With this 1968 Bell Canyon model home and its master-planned recreational surroundings, Cliff May took the suburban ranch to the next level—and further defined Western living.
by Andrea Hunter Dietz
Sheltered beneath ancient oaks, the low, white ranch house with the concrete tile roof does not broadcast its architectural import. Yet this unpretentious residence, set well back from the road in a guard-gated community on the edge of the San Fernando Valley, is an essential key to the Western architectural landscape. With its use of textured masonry, rustic board, and discreetly placed apertures, it may look at first like an everyday suburban house. But it is familiar precisely because it is an originator of the now ubiquitous ranch typology. A signature Cliff May—built as the model home for the Bell Canyon development in 1968—the five-bedroom residence is a progenitor of the suburban aesthetic and offspring of a midcentury design competition that would influence American taste for decades to come. It is also part of a community that incorporates Cliff May’s idealized vision of modern Western living—including 35 miles of bridle paths that give easy access to nature, tennis courts, private playgrounds within a creekside park and a community center with a fully-equipped gymnasium. The community even stages chili cook-offs and has been known to import snow for childrens’ play during the winter holidays. Such amenities and practices make it a portal into the populist Utopia of the recent past.
The Bell Canyon model home was built in the latter phase of Cliff May’s career, towards the bottom of the post-war housing boom in the San Fernando Valley. It was part of an agreement between Cliff May Associates and R. A. Watt Company, a real estate development organization, to design the basic infrastructure for a 1,700-acre community with 800 properties and mini-ranches along the Bell Creek headwaters of the Los Angeles River. The land had been purchased the year before by Boise Cascade Company and the Spruce Land Corporation to subdivide and sell as parcels. Donald MacAdam, the Division Manager of Lot Sales with R. A. Watt hired May, a friend, to imprint a master-planned recreational community with his Western signature.
True to the tenets of the times, the Bell Canyon home was designed to show off the potential for the individual experience in the modern West and was devised as the gateway to a new, immersive world. Along with the community center and equestrian facility, May provided enough elements to suggest a rustic lifestyle and the leisurely ambience that would attract mainstream buyers.
With its sweeping arched-bar entrance and prominent mission-like tower, the equestrian facility, a 120-stall barn surrounded by paddocks and riding rings, is a clear reference to the Robert Mondavi Winery—a grand yet wistful compound in northern California that May had finished in 1966. The community center, a courtyard round-up of assembly spaces, echoes May’s iconic Sunset magazine headquarters or “Laboratory for Western Living” that he completed in Menlo Park, California, that same year. The overall community organization of loose lots and winding lanes, reiterates the strolling strategy for land use that May had been perfecting since his early subdivision success with the Riviera Ranch community in L.A.’s Brentwood neighborhood in 1940. The concept relies on May’s driving strategy for design—meandering streets, picturesque view corridors and architecture that frames and captures the natural surroundings.
With the Bell Canyon model home, May rolled out the design strategies intrinsic to his ranch canon. Sharing much in common with his previous work, its main formal concept is that of the characteristic splayed U—with an extra appendage that turns the overall aerial view of the house into a disjointed F. The distinguishing wing, separated from the primary living arms by a breezeway, ties the house to the horse-oriented village of which it is part by a three-car garage and two-stall stables that link up with the neighborhood roadway and bridle trails. The other branches of the house are functionally divided into lines of utility (kitchen, dining, and service), gathering (living), and retreat (bedrooms). The sequence of these rooms rambles across the property landscape, stepping subtly up and down in sync with the ground plane and activity zones of the house. Its intimate interiors are arranged to spill casually into the courtyard patio and pool. Deep overhangs and May’s signature roof ridgeline apertures next to the beams create a play of shade and light, an extensive balance of inside and out.
