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Cliff May house in La Jolla’s Lower Hermosa named ‘historic’

Cliff May House Lower Hermosa
The historically designated Cliff May-designed house at 6004 Avenida Cresta in La Jolla’s Lower Hermosa.
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Noted for its organic form and as a classic example of a 1930s Hacienda-style home, a La Jolla property designed by architect Cliff May (1909-1989) was designated historic by the San Diego Historical Resources Board (HRB) during its May 23 meeting. May is considered the father of the California Ranch House.

Located at 6004 Avenida Cresta in Lower Hermosa, the property was designated under HRB Criterion C as “a resource that embodies the character-defining features of the Spanish Colonial Revival/California Hacienda-style ranch architecture,” and Criterion D as “a resource that is reflective of the notable work of established Master Architect Cliff May.”

La Jolla Historical Society volunteer Seonaid McArthur represented the homeowners seeking the designation.

“The unique thing about Cliff May is, having grown up in San Diego, his aunt had an early adobe house, so his experiences as a young person embraced the organic quality of hand-built houses made of the earth,” she said. “What is unique about this house, is it tunes into the landscape, which reflects his upbringing. There is a sensitivity to the changes in landscape and how, especially in La Jolla, there are canyons and features of land that drop to the sea.”

According to the HRB report: “The resource retains a good level of architectural integrity from its 1936 period of significance. Specifically, it features a U-Shaped plan form; fully enclosed central courtyard; low-pitched gable and hipped roof sheathed in irregularly laid red clay tile; wide eaves that are open with exposed rafter tails; hand textured stucco cladding with rounded edges; fixed wood shutters and grills; tile vents; wood plank front door; stucco chimneys capped with terra cotta flues; and fenestration consisting primarily of multi-light wood casement windows.”

At the time the house was built, the United States was on the tail end of the Depression, and homeowners were looking for cost-effective alternatives to larger homes. At the same time, the aesthetic was shifting to one that appreciated craftsman features and organic forms that brought warmth. But what made May’s houses stand out are his personal touches.

“To differentiate his houses from other Spanish-style houses in the area, May copied elements from (other) adobes to give them a much more crude appearance,” the HRB report states. “In addition, he created his own signature details: chimney pots, wooden window grilles with flower pot boxes, tile doorbells, painted flower decorations on wooden beams, doors, shutters, and cupboards, and landscaping with yucca, cacti and olive trees. His San Diego designs prompted nostalgia for the old Spanish Colonial Revival style so popular a century earlier, but on a smaller, more low-key scale that became May’s California Ranch style.”

May went on to international recognition in the 1930s, largely in the Los Angeles area. He also designed buildings in 40 states, Mexico, South America, Australia, the British West Indies and Ireland.

And although the house was modified in the 1960s and 1970s, May was involved in the work. The designation includes a unique olive tree in the center courtyard, planted by May and maintained to this day.

Historic designation brings with it the responsibility of maintaining the building in accordance with the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards. The benefits include the availability of the Mills Act Program for reduced property tax; the use of the more flexible Historical Building Code; and other programs that vary depending on the site conditions and owner objectives.

But for the home’s owners (who requested anonymity), they wanted their house designated simply to keep it intact. “We’ve lived here for so many years, and we saw a lovely house up the street get torn down,” one told the Light. “I remember seeing the pile of rubble being taller than the house had been. It was instant for me that I didn’t want it to happen to our home. We wanted to get it designated to prevent that. We didn’t want to see more rubble where beautiful houses had been.”