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Eichler, Cliff May and the invention of the California Ranch Style home
July 4, 2014 8:21 PM   Subscribe

The post-war boom gave rise to new concepts of modernity in domestic architecture and, of course, massive suburban development. One such concept was the California ranch-style home, pioneered by Cliff May (1909-1989). Another contemporary architect, Joseph Eichler (1900-1974), had his own vision of modernity in America's new suburbs, but both styles used similar language. At the time, these new designs for living were seen as modern and at the cutting edge of sophistication, but sophistication within reach of the average professional, middle-class family. They were designed to have a practical as well as an aesthetic value. Welcome to mid-century modern.

What is "mid-century modern"? Hard to pin down, but here's one working definition:
"Mid-century modern (or MCM, as it’s often called by pretentious folks like ourselves), is all about straight lines, simple design, open spaces (sometimes), and a good less-is-more mentality."
The time period is roughly from 1933 to 1965. California was a primary focus for developers of modern suburban architecture that featured indoor-outdoor connectivity.

One example of an Eichler development is The Rancho San Miguel neighborhood of Walnut Creek, California. The Rancho San Miguel Association website paints the development stage:
"Imagine that it is mid-November 1954. You enter a well-lighted room in Walnut Creek’s old City Hall. You watch and listen as snappily dressed 5’9,” 160 lb. Joseph Eichler puts down his chewed cigar onto a green glass ashtray. He adjusts his dark rimmed thick lens glasses and rises to help two associates lay out their architect’s map showing 563 housing lots on 176 acres adjacent to Ygnacio Valley Road, across from the old Heather Farms Race Track. Eichler has named the tract Rancho San Miguel. The City’s men seem pleased. This, after all, would be the largest tract yet to be developed in Walnut Creek; and Eichler is one of the most respected developers in the West if not the nation. The dapper, ambitious Eichler proposes that his unique and affordable housing will enhance the city’s reputation for luxury living at affordable cost, that it will meet both the city’s and buyers’ desire for comfort and style in a safe suburban neighborhood. The move away from big cities is bringing thousands of new residents: Walnut Creek should be ready."
More can be read about Rancho San Miguel here, as well as at the housing association's website.

Moving to another neighborhood, feast your eyes on Orange Eichlers and Orange Eichlers2, located in the City of Orange.

There are more than 700 Eichler homes in the San Mateo Highlands, built from 1955 to 1965.

Not all Eichlers are the same.

Of course there's a Facebook page, Pininterest pages, and the California-focused Eichler Network on Twitter.

Eichler Homes are so in demand in California that one real estate agent discusses the problem of supply and demand, and comes up with a solution that is "Eichler-approved". The solution? Surprise, more Eichlers. See "People in Glass Houses: The Legacy of Joseph Eichler", which explains the fundamental construction differences between a regular house and an Eichler house, and interviews some folks living in these homes.

The distinction of "the father of California Ranch home" goes to Cliff May (1909-89), a San Diego college dropout, who designed homes in San Diego and Los Angeles based on the original California horse and cattle ranch homes; these ranch homes had which fewer barriers to the outdoors, and often courtyards. More books, periodicals, and blog posts are listed at the Rancho Style Cliff May Library.

Of course there's a Cliff May Pininterest page (one of many), and blogs posts. Here's a beautiful summary from the blog, Mid-Centuria:
"What I find most remarkable about [Cliff] May is he never studied architecture in school and was not a registered architect his entire career. He designed and built his first home when he was just 23 after dropping out of San Diego State University where he was studying business and accounting. During his career, May designed over 1,000 custom homes and more than 18,000 tract homes were built following his house models.

"Cliff May's homes embraced the outdoors and Southern California's temperate climate by creating living spaces that blurred the line between indoors and out. His design philosophy was to build out, not up and to create a living environment that was in harmony with the homeowner's California lifestyle. To accomplish this, he often integrated exposed beam ceilings, open floor plans and floor to ceiling windows which made the interior feel unconfined, livable and airy — as if you were actually outdoors."
Another admirer notes that Cliff May was doing large-scale prefabrication 60 years before the green movement made it fashionable, and discusses Mays' other inventions.