The Bell Canyon model home and surrounding community are the winning vestiges of a postwar ideological campaign. The mass housing shortage that plagued the United States after World War II inspired a tussle for the direction of American residential form and style in the modern era. This battle, waged largely on the pages of journals and magazines, leveled competing visions for the new private home. Arts & Architecture ran the Case Study House Program from 1945 to 1966, during which editor-publisher John Entenza promoted 36 architect-designed living experiments that aspired to reflect the times in their material expression and social-spatial organization. The Case Study House Program, however, while paradigmatic in architecture culture and 20th-century design history, had limited lasting impact on the popular psyche.
The more notable influence on the at-large residential dream came from two mainstream lifestyle publications: House Beautiful’s Pace Setter House Program and Sunset magazine’s focus on the “Western Ranch Houses.” In 1946, Elizabeth Gordon, House Beautiful’s editor, announced the Pace Setter House program as the embodiment of American democratic achievement and a contrast to the Case Study House program—which she considered to be elitist. The less polemic Sunset magazine’s “Western Ranch Houses” followed suit shortly thereafter with a book compilation of model homes that it enthusiastically presented to the nation as the new vernacular. Both magazines claimed their primary exemplar in Cliff May.
Cliff May was everything the home-style advocates wanted in a champion. Responding to America’s newly minted global leadership status, House Beautiful and Sunset magazine found in the San Diego-born designer/builder a unique voice of the American West. He was an ahead-of-his-time personality—collaborative, entrepreneurial, resourceful. He was a dogged polymath and restless self-starter who took up architecture and development without formal training and with a distaste for the boxes of “legitimate architecture” that he once called “ignorant of tradition and terrain.” A sixth-generation Californian whose family roots dated back to the Spanish claim of San Diego, May had cowboy credentials as well. Having grown up with a full-access pass to the spoils of the frontier and an appreciation of its characters and environment, he had the authority to entice the masses with his casual, carefree concept of the New West.
As a young man, May was nurtured by the haciendas, rancherías, and landscapes that emblematized regional origins. This formative background cultivated his sensibilities for distilling the qualities of Southern California living. It gave him perspective on the area’s population growth and fed the career that he made of modeling ambitions and ideals for the new recruits. May established himself as the source of guidance to the Western transplant and, in turn, to a world of emulators.
By the time May was put up against the case study houses as the bearer of the authentic image for American living, the 38-year-old designer was already a prolific contributor to the trajectory of local building patterns. In 1936, Sunset magazine had declared May the “Father of California Ranch Houses” while still only years into the business. He had gotten his improbable start by dropping out of business school and launching a “Monterey” line of furniture just as the Great Depression hit. With the odds-defying support of his father-in-law, family friends and a growing network of personal connections, furniture led to housing and housing led to development. After just five years, he had built more than 50 homes. At the urging of John A. Smith, client-turned-business partner/patron, May relocated in 1937 to Los Angeles, where he capitalized on the tools and momentum at the seat of the culture industry and steadily established a record of both custom and speculative building that would prepare him for his post-war prominence.
Through the attention of the House Beautiful and Sunset housing crusade, May broke out of the regional corral and landed as a fixture on coffee tables across the country. The message that accompanied these features—that heritage and contemporary convenience, dignity and informality, individualism and belonging could all coexist in one package—struck a chord with a nation seeking post-war romance and optimism. That the emergence of the American West was already underway—in music, movies, dime novels, fashion, and children’s games—meant that the average imagination associated the ranch house with freedom and heroism. The two publications tapped this zeitgeist.
House Beautiful shared its residential formula in a room-by-room assessment of the original Pace Setter, a May-designed construction, this way: “Seldom is there a house so well thought out and so soundly executed that House Beautiful feels enthusiastic enough to sponsor, decorate, and exhibit it. But here is just such a house. It embodies basic principles which epitomize the best thinking of our times. These principles, if scaled down in size or slightly adapted in plan or specification, can apply to all pocketbooks, all climates. Study how it can better your living. Above all, try to visualize the social values that such a house represents. For houses and people are inseparable.”
