Cliff May and the Origins of the Ranch House

For my birthday, I took a break from scraping and re-painting from precariously balanced ladder platforms … just kidding, I was up and painting on the platform at 7am.  However I did STOP at 8:15 when I hit the milestone of getting the second coat of paint on all the area that needs a ladder jack platform to reach.  Then I took the rest of the day off from manual labor.  Instead went down to campus to the Kohler Art Library to (metaphorically) check out Cliff May’s 1946 Sunset Western Ranch Houses.

Never trained or licensed as an architect, Cliff May was an artist: a saxophone player turned furniture designer who expanded his scope first into staging mission style houses, then designing ranch houses, and ending by inspiring a whole housing movement.

A little history on May from Bruce Robertson’s essay in Carefree California: Cliff May and the Romance of the Ranch House.  May cut his teeth on house maintenance for his family’s rental properties and also shared housekeeping duties with his brother while his mother was “often ill (11).”  Robertson speculates that taking on those (then) housewifely duties inspired the adult May to embrace the efficiencies of modern open plan layouts, open kitchens, etc.  He also grew up around traditional Western Ranches – as in actual houses on Ranches – his aunt lived in one – and he was interested in that California heritage as a touch point for his house designs.  He caught the eye of Sunset Magazine – the Magazine of Western Living – and was featured on  many of their covers before they published his Western Ranch Houses.

From my, admittedly cursory, study of May’s Ranches its easy to see consistent features.

  • His designs, from modest to luxurious, are a single story with the low pitched roof of warm climates.
  • Huge picture windows and even glass walls connect interior public areas (at grade) to adjacent patios.
  • In some cases guest spaces (or maid’s quarters) are connected to the main house by a roof but not by enclosed interior spaces.
  • Most are built from rustic or natural materials: field stone fireplaces, clad in board-and-batten siding, and with exposed rafters and roof decking that continue from the eaves outside into the interior ceilings.

Below are a few of his more modest ranch plans, pulled from the Cliff May Registry online that look a lot like the midwestern ranches that can be found in my neighborhood (except for the glass walled living rooms).  Most of the designs in Western Ranch Houses are much more grand in scale, with sprawling angled wings, maid’s quarters etc.  Even the so called “Compact Ranch House” is 2157 square feet.

I was interested to learn that May attributed the  American Ranch tendency to have a plain and closed front and more open patio based back yard to the same concept in the Spanish rancheros which drew from Moorish customs of “lavishing decoration upon the interior … but leaving most of the outer surfaces blank (14).”  It’s fascinating to find a connection between the houses I loved so much when I traveled in Morocco and my own modest ranch.

He stated that “The Patio is Key” and designed all his houses with zero grade connections to back yard outside living space.  This underlines a problem (which I intend to fix) with my own ranch house.  Midwestern tract house ranches have both cost and weather constraints that keep them a little less generously connected to the outside than their Californian brethren.  Still my own house has a cold straight line separation from its back yard and doesn’t even have a door that opens to the rear (the kitchen door opens onto a breezeway that connects the front and back yards).  From the first, I’ve had a variety of plans to connect the living spaces more smoothly into the back yard.  More on that later.

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