since the ’40s as the Father of the Ranch House, designer/ developer May (he was never a licensed architect and didn’t care to be) was visiting Sunset's headquarters in Menlo Park to take part in the jurying of the Western Home Awards.

I met Mr. May and his wife — an astonishingly beautiful woman of Burmese ancestry — at a small airport on the San Francisco peninsula, for he was accustomed to flying his own plane to appointments around the West. Mr. May had the bearing of a bantam rooster; he was a weather vane-erect man with thin, silver hair, wearing expensively tailored clothes and quite used to giving orders. No longer at the height of his popularity, he still lived a lifestyle at “Mandalay,” his huge ranch home in Sullivan Canyon, West Los Angeles, that equaled or surpassed that of his millionaire clientele. (Almost all of his commissions by the late ’60s and ’70s were for large, custom homes, unlike the tens of thousands of modest “ranchers” that made him the world’s most popular home designer in the ’40s and ’50s.) The man radiated ego as much as one of his trademark large fireplaces gave off heat and sparks from burning split oak. Put him in the same room as Frank Lloyd Wright, and there would have been a scrap.

He had no idea — nor could he be expected to care — who I was, other than I had been sent by editor Proctor Mellquist in a company-owned car to transport May and his wife wherever they desired. After we stashed the luggage in the back of the behemoth fake-wood-sided station wagon (Sunset did everything, including purchasing company cars, as if it were a large, suburban family), we drove back to Menlo Park. I eavesdropped on a conversation in which May wondered what sort of entries he’d be reviewing. He was not positive. The latest architecture sweeping the West, an amalgam of tall shed roofs and vertical, hillside-clinging forms, was not to his liking.

When they grew quiet, I said, “Mr. May, I’m an admirer of your work. I was raised in a small, shake-roofed ranch house in the East Bay hills, and your book always seemed to be open on the table when my parents planned their remodel.”

“Oh?” he said. “How did it turn out?”

And we were off: For the brief time remaining on the journey and several drives after that, he lectured me — warmly, with great patience — on why the ranch house style “worked.” My youth in my parents’ house, from barbecues on the patio to late afternoons spent in our family room watching fog spill over the Berkeley hills, seemed to reaffirm all his theories. Even today, when I reread the opening chapter to Western Ranch Houses by Cliff May (Lane Publishing Co., Menlo Park, 1958), I’m back in that station wagon again. The designer died in 1989 at age 81, but at least 100,000 people throughout the world, perhaps more, still live in ranch houses designed by Cliff May. Millions of other houses were inspired by his style, but most lacked the proportions and details that distinguished May’s work.

Whatever happened to the ranch house’s popularity, particularly in San Diego, where Cliff May got his start? May’s life is well chronicled. He grew up in San Diego admiring Casa de Estudillo in Old Town, one of California’s finest early houses, and was even related to the Estudillo family through an aunt. He was a frequent visitor to ranchos Las Flores and Margarita on what is now Camp Pendleton. One of his best houses, a private residence, can be seen at 2400 Presidio Drive above Old Town. In all, he built about 50 houses in the county.

The ranch house’s successful design for living — a rambling, one-story floor plan oriented to an extensive garden and one or more patios that functioned as “outdoor rooms” — was the very thing that caused its demise in San Diego. As lots grew smaller and pricier, builders and homeowners were forced to consolidate floor plans and go up another story. At the same time, San Diegans demanded larger houses for new amenities. Television, for example, still a novelty in the early ’50s, established the need for a new type of living room, one meant not for guests but for family. San Diegans, just about the time they had moved their lifestyle into the back yard to enjoy the weather, began to huddle indoors once again.

San Diego architect Dale Naegle first arrived in San Diego as a graduate of USC’s School of Architecture in 1954 and recently recalled his early impressions of ranch style.

“At that time (the ’30s to early ’50s), houses were smaller. People just didn’t seem to need all the whistles and bells. Lots were larger in those days and less expensive. You couldn’t sell a two-story house. The family room came in as developers competed for buyers, and the house evolved into the monster it is now.”

A true ranch-style house hugged the ground. It changed grade slightly if the lot demanded it; bulldozing was not a popular way to rearrange the site to create one large pad as it is today.

