They used to be everywhere. Original doors for Cliff May houses, two-and-a-half feet wide, with glass panes above and below, could be found discarded along the curb as homeowners remodeled. Windows, too, could often be found abandoned. They were sometimes scavenged by fans, more often hauled to the dump. The homes were no longer popular, so neither were their accoutrements.
Good luck snagging an abandoned May door or window today. "Now they're coveted, and they're hard to find," says Robert Burke, an elementary school principal who moved into May's Rancho Estates in Long Beach two years ago from West Hollywood. He remembers visiting a friend a decade ago and seeing doors along the road with notes attached to 'take me.'
Fortunately for Burke, some people still do let go of their doors. He found some, and installed them in his own home, replacing aluminum sliders.
Throughout the 700-home neighborhood—built in 1953 and 1954 by developer Ross Cortese as part of the larger Lakewood development and designed by May—people who love modern design are buying and restoring homes. The Long Beach neighborhood, distinct from adjacent tracts, is on the east side of the city, a good three-and-a-half miles from the oceanfront, near the Orange County border.
The neighborhood—until recently underappreciated, to put it mildly—has blossomed over the past few years as design-savvy newcomers have rediscovered May's ranch-style modernism. "Pretty much everybody who buys in the neighborhood now is coming in because they want a mid-century modern house and is doing something to build on that," says David Thompson, who bought one of the lanai models—with an open-to-the-courtyard passageway—six years ago and has been redoing it since.
Today, Cliff May (1908-1989) is a legendary figure. Regarded by some as the inventor of the modern ranch house, he started designing houses as a young man in San Diego. His single-story, open-plan, rambling houses, often with interior courtyards and always open to the out of doors, recalled early California ranches and came naturally to him. His mother was from an early Spanish Californian family that owned a historic adobe.
May, a building designer, never became an architect, though he was given an honorary designation of 'AIA' in his later years. His partner, Chris Choate, provided the needed license. By the 1950s, May had dropped most of the early Californian décor—like tiles and ornate wrought-iron work—and gone completely modern. May designed thousands of tract homes and more than 1,000 custom homes throughout the country. Rancho Estates is his largest tract.
"Fifteen years ago it was kind of the unwanted stepchild of Long Beach," says Rochelle Kramer, who handles a lot of 'Rancho' real estate with her husband Doug, and their firm, SoCal Modern. "Even realtors didn't want to deal with the Ranchos."
Today the 1,130- to 1,600-square-foot, three- and four-bedroom houses go for $650,000 to $750,000. Houses in original condition cost more than those inappropriately remodeled, Doug Kramer says. "There's a premium for the architecture." Kramer, who's lived in the neighborhood ten years, couldn't find original doors for his own home so had replicas custom made.
"It's really exciting," he says of the neighborhood's renaissance, which began about three years ago. "People are bringing them back to their modern roots or modernizing them while keeping to the original intent."
Many newcomers are in creative fields—advertising, graphic, and product design. Robert and Nina Burgeno, whose remodeled house with the tori gate has been profiled in a book and in the press, check off their neighbors—a Los Angeles Times reporter, a French chef, a retired food critic, architects, and landscapers. "They have a real passion and they have a real sense of design," Kramer says of the newcomers.
"There have been a couple of ratty houses that have turned really nice, even in the short time I've been here," says Thompson, who credits the Kramers' website, RanchoStyle.com, with helping spread the gospel. It wasn't the May legend that brought Thompson to the Ranchos. He had never heard of May. "Just the flow of this house is what attracted me," he says. "You move easily from inside to out. It's one continuous, entertaining living space."
"I love the light. I love the lines," Robert Burke says of his house. "They're very smartly designed."