Cliff May was a 6th generation San Diegan, descended from the Estudillo family who’s patriarch governed in 1835 and established family rancheros throughout the region. This would later inspire Cliff, who’s self-proclaimed mission was to “Preserve for California, the architecture of its people”.
Cliff May was born in 1909, and studied business and accounting, until the market crash forced him to quit school. He spent his early working years building mission-style furniture, and pursuing a musical career, which showed great promise. However, his father-in law urged him to pursue a more lucrative path. With little formal education or training in architecture, he used his knowledge and experience of designing furniture for model homes, to build his first house at the age of 23, in the hacienda style. His subsequent work for San Diegan developers, led him to flourish in the 1940’s housing boom, offering affordable homes for returning GIs. His love for the California lifestyle and environment, and his deep roots in the flat sprawling spaces on the ranches where he grew up, defined his style. Often referred to as the “Father of the California Ranch House” May sought to build casual, efficient, yet elegant homes, which had the sense of openness and expansiveness. He achieved this goal working on vast acreage, or on small suburban lots. His style, was used by real estate developers throughout his 50 year career. He was responsible for“democratizing this high-end style” for the masses, building 1,000 homes himself, and 18,000 others attributed to his offices…all without ever being formally licensed as an architect.
His use of the best technology available for sliding glass doors, pitched glass and beam skylights, pebble concrete and tile floors, as well as other innovations, made it possible to open his homes to the enjoyment of the fantastic California climate. His homes, sought after for “having a garden in every room”, were regularly featured in some of the best publications of the day, including Sunset Magazine (for whom he designed offices), House Beautiful, House and Garden, Architectural Digest, and California Arts and Architecture, among others.
Today, many of his homes still exist, there is a myriad of enticing opportunities to own one, and a growing audience of fans. There are shining examples of his original work that remain true to his intentions, however, many of his homes have been remodeled and are unrecognizable. For intrepid devotees, restoring Cliff May homes has become a labor of love.