With this pledge of allegiance to May, House Beautiful set the new ethic for American housing. Homes should be comfortable, more than impressive. Their details and performance—from fixtures to organization—should reinforce the values of family, cleanliness, and ritual. Cheer, in the form of color, light, and pattern, is the essential décor. And, under the heading of “The Advantages of Turning Your Back on the World,” House Beautiful posited the Pace Setter as a marvel in reconciling the conflicts of openness and exposure (both to the elements and as a privacy concern) with internal courtyard fluidity and outward-facing boundaries.
Sunset magazine’s “Western Ranch Houses,” on the other hand, presented a six-point ranch-house philosophy, a.k.a. “Western solutions to Western problems,” through which it sought to address livability over image and form. It itemized the amenities of the ranch, declaring that it be fitted to the site, show a blank façade to the public, be built of natural materials, offer compartmentalized activity zones in which the patio is key. It demonstrated the flexibility of these ideas through photographs and text tours of 17 Cliff May homes and in a portfolio of nine adaptable plans. By disclosing May’s alphabet technique of reorienting the one-room-wide rambling wings of his designs into A’s, S’s, U’s, V’s, Y’s, and Z’s according to the conditions of site, it liberated would-be occupants to adapt and tailor the standardized to their personal needs.
The magazine movement marked the galvanizing moment of Cliff May’s career. The vast majority of the 1,000 buildings for which he was lead designer and the 18,000 that were developed from his licensed designs, trace their story to the manifesto spreads of those pages. And the notoriety that it bestowed on May propelled him, in 1952, into the Cliff May Homes / Ranch House Sales venture with associate architect Chris Choate. This combination development-brokerage endeavor was wildly prosperous, dominating the housing scene across the American South and Southwest for years.
Though the Bell Canyon project came to be in the waning years of the ranch house boom and was not a portfolio or publicity job, it nonetheless reflects May’s unstinting efforts. His plans and renderings carry the careful lines of a storyteller with a fantasy to share. The project management notes that document the progress of the development are filled with brainstorming scribbles that trace his evolving concepts and details. The correspondence archive is a log of diligence, friendly professionalism and respectful reprimand—especially when May’s rusticated fixture and material specifications were substituted with contemporary standards—e.g., “[Cliff May Associates] should be advised before masonry work, plastering, and painting commence in order to control the effect. After all, [R. A. Watt Company has] made a considerable investment in order to have Cliff May buildings representative of [this] beautifully located development and it is our objective that they also represent the best that Cliff May buildings can express.”
May extended these considerable wrangling talents to impel the draw to, and anchor the tenor of, the “Woodland Hills Country Estates.” It worked. The R. A. Watt Company sold nearly all of their 800 lots in 10 days. Shortly thereafter, the newly formed neighborhood association renamed the community Bell Canyon after one of the site’s early homesteaders. And, even though, in the absence of a founding covenant, some of the sensitivities to May’s master plan fell by the wayside, his touch remains evident. Current-day Bell Canyon is an inhabitable legacy; it is a guide to the hopes, dreams, and rationales of 20th-century America. In a phenomenon of dislocation, it is a stepping away from the surrounding megalopolis and into a pastoral otherworld. In this land, doors are unlocked; the sounds from the street are those of the rhythmic pacing of the passing horse and rider; neighbors actually gather for, of all things, pie-eating contests. A material and operational didactic, Bell Canyon is the constructed history of how to live in the West.
It is also something more. Bell Canyon and its model home are an unusual opportunity to experience not just the mythical West of Cliff May, but a chance to reinvent the past and make it modern. And perhaps it is not a coincidence that Bell Canyon occupies the same ground as Hu’wam, an indigenous Chumash settlement that dates back 8,000 years; it sits in the shadows of the hallowed geology of El Escorpión Peak and is not far from the Burro Flats Painted Cave and its ancient pictographs. In other words, Bell Canyon is both the idealized and realistic West with all its complications. It is all of the ingredients for understanding American origins. Like Cliff May himself, it sets up circumstances wherein contradictions might peaceably coexist: nature and civilization, privacy and expanse, activity and leisure, comfort and conflict, and even the sacred and profane. At its best, it is a teacher with the potential to inspire.