The Cliff May Experimental House, built in the 1950s for his own family, was a "...one-story, 1800-sf house is a simple rectangle in plan with a 288-square foot open skylight in the center. May's family of five created different rooms by using movable partitions." May used the family's lived experience from this house to build his next, and last, personal residence, "Mandalay." More about Mandalay, including floorplan and photos, here.

American entertainment reflects this movement in design — you can see the California ranch-style and "mid-century chic" influences in Davey and Goliath (1960's stop-motion animated children's Christian TV series), The Brady Bunch (TV series, 1969–1974), A Single Man (2009 film), and Her (2013 film), to name three disparate examples.

The decline of the Ranch-style home began in late 1960s, partly due to changes in taste, and partly because:
"Builders of ranch houses also began to simplify and cheapen construction of the homes to cut costs, eventually reducing the style down to a very bland and uninteresting house, with little of the charm and drama of the early versions. By the late 1970s, the ranch house was no longer the home of choice, and had been eclipsed by the neo-eclectic styles of the late 20th century."
However, the story doesn't end there. There's been a recent revival.

Previously
posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome (29 comments total) 96 users marked this as a favorite

 
I love a well-researched, comprehensive post.
posted by wormwood23 at 8:42 PM on July 4 [3 favorites]


These are nice! Great view of the lawn! Flow, mighty Colorado!

So, no, not really appropriate for California.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 8:55 PM on July 4


Wow, fantastic post! Thank you. My partner grew up in an Eichler, and having been to that house many times I have an enormous fascination with them....

At the same time, though, I sorta hate their mid-c suburban "private" aesthetic. There are no clear front-facing windows on any of the various Eichler styles in that development; all the glass walls point into private atria or fenced back yards, as if to reject the idea of community life. Having grown up in places with porches and stoops and sunrooms that bridged the private space of the house to the public life of the street, I find myself feeling very trapped and claustrophobic in the Eichler, despite the attempt to bring the outside in through the sliding glass walls.

The fascination remains, however. Thanks for such a well-researched post! Can't wait to dig in.
posted by Westringia F. at 8:56 PM on July 4 [2 favorites]


Dynamite post! We have some nice mid-century examples here in Humboldt County as detailed on Eureka Modern. Love these homes so much.
posted by porn in the woods at 9:38 PM on July 4 [1 favorite]


Modern San Diego is another great resource for stuff, if you sort of know what you're looking for. The Cliff May page is sort of lean on pictures, but my favorite SD MCM guy, Henry Hester, has quite a few images (although what he does isn't generally the same thing as Eichlers).
posted by LionIndex at 9:38 PM on July 4 [1 favorite]


Another contemporary architect, Joseph Eichler (1900-1974), had his own vision of modernity in America's new suburbs

Eichler was a builder, not an architect. But it was his vision.
posted by Ironmouth at 10:07 PM on July 4


holy crap thank you.
i'm not even ankle deep into this post and it already touches on so many things love.
posted by Conrad-Casserole at 10:36 PM on July 4 [1 favorite]


I did a bunch of my growing up in a sort ranch style variant built in 1969-70. A little late for the zeitgeist but this was Vancouver, which was much further from the rest of the world in those days. We didn't even have electricity until 1966*. Our house was pretty much a straight up bungalow, not a single non-rectangle room in it, but the surrounding neighborhood was loaded with cool options very similar to a lot of the best stuff here. Thanks for the post.





* this is bullshit.
posted by philip-random at 10:47 PM on July 4


but the surrounding neighborhood

wow. it's way nicer than I remember. What happened to all barbwire?
posted by philip-random at 10:56 PM on July 4


Oh my! Thanks!

I'll dig up my photographs of a friend's Eichler house in San Raphael and share...
posted by infini at 1:56 AM on July 5 [1 favorite]


You can watch the entire documentary People in Glass Houses: The Legacy of Joseph Eichler here (about 47 minutes).
posted by amf at 3:28 AM on July 5 [1 favorite]


I grew up in these 60s-70s era homes. In the early 80s in my small town, there were a very few new homes built by aspirational middle-class and (newly) upper class in the style that would eventually become the suburban McMansion but, even then, those houses seemed to me to be unpleasantly ostentatious and just sort of unnatural.

