Americans for more than fifty years have come to take for granted the ubiquitous but popular “ranch style” home. Ever present throughout subdivisions and suburban developments across the country, the origins of this simple expression of American culture seem to have been long forgotten. Superficially, this ranch architecture would seem to bear little resemblance to its ancestors. But closer examination of the principals and organization of this common style reveal its origins.
The ranch house can be traced to the architecture of the southwest United States where landowners built haciendas demonstrating classic Spanish architectural traditions. These agricultural compounds (like their eastern counterparts the plantations) developed along a pattern of dwelling that served both the home life and the ranch business.
The Spanish ranch homes or haciendas were well adapted to the climate, the lifestyle and the methods of construction. With certain exceptions (Santa Fe style architecture for example), these compounds employed low pitched gable roofs. Wide overhangs protected mud plastered walls. Tile roof coverings were effective in shedding the rain from sudden storms and were durable in the harsh sun. Thick adobe walls supported the heavy roof structure and lent cool comfort to the interiors. Most importantly, floor plans tended to be “L” shaped or “U”-shaped. Internal courtyards provided a refuge from the harsh climate. The courtyards would usually be lined with covered porticoes or open porches used for both circulation and for repose. The covered areas also created a gentle transition from the contrasting indoor and outdoor environments. These haciendas California and the Southwest were the inspiration for what was to become an American architecture of tremendous popularity.
Perhaps more than any other architect, Cliff May (1909-1989) is known for his creative work in transforming the traditional hacienda into its uniquely American counterpart, the ranch house. May grew up in just such a traditional Spanish style house and it created a lasting impression on him. As a young architect in 1939, he was involved in a development of twenty-four unit subdivision which he designed to recall the charms of “California ranch life.” The homes even included stables and tack rooms. Thus perhaps was born the most widely built type of American housing.
During and after the war years, this country witnessed a swell of demand for economical housing. Architect Cliff May participated in both military and civilian development of tract homes on an ever increasing scale. May adapted the old Hacienda design principals to modern mass production and to modern lifestyle. Floor to ceiling glass connected the outside and the interior. Light frame construction with wood siding replaced adobe and plaster. Open plans replaced small rooms. May’s ranch style homes retained however the essential distillation of the haciendas: the “L”-shaped and “U-shaped floor plans with the courtyards and covered outdoor passages. The result was a product perfectly adapted to production housing; affordable, modern and extremely livable. As a result, May’s invention became the most widely accepted style of American housing.
Genuine Cliff May homes show greater refinement than the many imitations. Architect’s designs included an element of minimalism in detailing. Interior wood paneling (board and batt) was carefully integrated into the door and window trims. May replaced the stout masonry columns of the Spanish porticoes with slender steel supports as had become possible with new materials and methods. He designed large spans of glass which may have even been a nod to Mies Van der Rohe (a German architect of the time who was a pioneer of the glass skyscraper in America).
It is no small irony that what began as an experiment in affordable home design for working families has today become something of a collector’s item. Many developers have made a tidy profit by restoring original May houses and re-selling the dwellings with their valuable pedigree. According to the Wall Street Journal, one home designed by architect Cliff May was advertised for sale by a renowned California wine maker for $25 million.