Cliff May and the Romance of the Ranch House and Catherine Opie at Santa Barbara until the 17th June

Catherine Opie, Old Ranch Road #4 (Skylight House by Cliff May), 2011
Inkjet print
Courtesy Regen Projects, Los Angeles © Catherine Opie

The significance of the long overdue exhibition, appropriately part of the Getty-sponsored Pacific Standard Time series, Carefree California: Cliff May and the Romance of the Ranch House, is several-fold. First it celebrates the premier architect of the California ranch-style house—Cliff May—drawn from the organizing museum’s own collection. The Art, Design and Architecture Museum at the University of California Santa Barbara possesses one of the most extensive collections of architectural material in the world, with a focus on Southern California.  This includes the papers of such luminaries as Irving Gill, father of California Modernism and Rudolph Schindler, the Austrian architect who emigrated to the U.S. in the teens. He worked with Frank Lloyd Wright in the 1920s to create some of the most memorable buildings, not only in Los Angeles, but anywhere. And the Museum possesses the papers of Cliff May, to whom the present exhibition, the first such anywhere, is devoted. On the occasion of the exhibition, a beautifully produced book has been published with accessible, yet scholarly essays, lists, and reproductions of UC Santa Barbara’s comprehensive group of this material. Even more to the point, the exhibition takes this material and contextualizes May’s achievements within the framework of the Spanish Colonial and Mission Revival styles and then California Modernism, again almost entirely from the Museum’s own collections. Finally, the Museum updates the historical materials in the show—the drawings and photographs start as early as the turn of the last century—with a small contemporary photography exhibition in the first gallery. Catherine Opie—based in Los Angeles—is one of today’s leading artists, and the ADA Museum commissioned her to photograph two Cliff May houses in L.A.: one built for the architect himself in Brentwood (the Skylight House on Old Ranch Road; see photo above) and the other, one of the tract houses built in the Lakewood Rancho Estates in Long Beach.

Opie’s new work for the Cliff May exhibition provides a fresh, contemporary dimension to what might otherwise have been a dry, archival exhibition. Her photographs are beautifully integrated into the lavish catalogue as well (including the cover). Conceptually smart, they breathe life into the drawings and archival materials to present Cliff May’s houses as lived in today.

Unfortunately, Opie’s photographs themselves—interior and exterior shots largely devoid of human presence—seem somewhat commercial. However, the two portraits of May rancho homeowners, studio executive Amy Pascal and Old Ranch Road owner and actor Ed O’Neill, are terrific; vintage Opie. They have her take-no-prisoners realism, yet tempered with humanity. I prefer her psychologically penetrating figurative work over her landscapes and street scenes (in her exhibition at the Guggenheim New York in 2008-09, the Surfers and the Icehouses series presented empty, superficially beautiful pictures, as opposed to her potent portraits and amazing large-scale polaroids in the same show). I really liked how her photographs worked in the present exhibition, but didn’t find these photographs as compelling as her earlier work.

Turning to the Cliff May exhibition itself, it proceeds more or less chronologically, opening with May’s earliest projects in San Diego as well as some biographical exhibits. The themes that occupy May throughout his very long career are in evidence early on here. Sixth-generation Californian, as a boy he grew up visiting his aunt’s old California rancho outside San Diego, and later was a property maintenance man and a furniture designer. This all explains his fascination with this architectural type as well as his obsession with domestic architecture. The show’s earliest example is the first Cliff May House of 1932 in San Diego—a rancheria, a less expensive version of a hacienda (the two types: the hacienda in adobe with tile roof and the rancheria in wood with shingle or shake-roof). Over his career, like many architects (think Frank Gehry’s house in Santa Monica of 1978), his personal residence was his calling card. Over two decades, May built five houses for his family, all of which figured prominently in advertising and promotion, especially in the magazines of the day from House Beautiful to Sunset. Cliff May House No. 1 is the “rough-hewn” hacienda aesthetic that May espoused over his entire career, the traditional Spanish rancho built around a courtyard. Early on, May essentially simplifies his buildings’ footprints to variations on the “U” or the “L.” What amazes as outlined in this exhibition is the trajectory from his ‘30s traditional Spanish dwellings to the modern feel of the designs of the ‘50s and later, and the constant connection to the outdoors, the legacy of the Spanish Colonial patio.

