Home on the California Range: Ranch Housing in Postwar America

Top: Interior of the “Pace-Setter House,” from Sunset Magazine

[Editor’s note: This is the second of ToM’s two part series on vernacular housing. The first, on the Pre-WWII rise of the bungalow can be found here. This article originally ran on December 3, 2013 under the Intersections column for KCET Departures.]

“Machines for living,” declared modern architecture’s most devout practitioners. 1 Indeed, by the 1950s, modernist impulses — favoring functionality — and increasingly popular prefabrication techniques, had transformed the home into a commoditized living space. The accoutrements of mid-century suburbia — new appliances and technologies — came to define the home as much as the structure itself. The bohemian “Arts and Craft” aesthetic that had inspired the “bungalow boom” of the century’s early decades gave way to a simpler form, more easily replicated and produced, that appeared as much a product of regimented taylorization than artisanal creativity: the ranch house.

Though original ranch homes, designed by the likes of San Diego’s Cliff May, incorporated Spanish, Mexican, and naturalistic influences into the form, its mass production in the 1950s removed many of these flourishes, replacing them with cool modernist precision. Unlike the transnational bungalow, the ranch house existed primarily as a North American housing form and architectural style, the most vernacular of vernacular architecture; yet much like the bungalow, Southern California’s embrace of ranch housing led to a national fixation. If Pasadena-Glendale served as “bungalow heaven,” 1950s San Fernando and San Gabriel Valleys represented the “open range of the ranch house.” 2

In California, San Diego served as the fulcrum on which ranch housing catapulted to national attention. In the pre-WWI era, the “sui generis” work of Irving Gill laid the foundation for ranch housing’s mid century dominance. Soon, other Southern California-based architects, such as Richard Neutra and Rudolph Schindler, carried the clean line minimalism of Gill forward, while J.R. Davidson, Gregory Ain, Raphael Soriano, and Craig Ellwood, among others, did the same in the 1930s. 3 Referred to as high modernism, Neutra and the others set the standard for highbrow architecture of elite America, but their work impacted vernacular housing far less.

Simultaneously, as the popularity of the bungalow waned, critics found new, even simpler sources of inspiration. “There was still another type that stood out from the medley of jumbled styles, lack of styles, or mere affectations, and that was the California ranch house,” reflected editor of The American Architect, Henry H. Saylor. Perhaps the first person to coin the term “ranch house,” Saylor celebrated the form’s simplicity and humility. “It borrowed none of the finery of other architectural styles; it sounded no blatant note of self advertisement; it never, so far as I know, laid claim even to a name, and yet there it stands, a vernacular that is as unmistakably a part of its California foot hills as the stone houses of eastern Pennsylvania betoked the great treasure store of mica schist,” waxed Saylor. The editor’s only lament was that too few of the ranch homes existed to impact popular tastes. 4 With this description in mind, it would seem logical that San Diego’s Cliff May, an architect lacking formal training, would provide the simple populist vision that came to dominate suburban landscapes across the nation.

The Father of American Ranch Houses

A sixth generation Californian, and a descendant of the Estudillo and de Pedrorena families of San Diego, Cliff May grew up amid the architecture of Old Town San Diego, where the city’s original Mexican residents settled in the 1800s. Old Town residences, like his family’s Casa de Pedrorena and Casa de Estudillo, influenced May’s designs. His aunt’s lima bean farm on Rancho Santa Margarita y Las Flores in Oceanside provided further influence. May spent many a summer in the Los Flores Adobe, waking up in his aunt’s home needing only peer out his window at the adjacent Santa Margarita. He absorbed the simplicity of Old Town’s original frame houses through Casa de Estudillo, the sparse geometry of Casa De Pedrorena and Los Flores’ U shaped adobes, and the Monterey style and form of Rancho Santa Margarita. May merged these influences into his original ranch house designs of the 1930s. 5

As an untrained architect, May developed a “distaste” for “legitimate architecture’s,” as noted by architectural historian Barbara Allen. Because they failed to be climate responsive, May thought little of Irving Gill’s “boxes,” or those of like-minded architects of the 1920s and 1930s. These homes, May argued, ignored California history and natural terrain. “People built with the materials at hand,” he told interviewers. “The houses and missions were made from earth piled up in big chunks — a native material.” 6 One wonders if May ever considered the irony of this statement, once he developed designs for tract housing that would be built across the U.S., which contributed mightily to the denuding forests in the Midwest and South.

