Cliff May homes are the licorice of real estate. People who like them, really, really like them, while people who hate them are just as enthusiastic about disliking them.
However you feel about the Cliff May Ranchos, they are undoubtedly cool (especially in the winter, one might argue) and unmistakingly fully emblematic of California casual.
Thanks to a design that uses more glass than wood and plaster, the outdoors invades every room in the house to the point where you don’t know if you’re indoors or outdoors.
The tract of mid-century modern homes was constructed in East Long Beach by Ross Cortese, who bought May’s designs and built the tract in East Long Beach in four phases, the first two in 1953 and the second half in 1954 and, at a cost of about $12,000 a copy, they went quickly.
For decades the homes were somewhat of an architectural novelty, but by the 2000s, the mid-century look exploded in popularity, riding a sort of “Mad Men”/Rat Pack nostalgia wave.
Realtor Doug Kramer, who is a local Ranchos expert, was already living in a Cliff May Rancho-style home when it dawned on him that he and his wife Rochelle were living in an architecturally significant neighborhood.
“A few years ago, we took a sabbatical of sorts to Palm Springs and recognized how important May’s work was,” he said. “Palm Springs is the epicenter of mid-century, so we got into it, researched it and built a couple of websites. Then the New York Times did an article on our RanchoStyle.com site, which showcases Cliff May homes, and pretty soon people were coming to us from all over the world.”
Cliff May is famous for developing the post-war Rancho style of homes that were emblematic of the California “good life,” with emphasis on patio living and an architectural philosophy that gives the homes an open feeling, making equal use of the outdoors and the homes’ interiors.
If you dream of the Sinatra and Dino hanging out at your pad for a barbecue and cocktails, the Cliff May Rancho is your dream home.
“They were marketed as casual Californian,” said Doug. “They were aimed at post-war couples starting to build their nest.”
Today, riding the Cliff May style renaissance wave, they’re becoming the hottest thing in Long Beach real estate and the once-entry-level houses are close to hitting the $1 million mark. The Kramers have sold five for more than $900,000.
“They’re being bought by young professionals, creative types, a lot of artists, a lot of musicians,” said Doug.
Long Beach likely has the largest inventory of Cliff May homes in the country with 700 in the collection between Studebaker Road and the San Gabriel River from Wardlow Road to Spring Street.
It’s not a historic district, but Doug said that recent zoning restrictions have banned second-story additions and demolition of existing homes.
And there’s a certain unofficial aversion to monkeying around with the Cliff Mays among neighbors.
“Removing glass is frowned upon,” said Doug. “If anything, you add glass. And a lot of the homes came with beautiful birch wood paneling, and for some reason some owners in the past have painted over that. A lot of new owners are having those restored to the natural wood.”
There is more that’s incumbent on owners of the Ranchos.
“Furniture is integral to the homes,” said Doug. His and Rochelle’s home is fully furnished with mid-century originals and reproductions, much of it acquired from the Xcape shop on Retro Row, which specializes in mid-century originals and reproductions. A well-equipped Rancho will be filled with Danish furniture from Frank Brothers, and an array of Eames and Platner chairs, teak credenzas, Milo Baughman sofas and various floor vases and decanters.
Because of the role the homes’ exterior plays in the overall vibe of the Ranchos, landscaping is just as crucial as interior decorating, said Doug.
“Some go with a desert-modern look, with drought-resistant plants, a Palm Springs look,” he said. “Some go tropical, with birds of paradise and palms.”
Swimming pools are optional, but add considerably to the patio lifestyle of the Ranchos. Though May didn’t include pools as part of his home design, Kramer estimates that about 25 percent of the homeowners in the Rancho tract have added pools to their homes.
And, Doug added, “A T-Bird in the driveway doesn’t hurt, either.”
Tim Grobaty is a columnist and the Opinions Editor for the Long Beach Post. You can reach him at 562-714-2116, email [email protected], @grobaty on Twitter and Grobaty on Facebook.
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