YOU MAY HAVE driven down Bonanza Road and passed the Biltmore Bungalows a hundred times without thinking of the tiny residential neighborhood. From Bonanza, you mostly see a fence and a few well-kept houses, and the wide Veterans Memorial Drive that bisects the area.
Bordered by Las Vegas Boulevard to the east, Main Street to the west, Bonanza to the south, and Washington Avenue to the north, the Biltmore Bungalows are a residential island surrounded by municipal and industrial development. They are also one of Las Vegas’ oldest continually occupied residential developments.
Now the 180-odd houses are a stone’s throw from the Las Vegas Library, from Cashman Field, from the Natural History Museum and the Old Mormon Fort State Historic Park and the Neon Museum.
Like its neighbors, the bungalows have a history. They were constructed early in World War II to house officers and contractors mobilized for the war. They were simple, two-bedroom, wood-frame and brick houses. Many maintain those simple floor plans, but others have been extensively modified.
There are swimming pools, gardens, casitas and garages. At the time, the backyards probably seemed small, but compared to those found in modern housing developments, the yards look generous and have room for experimentation. Many of the houses have a simple addition in the back that expanded floor space with a dining room or extra bedroom.
“It’s one of the oldest still-standing residential areas in the valley,” says one fan of the neighborhood, “Downtown Steve” Franklin, a real-estate agent who has a long love-love relationship with downtown Las Vegas and a Biltmore rental property.
He says the Biltmore Bungalows aren’t for everyone. There’s a steady march of homeless people down Bonanza and Las Vegas Boulevard; restricted road access limits the numbers of people trying to go through the neighborhood, but it can still be a challenge, residents of the bungalows admit.
But the community is home to a mix of artists, young professionals, Hispanic families and people looking for reasonable rents — along with a few folks who have lived in the bungalows for generations.
Investors can still find a property at a good price in the neighborhood, but those days are fading as bungalows now are selling for $60,000 or more, reflecting the quick rise in property values over the last two years. In fact the bungalows have both reflected and exaggerated the ups and downs of residential property values for decades. In the late 1960s, you could buy a house on about a tenth of an acre for less than $15,000, according to county records.
Housing prices followed the upward curve experienced throughout the valley until the rocketing escalation of the mid-2000s. One house on Bell Drive sold for $220,000; others nearby sold for similar prices.
Then came the crash. A house that to all outward appearances looks like the $220,000 house on Bell sold, five years later, for $26,000. But prices are quickly recovering. That has some of the residents, who include many renters, nervous.
SUE TAYLOR HAS to live in what you would call one of the cutest bungalows in the neighborhood, on the east side of Veterans Memorial, on Bonanza Way. A sign on the fence out front calls it the “One Horse Ranch.” The two-bedroom rental has a great little swimming pool and a lovely garden shaded by trees that might be as old as the house. A statue of a rearing horse is in the garden, and nearby there are tomato and pepper plants, irises and landscaping.
She looks at development downtown, fueled by gazillionaire Tony Hsieh’s $350 million investment, with some trepidation. “We’re just two block from him,” Taylor says. Her perspective is similar to that of a lot of downtown residents — she welcomes the redevelopment, hopes it will be positive, but is nervous about the ultimate impact: “We don’t want to see them tearing the bungalows down.”
She and her roommate, Ken Kirsch, a retired Navy veteran, say they love the neighborhood and plan to stay. Taylor has lived at the One Horse Ranch for about two and a half years, and in the neighborhood longer. “This is a great little neighborhood,” she says.
Around the corner on Fourth Street, a representative of a slightly younger generation is renting one of the most interesting-looking houses among many. Instead of the brick masonry, there are thick wood boards with some artfully peeling white paint. It could have been lifted straight from a Hollywood western.
“It’s a great little neighborhood,” says Justin Crabtree, echoing, almost word for word, his nearby neighbor. “We love it.”
There’s a mechanic’s shed and garage that his landlord uses, but the house itself is an eccentric little jewel. Crabtree, 34, who says he lived across the street before moving into his new home about two years ago, points to homes up and down the block that now house artists.
“We’re one of the best kept secrets downtown,” he says.
SOME OF THOSE who have lived here remember efforts to make the bungalows something … well, something that motorists won’t ignore while they’re driving down Bonanza Road, trying not to hit homeless people in the street. Dan Romano, a Las Vegas artist who lived in the neighborhood for nearly a decade — and still lives nearby, just north of downtown — says he tried to win “historic” designation for the neighborhood. The John S. Park neighborhood, which came a few years after Biltmore, has that designation.
Romano, who still owns a rental bungalow, says local government has too often ignored the community. He laments the decision a decade ago to replace a natural wash that ran through the neighborhood with a concrete flood-control channel, eliminating decades-old trees and greenery.
Romano, who works in local casinos, believes the area has great potential. He worries that not everyone shares that vision.
Councilman Ricki Barlow, who represents the area, says he understands the relevance of the “rich history” of the community. He knows many of the constituents, some of whom have lived there for more than four decades. The residents, he knows, “love their little niche community, the way the community is laid out. They really take pride in the neighborhood.”
He recognizes some of the challenges that the little community faces.
“You know, if you live in the Biltmore Bungalows, they’re actually on an island,” Barlow says. “They’re in an island, which makes it special. The transition into arts, sculpture and painting. They’re moving into that community. … They’re in the cultural corridor.”
There were approved plans to build high-rises near the Biltmore Bungalows, but Barlow says he doesn’t expect those plans to ever amount to actual construction. He says the community is unique and must be protected.
Next door to Crabtree lives downtown denizen and Burlesque Hall of Fame Director Dustin Wax. Together, Justin and Dustin represent a young-ish generation moving into the Biltmore Bungalows.
Wax says he hopes the neighborhood gets the recognition it deserves, but what for him comes to mind is his lovely wood floors, the “surprisingly quiet” character of the community and the proximity to downtown city life.
“I like living this close to downtown,” he says. “We’re sort of in downtown. The houses are cool.”