Cliff May’s Lindstrom House in San Diego | mavd.us/Flickr/Creative Commons

Economic depression provided May with his first opportunity. In 1932, May’s future father-in-law, Roy C. Litchty, agreed to provide the land and capital for May to construct his first home, as the depression-era economy had made property sales difficult. With the help of a master carpenter, May designed and built his first home in Talmadge Park, San Diego, while also smartly outfitting the house with his own fusion of Arts and Crafts and Monterey-style artisanal furniture. Colonel Arthur J. O’Leary purchased this home for $9,500. A second home, backed by San Diego grading contractor O.U. Miracle, followed in 1933, and sold for an identical price to Captain William Lindstrom. Soon after in 1934, Architectural Digest took notice, highlighting Lindstrom’s new home in one of its issues. Two years later, Sunset designated May “the Father of California Ranch Houses” and credited his designs with bringing a “careless aristocratic air of the old ranchos” to “the country places of Southern California.” May’s ranch style homes rambled “almost to the point of departure” the magazine marveled, “with lines as natural and satisfying as those of the hills. Their material is as old as the hills — adobe.” 7

Within five years of completing his first house, May had built fifty more homes in the San Diego area, most based on two styles: the Mexican Hacienda, and the Early California Rancheria. The former appealed to fans of the Spanish Colonial Revival style, often with “red tile roofs, coarsely plastered walls, and deeply inset windows and doors with rough hewn wooden lintels and shutter,” observed historian Mary A. van Baloogy in 2004. The crude handcrafted appearance of May’s Mexican Hacienda was purposeful, meant to evoke the adobes of nineteenth century San Diego, notably the Estudillo House. His Early California Rancheria appealed to similar western vernacular impulses, with “their wood shingle roofs and board batten walls,” argues Baloogy.
Homes for Western Living

These early examples differed somewhat from the kind of homes he developed in the 1950s, many of which enabled people of more modest incomes to become homeowners. Just prior to WWII in the late 1930s, May turned his attention toward middle class homeowners, designing ranch houses for as little as $3,500, but the outbreak of international conflict delayed such developments. 8 Many of these later models promoted the vernacular style of the Rancheria through the exterior, while employing International Model concepts for the interior. 9

May was not the only person, or institution for that matter, to build ranch housing. San Francisco architect William W. Wurster designed his own models, for what some label the California or Western Ranch home. Moreover, as pointed out by architectural historian David Bricker, the Farm Security Administration (FSA) promoted the construction of affordable housing across the West and California, sometimes employing the ranch model. For example, architect Joseph Weston designed a group of ranch homes on a slice of subsistence homestead near Los Angeles. Like May’s attention to California’s landscape and ecology, the tract attempted to reflect the character of the former walnut grove in which the new housing was located. 10

With that said, no one popularized the ranch home like May. In 1938, May took his burgeoning success and decamped for Los Angeles. Sunset Magazine, the same periodical that sought to soothe homebuyers’ fears regarding the bungalow’s association with bohemianism, felt no need to provide any such qualifiers for May’s vision. As early as 1944, Sunset featured May in several articles about the ranch house, and in 1946 the magazine published a collaboration issue with May, called “Sunset Western Ranch Houses.” May played a dominant role in 17 of the 43 designs featured in the book. Four printings and 50,000 copies later, the book could be considered a success and May’s national stature rose as a result. As famed California historian Kevin Starr noted, “No single Sunset book before or since has had such a profound effect on the architectural environment of the Far West as it was being so rapidly actualized.”

House Beautiful, another prominent magazine, also celebrated May’s vision. A twenty-six page article in 1946 helped, but in 1948 the magazine actually built one of May’s ranch homes. Titling it the “Pace Setter House,” it devoted an entire issue to the May-inspired home. In the wake of such fawning praise, May secured twenty commissions to build the design all over the nation.


