As with many mid-century modern homes in Orange County, the houses are just one piece of the puzzle. Often times, there is a unique story and the Cliff May story is one of the most fascinating. Orange County’s Cliff May homes are really the culmination of a series of ideas.
Cliff May was coined “the father of the ranch house.” Those of us growing up in the 60s, 70s, and 80s probably remember the bland single-story homes with no defining characteristics. But these weren’t the “ranch houses” Cliff May designed. His thoughts started with the original “ranch” houses — as in ranches with horses, cattle, and acres of land. So that is the first of his ideas: modernizing and building homes that evoke the California lifestyle. Like those original ranches, his homes frequently had an enclosed courtyard and a deep-rooted connection to the outdoors. The architectural features were all driven by the romantic notion of the “California Lifestyle.”
Cliff May built over 1,000 custom homes for well-to-do and famous. But the real story is how he was able to impart the California lifestyle to over 10,000 families. That was the second “big idea:” Instead of ranch houses for the well-to-do and famous, how about ranch homes for regular families? The answer to that question was prefabrication, and his next big idea. Instead of relying on the traditional stick building model, the homes are built in 5’5″ modules. This meant that the basic structure was erected in 1-2 days and then the crews came in to add plumbing, electrical, and finish materials. Today, prefabrication is the “next big thing” in modern, green building, but the reality is that Cliff May was doing it, in large scale, nearly 60 years ago.
Cliff May’s final “big idea” was the notion of constant evolution. When building custom homes, you essentially start over with each client, designing fresh. But with the ranch homes built in numbers, he was able to see what worked, what didn’t, and how families were living in his homes. This meant that much like a car, each year he revised and refined his plans, making improvements. The result is a home that feels very well thought-out and developed — a nod to ergonomic and lifestyle design largely missing in homes from the 1950s.
Many people initially look for a Cliff May home based purely on aesthetics. The houses are low-slung and blend into their surroundings…like most mid-century modern homes, they are the antithesis of the McMansion. The real beauty of a Cliff May, though, lies in the function. Like Cliff May’s custom homes, they almost always feature a large enclosed courtyard off the living room. This creates a larger, outdoor living space that feels connected with the rest of the home. Most Cliff May homes are under 1500 square feet, but they comfortably accommodate social functions with 50 guests. Many of the windows in Cliff Mays are full-height with glass extending floor-to-ceiling. They have vaulted ceilings in every room and exposed post-and-beam construction. Oh yes, and plenty of clerestory windows at each gable end.
In Orange County, Cliff May homes show up in tracts located in Anaheim, Garden Grove, Costa Mesa, and Tustin. However, some one-off homes have also been spotted in Fullerton. They are also located in a large neighborhood in the El Dorado Park area of Long Beach, which is close to Orange County. The neighborhoods and prices very greatly. The Long Beach neighborhood is the nicest, but also the most expensive and has the smallest lots. There are two neighborhoods in Tustin, but only about 50 homes total; they’re less expensive than Long Beach and feature larger lots. Anaheim, Garden Grove, and Costa Mesa are the most affordable. Many of the homes need work, but Cliff May homes clean up nicely with a minimal amount of money. There are some real deals to be had on fixers.