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Down on the ranch house

Designer Cliff May drew this rendering of a San Fernando Valley ranch house.

The L- and U-shaped ranch homes pioneered by the late designer Cliff May are among the predominant structures that define 20th-century architectural landscape in Southern California.

Though May was not the first to work with the one-story, low-profile ranch design that dates back to the North American Spanish colonial architecture of the 17th century, he refined the look to make it appealing for thousands of post-World War II home buyers.

By combining the features of Spanish architecture with the simplicity of modernism, May crafted homes that accentuated the integration of the interior spaces and the exterior gardens. Most of his ranch homes featured terraces and courtyards, floor-to-ceiling windows that provided ample cross ventilation and indirect lighting.

Another of May’s signature forms was the attached garage or carport.

A contemporary of architects William Pereira, Edward Fickett and A. Quincy Jones, May dropped out of San Diego State College at the height of the Great Depression. He started his career as a furniture designer and then segued into residential construction. In 1934, the second home May designed was featured in Architectural Digest.

During a career that spanned six decades, May designed more than 20,000 homes, as well as other private and commercial structures. While most of his work was concentrated in Southern California, the rest of the country adopted the “California ranch” house style, and by the 1950s, more than 80 percent of the homes constructed in the United States were influenced by May.

What set May apart from many architects of the time was that he was able to design California ranch homes for middle-class families, as well as the elite. In addition to building tract homes in places like Long Beach and the San Fernando Valley, he also built a similar — albeit larger — version of his ranch home for vintner Robert Mondavi in Napa Valley. May homes can be found in Australia, Italy and Switzerland, among other countries.

The USC Libraries have many presentation drawings conceived by May and illustrated by his partner, architect Chris Choate. Designs from the USC Helen Topping Architecture and Fine Arts Library currently are on loan to the University of California, Santa Barbara’s Art, Design & Architecture Museum for Carefree California: Cliff May and the Romance of the Ranch House, an exhibition that was part of the Pacific Standard Time series of exhibitions that recently took place in Southern California.

According to organizers, the May exhibition — which runs through June 17 — addresses postwar growth and May’s “ubiquitous Californian solution that helped create an important regional identity.”

Down on the ranch house

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