The next section explores sources for a California style through the work of such architects as Irving Gill; Myron Hunt, Henry Huntington’s architect; and English ex-pat Robert Stacy-Judd. The simple Mission style revival spanned the 1880s to 1915. Scores of public buildings such as hotels and train stations as well as numerous houses were built in this idiom. At the same time, the more elaborate Spanish Colonial Revival saw its apogée in the architecture—much of which remains—for the Panama-California Exposition of 1915 in San Diego, designed largely by Bernard Goodhue. The most idiosyncratic of them all was Robert Stacy-Judd, a British Beaux-Arts-trained architect designing in the Southwestern vernacular. More to the point, he was receptive to indigenous American influences, from the Southwest to Pre-Columbian. Known largely for his Aztec Hotel in Monrovia outside L.A., his neo-Mayan-Aztec fantasies were a revelation in another Pacific Standard Time exhibition, MEX/LA: Mexican Modernism(s) in Los Angeles, 1930-1985 at the Museum of Latin American Art, Long Beach (see that catalogue, p. 145).

Due to Frank Lloyd Wright’s work in Tokyo on the Imperial Hotel in the late teens, Los Angeles became a major locus for his work in the 1920s, the time of the great textile-block houses (Ennis, Barnsdall  or “Hollyhock House,” Storrer and others). These show an interest in Pre-Columbian or Southwestern vernacular architecture, culminating in a side staircase at Fallingwater, otherwise a completely International Style house for the Kaufman family of Pittsburgh.

Cliff May’s passion for the indigenous or (pan)-American influences is the ambit in which he operated and is tellingly limned in the exhibition’s third section, “the Romance of the Rancho.” Here the exhibition really sings, setting the plentiful May material in context, surrounded by selections of architect-designed domestic dwellings that pre-figure or contribute to the ranch type. Irving Gill’s stripped down Spanish adobe designs (regrettably, May dismissed them as “just boxes”) are shown here, such as the Walter Dodge House (1914-15; destroyed 1970). It is, however, R.M. Schindler’s Kings Road house (1921; it is open to the public; see that is the high point of this gallery, with important drawings from the ADA Museum’s holdings. The curators have justifiably included it in the present exhibition as it adheres to Cliff May’s own dictum that if it “lives like a ranch—it is a ranch,” with its low-slung mass and incorporation of the outdoors. Yet King’s Road is redolent of the Vienna Secession, traditional Japanese architecture and Wright’s Prairie Houses; these glamorous precedents beautifully captured in the star object in the entire show, a narrow, vertical presentation drawing done in pen and ink, wash and gold paint. While one can discern a wall elevation and the courtyard, it gives more atmosphere than architecture!

Another important project included here is Myron Hunt and Harold Chambers’ house built in 1926 for none other than one of America’s most important landscape architects and son of the “father” of American landscape architecture, Frederick L. Olmstead, Jr. Set on an picturesque site, the top of a cliff overlooking the Pacific in Palos Verdes Estates, it is a traditional hacienda-type rancho. There are also terrific drawings for Henry Palmer Sabin’s Burnham House in Palm Springs of 1929. Its dramatic two-storey window at one end, soaring up to the gable, pre-figures May’s innovations several decades later.

At the same time that Cliff May is developing his own brand of California ranch house, furnished with his own Mission-style furniture in the mid-30s, in the midst of the Great Depression Frank Lloyd Wright arrives at his solution for mass-produced, inexpensive, quintessentially American housing—the Usonian. The first iteration, the Herbert Jacobs House I (1936-37; Madison, Wisconsin), employed pre-fabricated elements, with simple, natural materials (wood frame and concrete palet). It further develops the open plan that his earlier work began. It is his version of the ranch house, and regrettably the exhibition does not touch on this important source at all (to her credit, Alice Friedman does so in the exhibition catalogue essay “Rancho Moderne”). May was deeply impressed by Wright, and knew him personally.