Sunset appreciated May’s craft so much that in 1951 they commissioned him to design their new Menlo Park corporate headquarters. The 30,000 foot “suburban Western home” stood as a physical monument to Sunset‘s admiration for May; daily tours of the building only reinforced May’s place among 1950s architects. Sunset‘s 1958 work, an updated version of the 1946 book, “Western Ranch Houses by Cliff May,” consisted of only May’s creations, an accomplishment, Balgooy notes, experienced by very few architects. 11

When movie stars like Gregory Peck and Olivia de Havilland took up residence in ranch homes, this too raised both public awareness and admiration of the style. 12 Ranch housing, opined historian Thomas Hine, “conjured up powerful dreams of informal living, ideal weather, and movie-star glamour.” Both bungalows and ranches went national, indicative of larger national shifts that resulted in the mainstreaming of western culture. “‘Western-ness’ lost its moorings in a materially based regional identity, and increasingly became something of a free floating signifier of an idealized way of life,” argues Yale historian John Mack Faragher. “Western informal clothing, country and western music, and fast food (often Mexican) — all were part of the ‘westward tilt’ of American culture in the postwar period.” Ranch housing, and bungalows before it, played critical roles in these shifts. 13

While the support of publications like House Beautiful and Sunset no doubt greatly boosted May’s profile, his 1952 collaboration with his associate architect Chris Choate resulted in the design of suburban tract housing within reach of middle class families. In order to sell their designs to California developers, May and Choate formed the Ranch House Supply Corporation, and within a year had sold designs to 30 different builders. In 1954, their business expanded to serve the wider American South and Southwest.

The emergence of the Ranch House Supply Corporation coincided with the construction of May’s Magic Money House by the W & J Sloane Furniture Company. The company constructed, furnished, and landscaped the model house atop its six-story Beverly Hills store location. Housing “for young people with young incomes,” read the promotional literature. 14 15 Within four months of its opening, 35,000 visitors toured the Magic Money House. The success of the first model led not only to W & J Sloane building a second at their San Francisco store, but also the construction of Magic Money Houses in several subdivisions across California — 1,000 of them by the end of 1954. May’s standard suburban tract home was based largely on the Magic Money House’s typical parameters: 831 square feet, with two bedrooms, for approximately $8,000.

Interior of the ”Pace Setter House” built by Home Beautiful Magazine | Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library

The Old California Way

By the mid-1950s, roughly eight out of every ten tract homes constructed were ranch style homes, featuring May as lead designer. “The ranch house was this informal way of living, the old California way,” May told the Oral History Program at UCLA in 1982. Others agreed, though for some the ranch home embodied something more. House Beautiful editors extolled its value as a symbol of “what the average American now has, or can reasonably expect to achieve by his own endeavors under the American democratic system.” 16

Yet such arguments obscured the problematic cultural foundations upon which the ranch home emerged. Spanish colonization, which planted the seed from which the ranch style home would flourish, had imposed a system of harsh inequality for indigenous peoples. Artifacts have meaning, and few artifacts of human existence are imbued with more meaning than housing. In the 18th century, the colonial ranch homes, and the similarly-styled missions, played a central role in the conquest of native American Californians by Spanish forces. Such structures were “certainly not an artifact welcomed or celebrated by all,” notes Barbara Allen. Nonetheless, L.A. real estate boosters embraced the fantasy and deployed the ranch house as a central aspect of the myth, ultimately perpetuating historical erasure. 17

Nor was this kind of mythical west confined to the Spanish fantasy ideal. William Levitt’s famous Levittown tract housing development in Hicksville, Long Island, first deployed the ranch house en masse. Opening in 1947, initially, Levitt only offered Cape Cod-style rental housing. But due to a new sales strategy adopted in the late 1940s, the intrepid developer refashioned his Cape Cod exteriors to resemble the ranch-style housing of the California boom. Cape Cod rentals morphed into ranch-style homes for sale, resulting in the spread of the Levittown suburban model across the nation. 18

Here too, however, the ranch home came to symbolize two different realities. “You talk about dreams, hell we had ours … we were cowboys, out there were pioneers,” one original Levittown homeowner announced. The community might well have been pioneers in a sense, but ones that did so on socially exclusive terms.