Not growing up or (mostly) living in a) a highly urban area or b) the NE or MW with older homes, the majority of homes I've been around have either been those mid-century ranch-style homes or McMansions. I vividly recall watching in horror as McMansions in gated developments sprung up in Albuquerque in the 80s; to me, those houses represent the empty soul of contemporary American suburban life.

So what happens to me these days is that when I'm in the suburbs I'm either feeling deeply alienated and mildly disgusted (McMansions), or quite welcome and comfortable (ranch-style). It doesn't help that the McMansion suburbs usually have so little foliage and the mid-century neighborhoods have grown into more natural greenery.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 4:41 AM on July 5 [2 favorites]


I lived in an original Cliff May for over a decade. Lovely, yes. Built to last, no. If you think it's 'cool' that Cliff May was a college drop-out who didn't study architecture, then pause for a moment to think how that might affect the houses one designs and builds. Things like site prep, foundations, roofs, drainage -- all of these were common disasters in my iconic Cliff May neighborhood and required extensive, expensive work to fix. Some houses just weren't salvageable, yet the new owners got raked over the coals by preservation people for 'destroying' the original house.

But the basic ideas -- the low-slung roof, the floor-to-ceiling windows, the exposed beams, the open-plan single-story living, the integrated landscaping and horse facilities -- are a perfect template for how to live in a house.
posted by grounded at 4:43 AM on July 5 [2 favorites]


My last house was mid century modern, and it was incredibly livable and energy efficient. I miss it and hope to eventually have another modern-esque house in the future. It was also super cheap to work on because the construction was solid without being fussy at all -- one level, zero ornamentation, and easily accessed utilities -- making diy almost always a viable option.

There are no clear front-facing windows on any of the various Eichler styles in that development; all the glass walls point into private atria or fenced back yards, as if to reject the idea of community life.

As you note there are pluses and minuses; one of the things I most miss about living in a MCM house was the careful attention to sight lines and privacy. I'm now living in a much older house that is more disconnected from the outdoors, and yet simultaneously much more exposed because of how no one gave any thought to how the windows and interior walls line up. I think with good architectural choices you should be able to have both the friendly front porch and permeability of good vernacular architecture and the small-lot privacy of good MCM design.
posted by Dip Flash at 5:55 AM on July 5 [2 favorites]


If you think it's 'cool' that Cliff May was a college drop-out who didn't study architecture, then pause for a moment to think how that might affect the houses one designs and builds. Things like site prep, foundations, roofs, drainage -- all of these were common disasters in my iconic Cliff May neighborhood and required extensive, expensive work to fix

Lackluster schooling is also kind of part of the origin story of Frank Lloyd Wright, so it's a certain kind of myth they're propagating with that. Also, you don't really learn much about that stuff in school.
posted by LionIndex at 6:20 AM on July 5 [1 favorite]


Seriously, I can't wait to dig in. Thanks so much!
posted by allthinky at 6:32 AM on July 5


auugggh, each link I click is the wikipedia, I keep hoping for glossy pictures and a long article in an architectural magazine.. *click, click, click*
posted by dabitch at 6:37 AM on July 5


Oh noes, even worse now I found a realtors search for these homes for sale, I'm never going to click out of this rabbit hole, am I?
posted by dabitch at 6:51 AM on July 5


I grew up in an Eichler. They had hot water heating piped through a cement floor. I remember waking up in the morning, stepping down to a hot floor-very nice. The cats loved it. But...it isn't a good house to learn to walk in. I probably lost many brain cells falling on that hard floor.
posted by eye of newt at 7:15 AM on July 5 [1 favorite]


If you think it's 'cool' that Cliff May was a college drop-out who didn't study architecture, then pause for a moment to think how that might affect the houses one designs and builds. Things like site prep, foundations, roofs, drainage -- all of these were common disasters in my iconic Cliff May neighborhood and required extensive, expensive work to fix

May was an architect. Those things are the builder's responsibility. So his lack of a college education had nothing to do with it. Not that they teach that stuff in college anyway.
posted by Ironmouth at 7:15 AM on July 5


May was an architect.

Only in that he designed houses. He did not have an education or qualifications in architecture. IIRC, he called himself a 'builder' and 'designer'. You can read more about his beginnings here.