May is seen to effect in this third section with a pivotal project, a La Habra house for John A. Smith in 1935-36. Smith was to become May’s business partner, launching him the next year into the Los Angeles market. I suspect that this design was May’s “audition.” The red-tiled roof, white adobe house is vintage May, with a “U”-shaped plan (three sides around a courtyard; the latter closed off with a wall), and a rustic formality that bespoke status but comfortable living. This casual luxury would set the tone for the rest of May’s career. The crux of the exhibition is May’s ability to take the traditional—and tradition-bound—architectural type of the hacienda or rancho, and modernizing it.

Cliff May, Gerald Katell house (Rolling Hills, Calif.) Bird’s-eye perspective of preliminary design, rendering by Jamison, 1978
Watercolor on board
Cliff May Papers, Art, Design and Architecture Museum, University of California Santa Barbara

Smith and May enter the Los Angeles market with their Riviera Ranch development (off Sunset Boulevard) that broke ground in the late ‘30s and continued to be developed until the 1960s. Here May introduced the idea of the modern ranch—“Rancho goes moderne” in his words—and the scale and convenience of these houses increase exponentially. In the exhibition site plans, building designs, marketing materials, even designs for logos and billboards flesh out the transformation of Riviera Ranch—May’s most comprehensive community—from an enclave of a few large estates to the middle-class planned community it became.

Indeed, what really made Cliff May’s reputation (and his fortune)—and forever linked his name with the preferred housing type for post-war American expansionism, the ranch house—were his designs for the burgeoning blue-collar middle class of Southern California.  True to form, the final section of exhibition sets the context for this all important chapter of the May story with a short history of affordable housing in Southern California. Always the architect’s utopian dream—mass-produced, yet aesthetically pleasing, affordable housing for all—is delineated here with fascinating examples.  The famed Case Study Houses always come to mind, but here designs by major architects such as Gill, Schindler and Gregory Ain (especially his drawings for the intriguing Avenel Housing Association project of 1948) draw attention. The final note in the exhibition is May’s return after 1955, after his experiment with quick, low-cost housing, to the luxurious, customized ranch house, serving major clients ranging from himself (houses 4 and finally 5, continuing their important role as marketing tool), Italian industrialist Giovanni Agnelli, actor Robert Wagner and winemaker Robert Mondavi, among others.

Cliff May’s vision for the ranch house and its role in Californian—and American—culture reached its height with the Lakewood Rancho Estates, from 1950 to 1955. These 950 houses, actually built in Long Beach, adjacent to break-away Lakewood, were the largest concentration of the 18,000 pre-fabricated, low-cost houses built by May and his partner Chris Choate (the architect who also produced ravishing presentation drawings on view in the show) across the country, mainly in the West and Southwest. Board-and-batten construction, with 36 variations in plan for the Long Beach community alone, the exhibition paints a wonderful picture of the pre-fab project through photographs, drawings, marketing materials, and a video (of time-lapse photography, “He builds your house in sections!” takes only one day, and your breath away). Even on display is a period model of a pre-fab house showing a pitched roof and board and batten wall-section construction. The master marketer May sold these pre-fabricated houses across the country through distributors, tarted up with catchy names like The Catalina and The Laguna. These houses were compact 2 or 3-bedroom, 2 bathroom, with garage or carport. In Long Beach, as in other locations, these low-cost houses were built in May’s famed “L” plan around a patio, cleverly marketed as an “outdoor living room.” The Lakewood Ranchos were marketed under the moniker, “The Californian,” “…built for you—a modern Western family,” with Plans A through G. Today, I live in a Cliff May Homes Californian Plan D.

