Cliff May’s Western Ranchos


Dave Cornoyer


Newsletter, Regional Spotlight
Image details

The Other Las Vegas Part Six
Cliff May's Western Ranchos

by Dave Cornoyer

Hidden in plain sight lie hundreds of forgotten Cliff May homes in the heart of Las Vegas. Architect Cliff May’s designs first appeared in Las Vegas in 1954 with the construction of a pair of identical homes on Van Patten Place, a half-mile west of Las Vegas Boulevard. That same year, Cliff May’s take on  modernism would be brought to the masses with the purchase of 103 homesites by Burns Construction from land developer Ernest Becker. Located in the third unit of the relatively young Charleston Heights Tract, the subdivision drew its name from the elevation created by the large fault line which runs north/south through west-central Las Vegas. 

Debuting in August of 1954, the Cliff May homes of Las Vegas drew upon the popularity of May’s designs appearing in national magazines, and celebrated their innovation as modern ranch homes. “Offering beauty, charm, and usefulness of the outdoors distinctively integrated with the indoors, planned for all the comforts,” reported the Las Vegas Review Journal. The living areas of the Cliff May homes were extended to the patios, the front yard and service areas to create new concepts in mass-produced housing. 

May visited the community in February 1955, stating “My homes, though compact, make clever use of space to acquire freedom far beyond that of an ordinary house. Cliff May homes have one of the most pleasing features – free and easy circulation of movement – that quality which allows the occupant to reach any room without passing constantly through other rooms. This is carefully planned family living.”

The open concepts of the Cliff May homes were popular with Las Vegans, completely selling out in nine months. Burns Construction Company capitalized on this popularity and bought another 296 lots in the fifth tract of Charleston Heights in 1955. Colorful Colombia kitchens were a huge draw for home buyers, and the relaxed “Western Rancho” architecture was a hit. Large expanses of glass, double doors opening up onto patios, and the use of modern designs and colors, rough western woods and paints or stains accentuated the indoor-outdoor living effect. Modest pricing of $10,000 to $15,000 opened new opportunities for Las Vegas home buyers, and four floor plans were offered with the appealing fact that the modular construction of the homes allowed for buyer customization of the plans. 

In spite of being located in Charleston Heights Units 3 and 5, at the time of construction the Cliff May homes were known locally as “Cliff May,” capitalizing on the noteworthy name. Residents would use May’s name to describe where they lived, whether it was placing lost pet notices or having a yard sale. The neighborhood even formed a softball team, known as “Cliff May Homes.” As time passed and Las Vegas grew, the name disappeared and the Cliff May neighborhood fell under the greater Charleston Heights name. 

Charleston Heights continued development for another 20 years after the Cliff May homes were built, with various builders providing an astonishing 35,000 units of housing. Today these homes are largely forgotten as Cliff May designs, and the neighborhood has lost the original luster after 65 years. Modest square footages and changing tastes have left the neighborhood behind, but as the Las Vegas Valley continues its outward expanse, there’s potential for restoration and rehabilitation of the Cliff May homes. 

About the Author

Dave Cornoyer is a 20-year Las Vegas resident, graduate of UNLV’s Landscape Architecture program, former city planner, midcentury and history enthusiast, and is the Forward Planning Manager of Lennar Las Vegas.  

If you enjoyed this Regional Spotlight on Las Vegas modernism, subscribe to the Docomomo US newsletter to receive modern content, news, and events straight to your inbox.