“The natural ranch house was a simple rectangle that got added onto as families grew,” said Naegle. “It rambled. And with the weather in San Diego, you didn’t have to park a full house over a basement so that heat could go up, as in the two-story houses back East. Sure, there were ranch houses elsewhere [in cold climes], like up in northern Arizona, but they were more condensed.”

In May’s opinion, one wasn’t supposed to step up or down when going from indoors to outdoors. House slabs and outdoor patios were often poured as one.

“In the early ’30s,” continued Naegle, “it was illegal to build a house on slab. It had to be up on a wood floor. A slab was considered a garage — unhealthy to live off. Bungalows were up on wood floors, and they kept you from embracing the patio, because you had to go down steps to get there. May fought for and developed a heating system in the slab, and somehow [building inspectors] looked the other way. When he was able to build a house on slab, it could open right to the patio. All of his stuff does that. Hell, they’ve been doing it in Spain for centuries, of course.”

Naegle told me that he recently designed a small (for the neighborhood) custom ranch-style house for owners who wanted a “humbler” place on a fairly hidden site. Surprisingly, the house is located in Fairbanks Ranch, where many of the designs are the “most obstreperous, flamboyant, nouveau riche houses” Naegle has ever seen. “Cliff May did some nice little jewels in La Jolla, but as people get somewhat successful, they want to build bigger houses. I tell clients that if you’d put your feet in white powder and walk around in a house for a week, then measure the area, you’d find out you don’t use much more than 600 square feet”

One of the county’s most appealing concentrations of ranch houses occurs in an unlikely place, the steep hillsides and winding streets of Del Mar. Designer Herb Turner, who studied with John Lloyd Wright in Del Mar in the ’50s and has designed more than 50 houses, most of them in Del Mar and none of them “ranch,” remembers a truck arriving at a lot in Del Mar, near his own house, and unloading the makings of a Cliff May house.

“May had come up with a panel system based on a grid,” said Turner, as we toured the May-designed home at 1634 Forest Way, “that allowed most exterior walls to be associated with the outside. It was a low-cost system, and several of these May mass-market houses were built in Del Mar as second homes.” The Forest Way house is on slab, and clerestory windows open the end of each gable to views of sky and trees. A recent front yard landscaping all but hides any clues that this is a May house. Another low-cost May house in Del Mar that is little changed from the ’50s can be seen at the intersection of Coast Boulevard and 18th Street, near the beach.

An explosion of “ranchers” in the ’40s and ’50s occurred in Del Mar because of one builder/contractor, Emil Wanket. Many were Yankee-style ranch houses. Instead of early California-influenced stucco walls and tile roofs, these houses had board-and-batten cedar siding and shingle or shake roofs. The look was almost mossy, like giant logs that have fallen to a forest floor. The houses stretch out along one story, bending their floor plans if necessary to accommodate odd-shaped lots or to create patios and entry areas.

Wanket’s son Joe (now in his 70s), aided by other Wanket sons, recalled how they joined their father to build more than 50 ranch houses. “Somebody asked for a three-bedroom house, and he [Emil Wanket] drew up the first one. The Del Mar lots cost so much, even back then, that you couldn’t afford much of a house. These were very appealing right from the beginning. We made different modifications —shake roofs, wood on the outside, all open beam ceilings inside, cedar wall paneling, cabinets, standard doors and Dutch doors, wooden vent hoods over the stoves.... We even made the windows right there. Cedar was very economical then, because nobody used it. We’d get a big load of cedar and they’d dump it on the site. We’d pull out the clear boards for casings. We got the most out of it. Everybody called it knotty pine, but it was really knotty cedar. When we lacquered it inside, it had a colorful, colonial look.

“There was no one floor plan,” Wanket continued. “Some houses wrapped clear around the corner of a lot from one street to the other. If it was a stepped lot, we just adapted to it. You couldn’t afford bulldozers. We put shutters on some, cupolas on roofs — whatever the owner desired to make it cuter. Nice front porches, like on the old Western wood houses, gave it that low look.” Some relatively unchanged examples of Wanket houses can be seen along 15th Street above Via Alta in Del Mar, and by driving along any of the town’s hillside streets. Also on 15th at Via Alta are four very Wanket-like houses (but built by a contractor named Greene), one of them unchanged from 1951.

