Cliff May’s Quintessential Ranch Houses

The Los Angeles Multiple Listing Service, in its typically terse style, described well the four-bedroom, four-bath house being offered through Coldwell, Banker real estate office in Brentwood:

“Exciting custom Cliff May ranch on a cul-de-sac, up a private drive in Sullivan Canyon. House has a wonderful feeling of seclusion and privacy, nestled among the trees, high beamed ceilings, skylights, and great flow to patios thru sliding glass doors. Room for horses and small pool. . . .”

Calling it a Cliff May ranch and not simply a California ranch was quite fitting and noteworthy. More than any other designer, architect or developer, it was Cliff May who perfected the graceful, informal, low-slung, single-story style marked by the mingling of interior and exterior spaces.

Though the style and its thousands of variations dot the city and, in particular, suburbanscapes across the country, some outstanding examples of the better appointed and sited Cliff May ranches can be seen in Sullivan Canyon north of Sunset Drive.


There along Old Oak and Riviera Ranch roads, set back on well-landscaped large lots behind split-rail fences, adobe walls and horse corrals, are some of the pricier Cliff May ranches. There are no sidewalks, and many of the numbers can’t be seen. The owners like it that way. But almost all of the houses along these streets are Cliff May ranches. (The one offered through Coldwell, Banker is listed at $895,000.)

At the end of Old Ranch Road, and very difficult to see beyond an imposing gate protecting a 50-or-so-acre expanse, is May’s masterpiece, a sprawling, skylight structure he christened Mandalay when he began building it in 1953.

May lived there for more than 30 years, expanding and improving the structure to accommodate his family, entertain his friends and clients, and to test out new design concepts. May now lives elsewhere, and the ranch is currently listed for sale for $22.5 million.

Sitting in his modest office at the foot of Riviera Ranch Road about a mile from his beloved Mandalay, May frowns at the mention of the prices being asked for his creations, including the amount for his own home.


“When I began designing and building my ranches back in 1931, my aim was to keep them affordable. After all, it was the Depression,” May says. Though nearing 80, he is still in practice and as sharp as ever.

“But I also wanted the houses to be attractive, and somehow express and serve the California life style of informality, outdoor living and, of course, the sunshine,” May adds. May did not attend architecture school, nor is he a registered architect; he simply describes himself as a designer.

What May did was to combine the informal layout of the California adobe courtyard house with the practical construction of a board-and-batten bungalow. In effect, it was a marriage of the Hispanic style and Yankee ingenuity that was part of May’s heritage.

His first ranch-style house with its living room oriented not to the front and the street but to a rear patio sold quickly in San Diego for $9,500. After building and selling easily about 50 more ranches, May moved to Los Angeles to expand his business and improve upon his design.

Among his innovations was moving the garage from the backyard to the front yard and attaching it to the house, or simply putting the car in a breezeway under a shed roof: ergo, the carport.

“The only reason people had put their cars in the backyard was because they had replaced horses and that is where the barns were. The barns simply had become the garages,” May says. “Moving cars and their garages to the front saved all that driveway space and cut down on some terrible accidents people had backing up. Now the backyard could really be used for the children and entertaining.”

As for the house itself, May did away with the boxy room arrangements--favored in the East and mimicked in the Midwest--for informal, free-flowing combinations of living and dining areas. Spaces also were defined by their use, such as the family room and the entertainment area, and were marked by their openness, flexibility and orientation through sliding glass doors to rear terraces and landscaping.

What evolved was the quintessential suburban ranch. Launched in Southern California with May at the helm, the style gained steadily in popularity in the late 1940s and 1950s, paced by an expanding suburbia. By the 1960s the ranch and its ubiquitous backyard barbecue had become a symbol of suburbia.


While over the decades designing about 1,000 custom homes, May also sold plans for an estimated 18,000 other houses and numerous subdivisions. On his office wall is a large map of America covered with pins: red pins for locations of his custom-designed houses, green for subdivisions of fewer than 25 of his houses and gold for subdivisions of 25 or more of his houses. There also are blue pins for houses and projects for which he has won awards and yellow pins for houses that have been featured in magazines.

In addition, over the years May’s plans and concepts have been freely adopted and adapted with some license by architects and builders around the world. “I guess you can say that it is a compliment, of sorts,” May says.

But wherever the ranches might be constructed, it is in Southern California that the style was shaped, and in Sullivan Canyon that it flowered, cultivated with a rare talent by May.