Cliff May ranch houses and their important architectural legacy

Cliff May — Father of the modern day ranch house

Cliff-may-inspired-home plan

Steven Murphy

After our initial discovery of 8 historical plans inspired by Cliff May and now available on houseplans.com, Daniel Gregory, Ph.D., editor-in-chief, was kind enough to connect me with one of the Cliff May inspired home designers — Steven Murphy. Steven was more than happy to “talk shop” with me — as well as compare his Cliff May inspired plan with an original Cliff May designed home. Read on for a virtual tour of Steven’s design, his thoughts on Cliff May and why he’ll forever be an advocate for ranch style homes.


Steven writes:

I have to preface that my appreciation for Cliff May sprang from an intense interest in the West Coast Regionalist Movement that was in full swing as I was growing up in Monterey, California, in the 1960’s.  I became aware of architecture at an early age, mostly through the pages of trade and shelter magazines of the day. At that time, these publications ran a lot of stories on the Bay Area, Pacific Northwest and the Southern California Schools of architecture , the latter of which Cliff May was a major proponent. It was here that I first saw photos of Mandalay, Cliff’s own magnificent house in Los Angeles, and the work of his contemporaries, A. Quincy Jones, Harwell Harris, John Lautner, Joseph Esherick, William Wurster, Roland Terry and John Yeon.  All of these guys, if you’re not completely familiar with them, are worthy of their own mini-blogs, especially the latter two, Terry and Yeon. Their collective body of work includes some of the most beautiful houses ever created, the likes of which we’ll never see again…

Cliff-may-inspired-planI really began to zero in on May’s work when I bought an original hard cover issue of his 1958 book,Western Ranch Houses by Cliff May, when I was 13. I loved everything about his houses, the roof (I always look at that aspect of a house first), the way they sprawled all over the site, the indoor/outdoor connection, the use of materials, texture and the quality of light and space. Best of all, no matter how Large they were, the scale was always human and appropriate. And, like Frank Lloyd Wright’s houses, they looked like they grew out of the landscape. In fact, the landscape was a very integral part of a Cliff May house and its overall design scheme. He knew how critical this element was and worked closely with the best landscape architects of the day, Thomas Church, Douglas Baylis and Garrett Eckbo. These were completely integrated environments, utterly seamless.


Cliff-may-inspired-planThere’s a certain unmistakable quality about the great custom houses built in the 20 years after World War II. To understand what it was, you just have to look through the pages of House Beautiful and House & Garden of the period, especially the Hallmark and Pacesetter houses. There’s an aesthetic sensibility and refinement that you don’t see today, an attention to detail and exuberance that is gone. Maybe it was the bright promise of the future that they embodied, they definitely reflected their times. Also, building codes were nonexistent by today’s standards, you built whatever you could dream up and the land was plentiful and cheap. A great combination of factors that encouraged uber creativity.


Cliff-may-inspired-planMy Cliff May inspired design (544-1) on the Houseplans site began life as a prototype for houses I hope to eventually build for myself and others. There are actually 8 different versions of it, ranging in size from about 1,400 square feet, to the 3000 foot version you see on the site. There’s a cult following for Cliff’s houses in LA and most go for multi-millions.



Cliff-may-inspired-planI knew I wanted to live in a similar house, so I designed a 21st century version of one that could be built for a reasonable price. The house is actually an amalgam of Cliff May, Quincy Jones and Harwell Harris, although it’s most reminiscent of May. I incorporated all of my favorite devices into the house, slab foundation, seamless indoor/outdoor flow, skylight at the ridge, walls of glass, sheltering roof, multi fireplaces, integrated gardens, beautiful materials and lots of texture. And, most importantly, an element of surprise like a good Japanese house!

Cliff-may-inspired-planI’ve always felt that the ranch house model was the perfect solution for living in the west. Unfortunately, the form died because land value killed it for average home buyers. I wanted to design a ranch house for a new age, one that respects the aesthetics, scale, proportions and sensibilities of the past, while embracing the realities of modern day life and the new technologies that accompany it. California has some of the strictest building codes in the country and most of Cliff’s houses could not be built today thanks to Title 24 and others. To that end, my house differs in many way from the original.


Cliff-may-inspired-plan544-1 is steel frame, post and beam construction with a standing seam metal roof.  Most of Cliff’s houses were built of wood and stucco with a tile or shake roof. 544-1 is designed to be built to the highest levels of LEED certification and has the large open plan most buyers want today. In Cliff’s day, fuel was cheap and you could run the AC and radiant heat 365 days a year if you wanted to. And all those walls of glass, not a dual pane in sight! Unlike the original prototype, 544-1 has a fairly compact footprint, especially in the smaller versions, it’s essentially a rectangle. With land to spread out at a premium, the ranch house can no longer ramble quite as much as it did in the day. Ultimately, I’d like the ranch house to live again and I’ll be its loudest advocate forever.



Cliff-may-inspired-planInterestingly, I read on your blog some comments from folks looking at the Eichler essay. The writer said she loved the concept, but didn’t feel it was appropriate for the north. I’m sure you know that Cliff May designed houses in 49 states and myriad foreign countries over the course of his career. In fact, in Dan Gregory’s wonderful Rizzoli book on Cliff, there are photos of a snowbound May house in Switzerland!  Also, in the 1958 book, there are great photos of a house in Missouri, with Edward wormley interiors. The text goes into some detail about the radiant heated driveway and atrium that can be used throughout the year.  That’s the wonderful thing about these houses, they are infinitely adaptable.


Cliff was a master for sure,  I’ve been through a number of his original houses in Sullivan Canyon and they are amazing.


Wow Steven, this home plan has it all — even a guest bedroom/office separate from the main house. I think living in your Cliff May inspired home — whatever the square footage may be — would be like a slice of heaven. I agree with you that the ranch style house is the ultimate solution for living — not only in the west — but throughout the country. Ranch style homes are easy to maintain and live in. With their lack of stairs and mostly single floor living, they allow the owners to “age in place” — which when combined with the general love most owners have for them — is why so many ranch houses retain the original owner.

Mega thanks to Steven for sharing the details about his home plan and inspirations with all of us on Retro Renovation. Steven — hopefully you’ll be breaking ground on a 544-1 plan in the near future.

See all our stories about historic mid century house plans available again for sale today.

  1. Amyrosa says:

    I grew up in a modest 1400 square ft Cliff May track home in Long Beach. My parents spoke about how they liked the architecture of their “rancho,” but of course I didn’t really appreciate it until later!

    1. Steven Murph says:

      How wonderful to have grown up in one of Cliff’s houses. The Long Beach tract was successful and it’s too bad that more of them were not developed. Most of the LB houses are being restored for future generations to enjoy. Thank you for the great story.

  2. Scott says:

    Love this plan! It was between this one and 438-1 and, because of lot constraints, went with that one. The ridge Skylight would be amazing….

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