Cliff May, Lakewood Rancho Estates, Author’s Living Room
Photography by Heber Siqueiros

Cliff May, Lakewood Rancho Estates (1953)
Author’s Dining Area, 2012
Photography by Heber Siqueiros

I myself have been fortunate to live in two architect-designed homes thus far, in Oklahoma and California—and oddly enough, they are related. First of all, as anyone who will tell you who has lived in an architect-designed house, it changes your life. It informs how you should live. My family and I moved to Long Beach in 2009 right into a house in the Lakewood Rancho Estates (the Brooks House, 1953, published in the first book on May, Daniel Gregory’s beautiful and informative Cliff May and the Modern Ranch House, New York, 2008, pp. 124-135). So I can attest firsthand to the marvelous magic that May works in bringing the outdoors

Cliff May, Lakewood Rancho Estates (1953)
Author’s Master Bedroom, 2012
Photography by Heber Siqueiros

inside. I have only to open the double doors in our bedroom to experience nature. Many months of the year we don’t use the living/dining area inside, but entertain on the patio. The glass windows and walls and the clerestories or glass-end gables under the roof create cross-ventilation and transparency (see photos above). I feel as if I live outside  in our garden the entire year, yet never need to step outside. I truly feel connected to California, living in this marvelous little house.

However, my first brush experiencing an architect-designed house was when I was director of Price Tower Arts Center in Bartlesville, Oklahoma (near Tulsa), a remarkable oasis of culture and great architecture thanks to the old  oil industry. The Price Tower was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright for Harold C. Price, Sr.’s gas and oil pipeline construction company and finished in 1956 (it is now a cultural destination and museum; go to Over the years, up around it went distinguished buildings by Welton Becket (another LA connection), HOK, a performing arts center by Wright’s son-in-law Wesley Peters, and throughout the community, eleven structures—mainly houses—by Bruce Goff.

Bruce Goff (1904-82) remains one of the great unsung heroes of American architecture, and is in fact more celebrated in Europe (the Germans have a particular affinity for him). Perhaps it was because his career was largely centered in the Midwest, living in Oklahoma, Kansas City, and Texas, with early stints in Chicago and Northern California during the war. However, his most important public building, and the very last to be built, is here in Los Angeles, the Japanese Pavilion at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. (Rem Koolhaas once told me that when he was commissioned to design a new museum campus for LACMA, all would be swept away except the May department store and the Goff pavilion which he loved.) Goff’s often futuristic fantasies that sweep and shimmer, constructed of anodized gold aluminum, steel, stones of coal and blue slag glass, brick and clear glass are difficult to categorize and therefore are left alone and ignored.

Bruce Goff, Fitchette Residence (1961), Bartlesville, OK
Author’s living room, 2005

After moving to Bartlesville, I bought Goff’s Fitchette House of 1961 (see left and David De Long, Bruce Goff: Toward Absolute Architecture, Cambridge, 1988, p. 207). It happened to be one of a few he designed in the California Modern mode, essentially a ranch house. Little did I know then that it was preparing the way for my living with Cliff May and his romantic ranchos years later.

A mile or so down Silver Lake Road from my former home, Cliff May designed one of his custom luxurious ranchos for Harold Price, Sr., the most important private patron of Frank Lloyd Wright’s later years. Star View Farm was built from 1947 to 1948, and renovated by May the year after Wright completed the Price Tower, from 1957 to 1958. Sadly, eventually the house was abandoned (a family member said to me that it leaked a lot and was cold…a California ranch not working well in Oklahoma), and was pulled down over a decade ago. However, apparently May still worked his magic on the Price boys. They both subsequently moved to Southern California where they still reside. I was disappointed that the superbly designed Star View Farm wasn’t included in the present show (there is a gorgeous presentation drawing for the house—in a closed “U” with another “U” created by two additional wings—in Santa Barbara’s collection; illustrated in Gregory, p. 87). In the same neighborhood Wright was also finishing an immense home for the elder son’s (Harold Price, Jr.) family from 1953 to ’56. Goff—moving to Bartlesville in January 1956 where he lived and worked for over eight years—had already started on a splendid bachelor pad for Price’s second son, Joe, in 1953. This “pleasure-dome” of “Kubla Khan”(I’m not overstating this, having experienced it once), was built in 1956 and added on to until 1974 and was surely one of the more remarkable domestic structures in America it was until it was destroyed by fire in 1996.

