Oral Histories

Interview of Cliff May

Architect and creator of the California ranch style house.
The California Ranch House
Interviews not in a series, part one
Architecture, Landscape Architecture, and Design
Biographical Note:
Architect and creator of the California ranch style house.
Laskey, Marlene L.
May, Cliff
Persons Present:
May and Laskey.
Place Conducted:
May's office in Los Angeles, California.
Supporting Documents:
Records relating to the interview are located in the office of the UCLA Library's Center for Oral History Research.
Interviewer Background and Preparation:
The interview was conducted by Marlene L. Laskey, UCLA Oral History Program; B.A., political science; has researched, organized, and led architectural tours of Los Angeles.
Processing of Interview:
Transcribing and editing of this interview were complicated by the poor sound quality of the original tape recordings. Staff of the UCLA Oral History program checked a verbatim transcript of the tapes against the original recordings and edited for punctuation, paragraphing, spelling, and verification of proper nouns. Words and phrases inserted by the editors have been bracketed. The final manuscript remains in the same order as the taped material.In June 1983 the edited transcript, along with a list of queries and names requiring identification, was given to May. He made a number of changes and additions, which are indicated in the manuscript. He returned the approved transcript in December 1983.Richard Candida Smith, principal editor, reviewed the transcript and wrote the introduction. Other front matter and the index were prepared by Teresa Barnett, editorial assistant.
6.5 hrs.
Regents of the University of California, UCLA Library.
Genealogy of May's maternal ancestors, the Estudillo family--The Estudillo house and the functional quality of early California adobe ranch architecture--Memories of his aunt Jane Magee and Las Flores Ranch--The process of proving land ownership after California's annexation--May's extended family in California--Las Flores Ranch--Functional quality of ranch and barn architecture--Ramona's marriage place.
May's paternal grandfather, Charles E. May--May's father, John Clifford May--May's boyhood neighborhood in San Diego--Irving Gill houses in San Diego--Basement and layout of May's childhood home--Never being able to please his father--His brother, Henry C. May, wants to make money--Prominent citizens of San Diego--May's musical interests as a youth.
PART 1 (MAY 12, 1982)Learns to play the piano--Enters college--The stock market crash of 1929--Begins designing and building furniture--Designs and builds his first house.PART TWO (June 9, 1982)The modern California ranch house--Importance of a designer to an architect--Few regulations and low costs when May first started building-- Building styles which May considers poor architecture--His low opinion of Le Corbusier and the International style--May's first use of the pullman lavatory--His use of cement floors.
Importance of rock cushion in cement floors--The problem of working with clients who do not want to take the designer's advice--Builds a house for John A. Smith and Smith offers to put up money for May to build houses in Los Angeles--May builds a house for his own family--Various houses May built in San Diego--His association with John A. Smith--Difficulties with the Board of Architectural Examiners--Feuds between architects and builders--Riviera Ranch development--Decision to build good houses rather than cheap houses.
PART ONE (June 9, 1982): Becomes acquainted with Paul Frankl's furniture--Building houses for Frederic M. Blow--Building for John Galvin. PART TWO (July 21, 1982):Early California ranch architecture--The Monterey box-style house--Maximizing space on building lots by building up to the property line--Different ways of disposing of garbage--Need to adapt each house to the client--Need for architect to examine the site before building--The designing of Balboa Park by the Olmstead brothers and Bertram Goodhue--Other builders of ranch houses.
The spreading of the ranch house idea--Innovations in May's houses--Costs of ranch house construction--Puts out the book Western Ranch Houses with Sunset magazine--May's "Pacesetter House" featured in House Beautiful--Other architects begin copying May's houses--The need for larger living rooms--Mandalay (CM No. 5) originally seemed too big, now does not seem big enough--House and Garden features Mandalay--May's development of one-room houses with movable partitions.
PART ONE (September 15, 1982):Advantages of the open plan which is not divided up into a number of rooms--The Skylight House--May's designs plagiarized--Building prefabricated houses in the fifties.PART TWO (September 30, 1982): Copyright laws and architecture--Development of the nail-on sash--Lawsuits May has initiated against builders who copied his plans--Lawsuit against Fletcher Jones.
PART ONE (September 30, 1982): May's assistance for architects with legal problems--General Motors' and DeVilbliss's unauthorized use of May houses in advertisements. PART TWO (January 13, 1983):May's opinion that famous people make good clients--Designing an apartment building for Shirley MacLaine and her husband--May's involvement with low-cost housing across the country--Low-cost housing and the problems with building regulations--After designing low-cost housing. May returns to designing more expensive single-family homes--Designs the Mondavi Winery--Mandalay.
TAPE NUMBER: V, Side Two (January 13, 1983) Houses with movable partitions--Problems in making skylights too big--Need for space in houses--Need to observe a few basic design rules--Walk-in refrigerators--Indoor swimming pools--Means of heating homes--May's music room--May's book collecting--Antique furniture--Flying--Tendency for artists' work to improve as artists get older--The house for Joe W. Brown that was never built.