Prefab Rehab: Low-Cost Home Has Rich Pedigree

Times Staff Writer

As a student of architectural history, Bruce Emerton dreamed of living in a house designed by one of the mid-century modernists he so admires. In Pomona, he found one he could afford.

Emerton's 1954 Cliff May prefab was featured this month on the 20th Annual Pomona Heritage Historic Home Tour. The light-filled ranch was the only modern home in the bunch, a 1950s vision of good affordable design in a sea of Craftsman-style houses.

Mid-century modern "is the next restoration frontier," said Emerton, art and architecture librarian at Cal Poly Pomona and an architectural historian whose work includes a website on modernist treasures in the Palm Springs area. "Nobody can afford Victorian and Craftsman houses in historic districts anymore."

Emerton found his Eisenhower-era gem a decade ago and has been renovating it ever since.

"I couldn't stand commuting, and I could never afford a house in Silver Lake," where he then lived, said Emerton, who paid $130,000 for the house and is now able to bike to work. A neighbor recently offered a Cliff May for sale for $350,000.

Emerton's is one of about 50 homes designed by May and partner Chris Choate in a neighborhood of modern tract houses with a view of Pomona's Westmont Hills.

Emerton lives on Wright Street, which he said is a potent name for anyone who cares about 20th century design. Since he found a choice cluster of Eichler homes on Wright Street in Palo Alto, Emerton has made it a point to check out streets with that name whenever he visits a new community.

"On Wright Street, you will almost always find a modern house or a modern tract," he said.

Emerton has painstakingly reversed alterations made to his house over the years, including removing plywood and reinstalling lower windows in the living room.

"When I first moved here, I wrote a letter to everybody in the neighborhood warning them of the evils of stucco," he said with a laugh.

He counseled his new neighbors that their houses would be worth more if they remained as the designers had conceived them. Among other things, that meant not applying stucco over the redwood exterior, as some owners had done in the past.

The May-Choate design was revolutionary in its day, as an article in a 1953 issue of House & Home, a magazine read mostly by those in the construction industry, made clear. Such documentation about his house is part of Emerton's vast personal library devoted to art and architecture, now taking up all 600 square feet of what was formerly the garage.

May and Choate's design, the magazine declared, "is almost the first low-cost house to offer the kind of California living everybody back East imagines all Californians enjoy."

The cost was remarkably low: $7,500 for the model dubbed the Magic-Money House that was displayed on the roof of a Beverly Hills furniture store. May had high-end clients who paid 10 times that much for a custom-designed house.

May and Choate were able to keep the cost down because of the simplified method of construction they devised. All the walls were built from standardized panels in five configurations. These five panel styles could be used to construct 612- to 1,572-square-foot versions of the house in one-third the time it took to build an ordinary residence.

Opening onto a wild garden, Emerton's home has a slightly pitched roof, lots of floor-to-ceiling windows, three bedrooms, two baths, and such welcome amenities as a fireplace, in about 1,200 square feet.

The kitchen is separated from the living room by a wall made of slump stone. A previous owner had cut down the wall to make a bar. Emerton built it back up because it was designed that way and because he doesn't think guests need to know the condition of his kitchen as soon they walk in the front door.

Emerton has restored the public rooms with great respect for the house's past and pedigree. The Formica on the kitchen counter is in Raymond Loewy's 1954 Skylark pattern: gray with pink and blue squiggles and boomerangs. But the house is Emerton's retreat, not a museum. In the dining area, he has covered an entire wall with thousands of shimmering Legos.

"It took about three months and about 300 beers," he said.

Inevitably, May's populist design is compared with the houses built by Joseph Eichler around the same time. They too blurred inside and outside, used lots of glass, let living spaces flow together and appealed to people who liked Eames chairs.

Emerton sees the May houses as less elitist. "These were very low cost, middle-class, Eichler-esque houses," he said.

Writer and image collector Charles Phoenix, who has documented the look of mid-century Southern California, also prefers May's work.

"They're warmer than Eichlers," says Phoenix, Emerton's friend and author of the recently published "Southern Californialand." "They are wood and glass, instead of metal and glass."

May and Choate sold plans and permission to construct their designs to local builders, almost like a franchise, Emerton said. In 1953, they began offering a package that included the factory-made panels, precut lumber, doors, cabinets and other standardized parts.

Some 15,000 of May's prefab houses were built, some as far east as Arkansas, and made up entire neighborhoods in Anaheim and Long Beach. May's and Choate's enterprise ended up producing far more homes than such contemporary forays into prefab housing as the porcelain-enameled steel Lustron houses.

"I consider it the only successful prefab experiment in the United States," Emerton said.

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