Elsewhere in San Diego, especially in East County communities surrounding Mt. Helix, ranch houses enjoyed their two decades of dominance. The design was particularly suited to warmer areas. Low, sheltering roofs shielded sliding glass doors and ever-larger windows, instead of their original function of protecting the thick adobe walls of the first ranchos from rain. The corridor, an outside hallway leading from room to room in the earliest houses, became an indoor hallway that carried heating ductwork in its lower ceiling. The best ranch designs kept the corridor concept as a sort of glassed-in lanai or as a covered walk between wings. (Today’s freestanding patio trellises seem poor, vestigial substitutes for this more integral, indoor-outdoor element.) Relatively blank facades faced the street; the houses’ real beauty lay in the interface between indoor areas and private patios.

Historian Bruce Kamerling, curator of collections at the San Diego Historical Society, thinks “it may still be too soon for the ranch house to become a favorite like the bungalow. The bungalows had beautiful wood, brick, built-ins... all that stuff is nostalgic. Flagstones, redwood siding, and the huge windows [the ranch style’s palette of' materials] are a little too close. And of course there was a hell of a lot of bad design in the ’50s. You have to pick and choose. But I honestly believe those ’50s ranch houses are extremely livable.”

It may have been Sunset itself that helped cause the ranch’s fall from popularity. When May was commissioned by L.W. Lane to design Sunset's headquarters in the ’50s, then-editor Proctor Mellquist and former editor Walter Doty were concerned that the approach was “trite,” according to former Sunset garden editor Joe Williamson, now retired.

“Mellquist and Doty were already scoffing at the ranch house and considered it…the lowest common denominator. We’d quit doing stories on them, even though most readers lived in ranch-style houses in tracts. When it was known that L.W. Lane was hiring May, they went out and got hot-shot architects of the moment. Each sketched up a building. L.W. said no, I want to do ranch. It’s funny, but the kind of things their architects came up with would be looked at today as extremely dated. The ranch style is timeless. L.W. Lane knew more than all of us.”

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Casa de Estudillo, Old Town - Image by Peter Jensen
Casa de Estudillo, Old Town

For two days in the early ’70s, as a very young staff writer at Sunset magazine, I was Cliff May’s chauffeur. Famous since the ’40s as the Father of the Ranch House, designer/ developer May (he was never a licensed architect and didn’t care to be) was visiting Sunset's headquarters in Menlo Park to take part in the jurying of the Western Home Awards.

I met Mr. May and his wife — an astonishingly beautiful woman of Burmese ancestry — at a small airport on the San Francisco peninsula, for he was accustomed to flying his own plane to appointments around the West. Mr. May had the bearing of a bantam rooster; he was a weather vane-erect man with thin, silver hair, wearing expensively tailored clothes and quite used to giving orders. No longer at the height of his popularity, he still lived a lifestyle at “Mandalay,” his huge ranch home in Sullivan Canyon, West Los Angeles, that equaled or surpassed that of his millionaire clientele. (Almost all of his commissions by the late ’60s and ’70s were for large, custom homes, unlike the tens of thousands of modest “ranchers” that made him the world’s most popular home designer in the ’40s and ’50s.) The man radiated ego as much as one of his trademark large fireplaces gave off heat and sparks from burning split oak. Put him in the same room as Frank Lloyd Wright, and there would have been a scrap.

He had no idea — nor could he be expected to care — who I was, other than I had been sent by editor Proctor Mellquist in a company-owned car to transport May and his wife wherever they desired. After we stashed the luggage in the back of the behemoth fake-wood-sided station wagon (Sunset did everything, including purchasing company cars, as if it were a large, suburban family), we drove back to Menlo Park. I eavesdropped on a conversation in which May wondered what sort of entries he’d be reviewing. He was not positive. The latest architecture sweeping the West, an amalgam of tall shed roofs and vertical, hillside-clinging forms, was not to his liking.

When they grew quiet, I said, “Mr. May, I’m an admirer of your work. I was raised in a small, shake-roofed ranch house in the East Bay hills, and your book always seemed to be open on the table when my parents planned their remodel.”

“Oh?” he said. “How did it turn out?”

