Property Profile: A Cliff May House, Built for Millionaires
For those who know and love Midcentury Modern Architecture, the name Cliff May is virtually synonymous with the California Ranch style home. May’s suburban ranch house es took the country by storm after World War II and came to embody California living.
Horizontal planes, clear indoor-outdoor connections, and a romantic modernity are part of this design approach. Like most Midcentury Modern architects, it is quite common to find that every room in the house has a connection to the outdoors in Cliff May designed homes. Floor-to-ceiling glass takes the place of walls to bring light and nature in, creating a relationship to the outdoors that is as much a part of the home as the decor.
In post–World War II America, land and gas were cheap and owning a home was the epitome of the American dream. May was in the right place, at the right time, with the right idea: design beautiful, affordable homes that fulfilled that promise.
Cliff May had no formal architectural training. He was self taught and became a master promoter and marketer of his projects. This 1954 vintage marketing brochure is from one of May’s development projects in the Long Beach, CA area.
With May’s middle class suburban homes dotting the Southern California landscape, 39 Oakmont Drive was something special. He designed and built the hacienda-style home in 1939, and in his oral history, Cliff May said this was “his first house built for millionaires”.
UCSB has the original plans and drawings for the house which are included in the “Cliff May Architecture” book. There are magazine articles dating from 1940 and a set of photographs taken of the house in the collection of The Huntington Museum.
The house has a dramatic high-ceiling entrance foyer, a classic Cliff May curved staircase, original built in bookcases, and three fire places.
May’s ranch homes used the colonial Spanish tradition of covered passageways to connect rooms and blur boundaries between the outside and inside.
Rich in Hollywood history, this home has no shortage of beautiful views. On one side the house offers city views looking East from Westwood to Downtown, and on the other side views of Mandeville Canyon and the Santa Monica Mountains.
The house was extensively renovated inside and out in 1979. A new tile roof was put on, all exterior walls re-plastered and covered patios added.
A new swimming pool was installed, a lighted paddle tennis court added, and a new driveway created. The classic Spanish front gate and small gatehouse were rebuilt, and the property was fenced and completely re-landscaped.
Inside, all new plumbing and electricity were added. The old kitchen became the breakfast room and a new kitchen three times as large was created. A laundry room was added. All four bedrooms and five bathrooms were remodeled.
A bar/lounge was added that opens onto a patio for entertaining. French doors and windows were built throughout. The former family room was remodeled with wood paneling, built in bookcases and a recessed media center behind oak paneled doors.
The master suite was enlarged, adding customized paneling and ceiling treatments, as well as new closets and a dressing room. The exposed Spanish wood beamed ceilings were refinished throughout the house, and Spanish tile and hardwood floors added or renovated.
Recent upgrades include new heating and air-conditioning. New kitchen appliances. A major re-landscaping added specimen and drought-resistant plants. A new security system was installed as well as new electric front gate motors.
There are architect’s plans for two additional bedrooms and a maid’s room or play room.
Oakmont Drive is a private street which is open only to property owners, and has been called one of the most exclusive streets in Los Angeles.
There are no homes on the other side of upper Oakmont where 39 is situated. Across from the house there is a small park that is owned by Eli Broad. Former next door neighbors included Steve McQueen.
Present neighbors are Zubin Mehta, Renee Russo and Eli Broad. Former owners included Olivia de Havilland (after “Gone With The Wind”) and more recently photographer Herb Ritts, who grew up here.