A Cliff May Q&A

Our current issue is all about mid-century modern architecture, history and design with a renovated Cliff May home featured on the cover. With over 170 Cliff May designed homes here in Colorado, we spoke with two Cliff May experts, Adrian Kinney and Atom Stevens, to learn more about the famous mid-century modern architect and the mark he left on Colorado.

Photos: Atom Stevens

Tell us a little about the history of how Cliff May landed in Colorado.

Atom Stevens (AS): Cliff May was a home designer based in southern California, who spent most of his career designing custom homes for the rich & famous in a style that was at once rustic, strikingly modern, and embraced the informality of California living. In the 1950s, May teamed up with California architect Chris Choate to develop a system of prefabricated modular tract homes with the goal of bringing May’s unique California style of home design to the masses. While May developed a few neighborhoods of his own in California, he knew that the best way to scale would be to license his prefabricated system to home builders in California and beyond by leveraging his national name recognition through notoriety he gained in House Beautiful, Sunset and other magazines. Denver home builder D.C. Burns Realty & Trust (led by Franklin L Burns), was one such licensee, and he built and sold 171 prefabricated Cliff May Homes in Denver from late 1954 to 1956.

A Cliff May home (model RM 3211) with addition in Harvey Park previously listed by Adrian Kinney.

Are there any Cliff May homes outside of Harvey Park in Colorado? If so, how many and where?

AS: In the Denver area, there is only one Cliff May Home outside of Harvey Park, located just a few blocks away from Arapahoe Acres. It takes a trained eye to spot it, but I have shared its location with a few lucky people since I found it a few years ago. More broadly, the Denver tract in Harvey Park is the largest group of Cliff May Homes outside of California. The next largest is in Las Vegas with around 150 homes, and interestingly, they were also built by D.C. Burns Realty & Trust! I have made it a mission to try to find them everywhere I can outside of California, and have so far located them in 11 additional states, beside CO and CA.

What are the challenges and benefits to remodeling/restoring a Cliff May home?

Adrian Kinney (AK): I have remodeled/restored 5 Cliff May homes to date and been party to 35+ Cliff May Sales. So I have seen and experienced a lot of good and bad DIY renovations on Cliff May Homes. Cliff May homes are constructed as post and beam structures, meaning there are no walls that are load bearing as the post and beams hold the weight of the roof. This simplified construction makes it easier to remove walls or otherwise change the layout of the home! All Cliff May homes are all also over crawl spaces, which also makes plumbing and electrical work much easier than a home with slab foundation or finished basement..

As with any older home, there’s always a chance that you will find bad DIY fixes or old materials that may be considered hazardous today, like asbestos. And, of course, efficiency is always a compromise. Original Cliff May homes homes do not have an attic or in-wall insulation and the roof insulation is very minimal. Retrofitting any type of insulation has proven to be a large undertaking as the cross-framed sections of the home creates pie slices that need to be individually filled with insulation. However, we’ve found changing the original windows to double pane, and upgrading to a high efficiency HVAC system is a great compromise to make a glass house more energy efficient, without breaking the bank.

A Cliff May home (model RM 3212) in Harvey Park that Adrian Kinney restored and later sold.

Given their smaller size and age, are mid-mod homes a good real estate investment?

AK: Well, you are asking someone who has based their entire career around MCM homes and modernist living, but absolutely they are great investments. Mid-century modern homes like the Cliff May homes in Harvey Park, provide more than just shelter—they are a way of life. Modernist homes were designed to blend seamlessly with the outdoors, be functional for everyday life, and well-suited for entertaining. Although their size can be a hinderance to many, their lesser square footage leads to a greater appreciation of the indoor/outdoor connection and encourages a more minimalist, pared-down lifestyle. Their age, I think, makes them even more coveted as homes today are not built with the same quality of construction methods and materials. Yes, some components of these homes often need upgrading (electrical, sewer lines, roofs, windows, etc.), but those are much easier remedied than rebuilding the entire house. Also the data, especially of late, suggests that MCM homes are outpacing their ranch home counterparts almost 2:1, in terms of Price Per Square Foot (PPSF). Buyers that embrace the lifestyle these homes bring and understand that they are livable works of art, will pay more for them, and combined with their scarcity in the city, the value of MCM homes continues to rise.

The article in our winter issue explored the enduring popularity of mid-century modern design. What do you think the future of the style looks like — both in Colorado and beyond?

AS & AK: Taken on the macro, mid-century modern design is not a style, but a movement (in fact, there are many styles that make up mid-century modern architecture & design). That movement embraced a different way of considering environmental design, rejecting notions of doing ornamentation for ornament’s sake, and instead considering the human experience in relation to a place. The walls of glass, clerestory windows, vaulted ceilings, post-and-beam construction, and simple rustic design language of the Cliff May Homes for instance, were about informal indoor-outdoor living, connection to nature through views and natural light, honesty in structure by exposing the posts and beams, and an egalitarian suburban fabric where the big houses are nearly indiscernible from the small ones.

People are drawn to mid-century modern architecture because they see how these homes support a higher quality of life, and homeowners are increasingly willing to give up square footage to have access to that. We think that there is going to continue to be a premium put on homes that support those quality of life elements, from the courtyards and lanais of the mid-mod homes in Harvey Park, Krisana Park, Lynwood & elsewhere, to the highrise mid-century condo & apartment buildings with their ample windows and generous balconies. Natural light, ventilation, access to the outdoors, and opportunities for community are all basic human needs, and mid-century modern homes serve these needs better than any other type of home. We both live in mid-mod homes, and get to experience first-hand the benefits of living in such wonderful structures.

Previous Cliff May listings by Adrian Kinney.

Adrian Kinney is an experienced real estate advisor, owner of midmid Colorado, and co-founder of Denver Modernism Week. Kinney is passionate about MCM and the architecture of Cliff May, having remodeled/restored 5 and been party to the sale of over 35 Cliff May Homes.
+comidmodhomes.com | @comidmodhomes

Atom Stevens is a real estate broker, photographer, and historian specializing in mid-century modern architecture in Colorado. A resident of Harvey Park himself, Stevens is passionate about MCM and is on the board for the new Colorado chapter of Docomomo, a non-profit dedicated to the documentation and conservation of buildings, sites, and neighborhoods of the modern movement. He is also a co-founder of Denver Modernism Week.
+Atom.Photos | @AtomStevens | +fb.me/atomstevensphotography