Again, I completely renovated a Cliff May original and am quite familiar with the histories and construction of about two dozen of his houses, some of which were still occupied by their original owners (who in turn, had known May as their neighbor). Some of May's ideas were sound and even good; others resulted in serious damage over time. Would someone with a basic education in architecture or engineering or construction have made these same choices? Who knows, but I'd like to think that someone with even a basic education would have learned a little more about load-bearing walls and proper ratios for support beams.
posted by grounded at 9:42 AM on July 5 [1 favorite]


Awesomeness GALORE. So, so happy at the growing love for MCM! Great post!
posted by yoga at 11:51 AM on July 5


Also, to add to the rabbit holery, there are 3 main geographic concentrations of MCMs in the US, in order by overall number of MCMs:

1. L.A.
2. Chicago
3. Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill.
posted by yoga at 12:02 PM on July 5 [2 favorites]


Found my gushy Eichler post from 9 years ago, photos need updating...
posted by infini at 12:19 PM on July 5


> As you note there are pluses and minuses; one of the things I most miss about living in a MCM house was the careful attention to sight lines and privacy. .... I think with good architectural choices you should be able to have both the friendly front porch and permeability of good vernacular architecture and the small-lot privacy of good MCM design.

Oh, I definitely agree it's possible! I just don't feel that the Eichlers actually exhibited careful attention to sight lines and privacy, but rather erred on the too-private side just as your current old home errs on the too-public side. In A Pattern Language [amazon], architect Christopher Alexander discusses building an Intimacy Gradient (#127) from the most public to the most private parts of the home, and about the interface between the house & street (Private Terrace on the Street, #140), writing,
The relationship of a house to a street is often confused: either the house opens entirely to the street and there is no privacy; or the house turns its back on the street, and communion with street life is lost. [Alexander &al, 1977. A Pattern Language, p.665]
Pattern 140 then goes on to describe the design of porches that are raised above street-level and surrounded by low walls that afford a sightline for someone on the porch to see the street, yet block someone on the street from seeing into the house -- an example of careful attention to sight-lines that is possible to achieve in any style. F.L.Wright did this masterfully, in everything from his Prairie style homes to his extremely modern Marin Civic Center (which is surrounded by Eichler developments!). The Eichlers themselves don't, however; they just aggressively block the sight line altogether.

More generally with regard to MCM homes, I feel that their extreme privacy is very much a product of the values of that era. For the first time in history, ownership of private transportation was possible by the middle classes, which meant that home life, work life, and community life could all be divorced; you could get in your pod and be whisked from home to office to shop without having to be part of public life. There's something very individualist & isolationist about the design of that period (not only the Eichler homes, but the urban planning of branching streets & cul-de-sacs rather than radial & ring roads, &c) that to me feels very anti-populist, and I don't think it's entirely divorceable from the anti-socialist political leanings of the time. I think part of the reason I dislike it (besides the feeling of being confined in a walled garden) is the sense that the architecture communicates an attitude toward community life that is at odds with my own.
posted by Westringia F. at 2:32 PM on July 5 [1 favorite]


> I grew up in an Eichler. They had hot water heating piped through a cement floor. I remember waking up in the morning, stepping down to a hot floor-very nice.

OMG, yes, THIS. We tend to visit my partner's parents in winter, and this is seriously the best thing ever. Of course, if it springs a leak you have to jackhammer up the floor, but the radiant heat is sooo nice.
posted by Westringia F. at 2:49 PM on July 5 [1 favorite]


May was an architect. Those things are the builder's responsibility.

Not necessarily. Out of that list, drainage and leaks and stuff (within the building envelope) probably fall most within the architect's purview (although I did work for a firm that did not do any waterproofing details), but the architect does play a hand in all those things even if the primary responsibility falls to other consultants or ultimately to the builder. You can certainly fault May (or Wright, also notorious for leaky buildings) for functional flaws in his designs - there's only so much you can do to waterproof things that are poorly designed for waterproofing. It's just that earning a degree wouldn't necessarily give May the tools to avoid those problems.
posted by LionIndex at 12:05 PM on July 7


Thanks yoga for that modernist home search. It's been six days in this rabbit hole. Look! the modernist homes of North Carolina.
posted by dabitch at 9:50 AM on July 11


....... Jump to 1970 - The Mark Bernstein House on this link, it has been vacant too long, lets save it!
posted by dabitch at 9:56 AM on July 11


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