And we were off: For the brief time remaining on the journey and several drives after that, he lectured me — warmly, with great patience — on why the ranch house style “worked.” My youth in my parents’ house, from barbecues on the patio to late afternoons spent in our family room watching fog spill over the Berkeley hills, seemed to reaffirm all his theories. Even today, when I reread the opening chapter to Western Ranch Houses by Cliff May (Lane Publishing Co., Menlo Park, 1958), I’m back in that station wagon again. The designer died in 1989 at age 81, but at least 100,000 people throughout the world, perhaps more, still live in ranch houses designed by Cliff May. Millions of other houses were inspired by his style, but most lacked the proportions and details that distinguished May’s work.

Whatever happened to the ranch house’s popularity, particularly in San Diego, where Cliff May got his start? May’s life is well chronicled. He grew up in San Diego admiring Casa de Estudillo in Old Town, one of California’s finest early houses, and was even related to the Estudillo family through an aunt. He was a frequent visitor to ranchos Las Flores and Margarita on what is now Camp Pendleton. One of his best houses, a private residence, can be seen at 2400 Presidio Drive above Old Town. In all, he built about 50 houses in the county.

The ranch house’s successful design for living — a rambling, one-story floor plan oriented to an extensive garden and one or more patios that functioned as “outdoor rooms” — was the very thing that caused its demise in San Diego. As lots grew smaller and pricier, builders and homeowners were forced to consolidate floor plans and go up another story. At the same time, San Diegans demanded larger houses for new amenities. Television, for example, still a novelty in the early ’50s, established the need for a new type of living room, one meant not for guests but for family. San Diegans, just about the time they had moved their lifestyle into the back yard to enjoy the weather, began to huddle indoors once again.

San Diego architect Dale Naegle first arrived in San Diego as a graduate of USC’s School of Architecture in 1954 and recently recalled his early impressions of ranch style.

“At that time (the ’30s to early ’50s), houses were smaller. People just didn’t seem to need all the whistles and bells. Lots were larger in those days and less expensive. You couldn’t sell a two-story house. The family room came in as developers competed for buyers, and the house evolved into the monster it is now.”

A true ranch-style house hugged the ground. It changed grade slightly if the lot demanded it; bulldozing was not a popular way to rearrange the site to create one large pad as it is today.

“The natural ranch house was a simple rectangle that got added onto as families grew,” said Naegle. “It rambled. And with the weather in San Diego, you didn’t have to park a full house over a basement so that heat could go up, as in the two-story houses back East. Sure, there were ranch houses elsewhere [in cold climes], like up in northern Arizona, but they were more condensed.”

In May’s opinion, one wasn’t supposed to step up or down when going from indoors to outdoors. House slabs and outdoor patios were often poured as one.

“In the early ’30s,” continued Naegle, “it was illegal to build a house on slab. It had to be up on a wood floor. A slab was considered a garage — unhealthy to live off. Bungalows were up on wood floors, and they kept you from embracing the patio, because you had to go down steps to get there. May fought for and developed a heating system in the slab, and somehow [building inspectors] looked the other way. When he was able to build a house on slab, it could open right to the patio. All of his stuff does that. Hell, they’ve been doing it in Spain for centuries, of course.”

Naegle told me that he recently designed a small (for the neighborhood) custom ranch-style house for owners who wanted a “humbler” place on a fairly hidden site. Surprisingly, the house is located in Fairbanks Ranch, where many of the designs are the “most obstreperous, flamboyant, nouveau riche houses” Naegle has ever seen. “Cliff May did some nice little jewels in La Jolla, but as people get somewhat successful, they want to build bigger houses. I tell clients that if you’d put your feet in white powder and walk around in a house for a week, then measure the area, you’d find out you don’t use much more than 600 square feet”

One of the county’s most appealing concentrations of ranch houses occurs in an unlikely place, the steep hillsides and winding streets of Del Mar. Designer Herb Turner, who studied with John Lloyd Wright in Del Mar in the ’50s and has designed more than 50 houses, most of them in Del Mar and none of them “ranch,” remembers a truck arriving at a lot in Del Mar, near his own house, and unloading the makings of a Cliff May house.

