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Behind The Walls of The Cliff May Ranchos

Nestled near Spring St. and Studebaker Rd. are the Cliff May ranchos. These homes, at first glance, don’t have a larger than life appearance. Cliff May, an architect, was known for pioneering the modern California rancho home for Californians post World War II. Most of May’s homes, which lack a traditional front door, are enclosed by a gate. Cliff May ranchos were unlike the conventional homes popping up in suburbs because of their focus on bringing the outdoors in. May’s homes incorporate an abundance of glass doors, windows, and patios that allow families to enjoy the Southern California sunshine.

Cliff May’s modern ranch house designs were inspired by his own upbringing on a ranch in San Diego in the early 1900s. He was born in 1908 to a family with a long lineage of original Californians. May’s mother, Beatrice Magee, belonged to the Estudillo and de Pedrorena families, who had strong ties to California dating back before the Mexican American war. The original Spanish ranches were “L” and “U” shaped, similar to the modern ranchos Cliff May designed. He also incorporated the Spaniard’s style of seamless transitions from indoor to outdoor living.

Among all the rancho home tracts he designed, the Lakewood Rancho Estates in Long Beach are considered the most well-known! The Lakewood Rancho Estates were originally supposed to be a part of the city of Lakewood, however, that changed when a part of Lakewood was annexed to Long Beach.

The Cliff May ranchos in Long Beach consisted of 700 homes and were finished in 1953 and 1954. Now, over a half a century later they’re still cherished for the indoor-outdoor living May envisioned! For the many people that moved to the rancho neighborhood like Lori McBride and Alan Shepherd, the focus on simpler more open living was love at first sight.

“I loved just the feeling of it was indoor-outdoor. When all of our doors and windows are open I feel like it’s letting the outdoors in. I love that. I’m a real outdoor person,” Lori said.

When Lori McBride and her husband John McBride were looking to transition from an apartment in downtown Long Beach to a house for their growing family, they came across the ranchos. Immediately, Lori knew she wanted to live in a rancho after she saw one for the first time. In 1991, they moved into their home on one of the only streets in the neighborhood lined with tall pine trees.

“I love it because it reminds me of when I lived in a small town in Pennsylvania,” Lori McBride said.

Some people have described the rancho homes as “glamping” because of their unique qualities. While most homes have insulation and attics, the ranchos’ slanted roofs bear little insulation with no attics acting as a buffer. The original Spanish ranches had low hanging roofs to protect the homes from rain and lessen the heat. The homes also encompass a large number of glass windows and doors that allow for families to enjoy their private yards but can make others feel exposed. Cliff May wanted people to enjoy informal outdoor living by having a direct line of sight to the patios.

“You need have no fear of living in a fishbowl if all the glass areas face your own private garden,” Cliff May said.

Many homes still have the original glass from the fifties, however, because of its thin quality not all of the glass has lasted. Not because of earthquakes as one might think. One of Lori’s lower windows was knocked out by her dog when he was chasing a squirrel and barreled right through one gashing his leg!

Also during a period of time, the original glass from the ranchos was tossed out as home trends came and went. Today, Cliff May homeowners are doing their best to save the original characteristics of the ranchos.

Even the community of people that fell in love with the indoor-outdoor living component, without knowing it’s a famous designer, are realizing their responsibility in preserving the history behind these homes.

Alan Shepherd, another rancho homeowner, moved to Long Beach two years ago. He appreciated the openness the rancho design offers, and without even realizing necessarily it was a Cliff May home, was sold on living in one.

“I don’t know what I want, but I want this,” Alan describes as his thought process when looking at his home for the first time.

After realizing his home’s history, Alan decided to preserve many original features while renovating. For example, he saved the original Cliff May doors in the living room and used them for the garage, which he converted into another living space.

Just as Cliff May hoped for, the people that move into the ranchos are making each design, out of only several original floor plans, all their own.

Long Beach is filled with beautiful architecture that makes people take a second glance. Before people could have known Cliff May’s designs were going to be mid-century modern classics and an early representation of the environmental design, they found what they were looking for by a feeling. As generations come and go in these Cliff May Ranchos, one thing remains stagnant among the people who were moved by their design. The love for sunny weather and an appreciation for a home that showcases how amazing it is to live in Southern California.


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