If Levittown led to new innovations in building and sales technologies, it did much less for racial or class integration. FHA-enforced financing policies shunned minorities, single mothers, and others who failed to conform to dominant identities of the period. Levittown featured housing covenants that excluded groups based on ethnicity, race, or religion — a practice enacted nearly universally across the nation at the time. 19 Moreover, the ranch home reduced its relationship to shared outdoor spaces; instead it turned inward, hence privileging middle class tenets of privacy and the nuclear family, that some critics allege rested on paternalistic notions of domesticity and gender.

Cliff May’s Ranch house for Mr. and Mrs. George Mee, Peach Tree Ranch, San Lucas, watercolor by Chris Choate | Rare Books and Manuscripts Collection, courtesy of the USC Digital Library

In his lifetime, May built numerous other buildings besides ranch homes. The Robert Mondavi Winery building, the iconic symbol found on bottles of Mondavi wine since the 1960s, was built by May, and remains a testament to his skills. Yet, the tract homes derived from his designs, numbering over 18,000, stand as the most important aspect of May’s architectural legacy.

Moreover, the explosion of bungalows in the first decades of the century, to be followed by similar developments with ranch housing, demonstrates larger shifts in American culture. Both housing forms embodied similar values of functionality, informality, and simplicity; yet the bungalow and ranch home did so in different ways, reflecting America’s own internal cultural and economic changes. The bungalow’s simple, naturalistic appeal aligned with the more rural values of Californian emigrants at the century’s outset. In contrast, the ranch home represented a richer, more confident America, the “‘California dreaming’ of the emerging middle class of the postwar era,” reflects Faragher.

That the ranch home had been based on imperial antecedents, and had been promoted by speculative boosters harnessing the problematic foundation of Spanish fantasy California, while flourishing under the dim leadership of racialized FHA financing and state segregation policies, points to some of the difficult social issues plaguing mid-century America. Then again, perhaps it goes without saying that today the ranch homes of San Fernando Valley and San Gabriel Valley, once off limits to Latinos, Asians, Jews, and Blacks, now house each in vibrant suburban, and yes sometimes not so vibrant, communities that stand as evidence of new cultural shifts besetting American life. Whatever its original source, the housing has remained. “The architectural backwash of California”, to quote Professor Faragher, remains a potent force. It now is up to us to ensure that it embodies the egalitarian ideals of 21st century Southern California and the nation rather than the sources from which it came.

1 Barbara Allen, “The Ranch Style House in America: A Cultural and Environmental Discourse”, Journal of Architectural Education 49.3 (Feb., 1996) pg. 159.
2 John Mack Faragher, “Bungalow and Ranch House: The Architectural Backwash of California”, Western Historical Quarterly, 32.2 (Summer 2001) pg 170.
3 Kevin Starr, California: A History, (New York: The Modern Library, 2007), pg 295.
4 John Mack Faragher, “Bungalow and Ranch House: The Architectural Backwash of California”, Western Historical Quarterly, 32.2 (Summer 2001) pgs. 163-164.
5 Mary A. van Balgooy, “Designer of the Dream: Cliff May and the California Ranch House,” Southern California Quarterly, 86.2 (Summer 2004), pgs. 127-129.
6 Barbara Allen, “The Ranch Style House in America: A Cultural and Environmental Discourse”, pg. 160.
7 Mary A. van Balgooy, “Designer of the Dream: Cliff May and the California Ranch House,” pgs. 129-132.
8 Ibid.
9 Mary A. van Balgooy, “Designer of the Dream: Cliff May and the California Ranch House,” pg. 137.
10 David Bricker, “Ranches Houses are not all the Same”, http://www.cr.nps.gov/NR/publications/bulletins/suburbs/Bricker.pdf accessed November 22, 2013.
11 Mary A. van Balgooy, “Designer of the Dream: Cliff May and the California Ranch House,” pgs. 134-135.
12 Mary A. van Balgooy, “Designer of the Dream: Cliff May and the California Ranch House,” pg 136.
13 John Mack Faragher, “Bungalow and Ranch House: The Architectural Backwash of California”, pg. 172.
14 Mary A. van Balgooy, “Designer of the Dream: Cliff May and the California Ranch House,” pg 138.
15 David Bricker, “Ranches Houses are not all the Same” accessed November 22, 2013.
16 Ibid., pg 172.
17 Barbara Allen, “The Ranch Style House in America: A Cultural and Environmental Discourse”, pg. 161-162
18 Ibid.
19 Ibid.