“May had come up with a panel system based on a grid,” said Turner, as we toured the May-designed home at 1634 Forest Way, “that allowed most exterior walls to be associated with the outside. It was a low-cost system, and several of these May mass-market houses were built in Del Mar as second homes.” The Forest Way house is on slab, and clerestory windows open the end of each gable to views of sky and trees. A recent front yard landscaping all but hides any clues that this is a May house. Another low-cost May house in Del Mar that is little changed from the ’50s can be seen at the intersection of Coast Boulevard and 18th Street, near the beach.

An explosion of “ranchers” in the ’40s and ’50s occurred in Del Mar because of one builder/contractor, Emil Wanket. Many were Yankee-style ranch houses. Instead of early California-influenced stucco walls and tile roofs, these houses had board-and-batten cedar siding and shingle or shake roofs. The look was almost mossy, like giant logs that have fallen to a forest floor. The houses stretch out along one story, bending their floor plans if necessary to accommodate odd-shaped lots or to create patios and entry areas.

Wanket’s son Joe (now in his 70s), aided by other Wanket sons, recalled how they joined their father to build more than 50 ranch houses. “Somebody asked for a three-bedroom house, and he [Emil Wanket] drew up the first one. The Del Mar lots cost so much, even back then, that you couldn’t afford much of a house. These were very appealing right from the beginning. We made different modifications —shake roofs, wood on the outside, all open beam ceilings inside, cedar wall paneling, cabinets, standard doors and Dutch doors, wooden vent hoods over the stoves.... We even made the windows right there. Cedar was very economical then, because nobody used it. We’d get a big load of cedar and they’d dump it on the site. We’d pull out the clear boards for casings. We got the most out of it. Everybody called it knotty pine, but it was really knotty cedar. When we lacquered it inside, it had a colorful, colonial look.

“There was no one floor plan,” Wanket continued. “Some houses wrapped clear around the corner of a lot from one street to the other. If it was a stepped lot, we just adapted to it. You couldn’t afford bulldozers. We put shutters on some, cupolas on roofs — whatever the owner desired to make it cuter. Nice front porches, like on the old Western wood houses, gave it that low look.” Some relatively unchanged examples of Wanket houses can be seen along 15th Street above Via Alta in Del Mar, and by driving along any of the town’s hillside streets. Also on 15th at Via Alta are four very Wanket-like houses (but built by a contractor named Greene), one of them unchanged from 1951.

Elsewhere in San Diego, especially in East County communities surrounding Mt. Helix, ranch houses enjoyed their two decades of dominance. The design was particularly suited to warmer areas. Low, sheltering roofs shielded sliding glass doors and ever-larger windows, instead of their original function of protecting the thick adobe walls of the first ranchos from rain. The corridor, an outside hallway leading from room to room in the earliest houses, became an indoor hallway that carried heating ductwork in its lower ceiling. The best ranch designs kept the corridor concept as a sort of glassed-in lanai or as a covered walk between wings. (Today’s freestanding patio trellises seem poor, vestigial substitutes for this more integral, indoor-outdoor element.) Relatively blank facades faced the street; the houses’ real beauty lay in the interface between indoor areas and private patios.

Historian Bruce Kamerling, curator of collections at the San Diego Historical Society, thinks “it may still be too soon for the ranch house to become a favorite like the bungalow. The bungalows had beautiful wood, brick, built-ins... all that stuff is nostalgic. Flagstones, redwood siding, and the huge windows [the ranch style’s palette of' materials] are a little too close. And of course there was a hell of a lot of bad design in the ’50s. You have to pick and choose. But I honestly believe those ’50s ranch houses are extremely livable.”

It may have been Sunset itself that helped cause the ranch’s fall from popularity. When May was commissioned by L.W. Lane to design Sunset's headquarters in the ’50s, then-editor Proctor Mellquist and former editor Walter Doty were concerned that the approach was “trite,” according to former Sunset garden editor Joe Williamson, now retired.

“Mellquist and Doty were already scoffing at the ranch house and considered it…the lowest common denominator. We’d quit doing stories on them, even though most readers lived in ranch-style houses in tracts. When it was known that L.W. Lane was hiring May, they went out and got hot-shot architects of the moment. Each sketched up a building. L.W. said no, I want to do ranch. It’s funny, but the kind of things their architects came up with would be looked at today as extremely dated. The ranch style is timeless. L.W. Lane knew more than all of us.”

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