Living in the Goff Fitchette residence for some years, I understood at a basic level its connections to California Modernism with its overtones of Schindler, Richard Neutra and Japanese aesthetics. Goff’s genius touches included the seamless transition of exterior finishes to inside, dramatic sunken living room with double height ceiling, massive Roman-brick hearth, bedroom walls almost like shoji screens (they didi not extend all the way up to the ceiling); all was very cool and minimalist. However, I wasn’t prepared—because I didn’t yet understand—Cliff May’s deep influence here. Until now, May has not been acknowledged as an important influence on this avant-garde and experimental American architect. Here Goff was clearly indebted to May and his concept of the ranch house. Goff clearly knew May’s work, may have been familiar with some of his California residences, but certainly knew May’s Star View Farm in Bartlesville and certainly socialized with the Prices, probably meeting May when he was in town for the renovations. And also, Goff was a voracious reader and doubtless knew the Skylight House and Mandalay from magazines or books, such as House and Garden (those houses published in 1955 and 1957, respectively).

Bruce Goff, Fitchette Residence (1961), Bartlesville, OK
Author’s living area, 2005

Bruce Goff, Fitchette Residence (1961), Bartlesville, OK
Kalwall Skylight detail

May’s Experimental Ranch or the Skylight House—the fourth home he built for himself (1949-52; remodeled in 1956-62)—is critical in relation to Goff’s Fitchette Residence. May’s great retractable skylight over the indoor patio/living area of this house (see photo at top) was transformed to the more feasible roof ridge skylight running atop the entire gable May developed for his own, final house, “Mandalay,” of 1952-56 as well as other customized ranchos from then on. Likewise, the entire length of my home in Bartlesville had a skylight running down the spine of the gabled roof. Of course, Goff modified it, flattening it out at the top, so conveying a Modernist planar angularity. He didn’t use glass but the newly invented fiberglass translucent building material called Kalwall (which Goff later used to great effect in LACMA’s Japanese Pavilion; see photos left and right). Even more astonishing was May’s movable wall concept in the large open plan of No. 4 House. These were cabinets forming walls which could be moved around at will to create different spaces (at least theoretically). While the walls in the Fitchette House are not movable, some do in fact double as efficient cabinet storage. Like May’s Experimental House’s wall system, they do not meet the ceiling (this I believe, to allow the central ridge skylight illumination to reach inside the bedrooms). In both the roof appears to float above the walls due to the inserted glass-end gables.

A decade later, Bruce Goff  deconstructed the ranch house type, signaling his debt to Cliff May—not previously acknowledged—while channeling the California Modernism of Schindler and Neutra. As we see with the Fitchette House, May’s impact on Goff is just one example of the former’s critical impact on 20th-century architecture, design and popular culture.

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  1. Martin · · Reply

    A charming reflection on the clear and
    interesting connections between May and
    Goff. Thank you, culture spectator.

  2. […] Romance of the Ranch House, Exhibit Essay Richard Townsend, […]

  3. […] In 1955, Eichler commissioned another type of house from Jones and Emmons, the X-100 Experimental House in San Mateo, California. Like the earlier Eichler Homes, it comprised an open plan filled with light and a connection to the outside, but this was further emphasized by its innovative steel construction (Jones had already designed a steel-framed house for himself in 1953). There was immense interest in the model, but Eichler never pursued it. It stands in stark contrast to the mass-produced but well-designed wood-framed tract houses being constructed by Jones and Eichler’s competitor, rancho architect and developer Cliff May. […]

  4. Hi there! I’m at work browsing your blog from my new iphone 4!
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