Back to the Future

El Cortez roof sign

The family-built El Cortez celebrates 70 years in Las Vegas

By Renée LiButti

The El Cortez in downtown Las Vegas has a proud past and a more promising future. With 70 years under its belt, the resort exudes historic eminence. But that’s not what sets the El Cortez apart from other casinos. It’s the personal business approach that has been put in place by families – the Housselses, the Gaughans and now the Epsteins – for families.

“Our family-owned business, our neighborhood and our rich history are our greatest assets,” said Alexandra Epstein, the executive manager and vice president of marketing at the El Cortez. She spent summers working at the resort while in college. Her father, Kenny, is a longtime Las Vegas casino executive and protégé of the property’s former owner, gaming pioneer Jackie Gaughan. In fact, she fondly describes Gaughan as a “grandfather figure,” thanks to regular Sunday dinners between their families while she was growing up.

These images show the El Cortez in 1953 (left) and more recently in 2008.

These images show the El Cortez in 1953 (left) and more recently in 2008. (Photos courtesy of the Las Vegas News Bureau)

“We’re all explicitly tied to one another,” affirmed Mike Nolan, the general manager and chief operating officer at the El Cortez. His first memories of the resort harken back to when he played football at Bishop Gorman High School. The hotel fed the team during summer training. Nolan was only 21 when he started working for the Gaughans as a slot manager at the El Cortez. He would go on to own and operate several other casinos before selling them and returning to the one he calls “the beginning of the empire.”

“Today there are all these corporations that have changed the look of Las Vegas, but the El Cortez is still here, where the town started, as a family business,” said Nolan, who also takes pride in the enduring relationships that have been built over the years. “We know our customers personally, by name. And not just them – we know their parents and we know their grandparents.”

Although the El Cortez’s history spans seven decades, the resort has only changed hands four times. John Kell Houssels formed a partnership to build it that included renowned Los Angeles architect Marion Hicks. Costing $245,000 and featuring a Spanish ranch theme, the El Cortez officially opened in November 1941 with a casino, a restaurant, a café, a floor show and 59 rooms (now known as the “Vintage Rooms”).

The El Cortez: Through the Decades

  • 1940s: John Kell Houssels, John C. Grayson and Los Angeles architect Marion Hicks formed a partnership to build the El Cortez. Construction cost $245,000 and the downtown Las Vegas resort opened in November 1941 with 59 rooms. In 1945, it was sold to a Midwestern group of men, including Bugsy Siegel and Meyer Lansky. They paid $600,000 for the property. Siegel left a few months later to buy the Flamingo. In 1946, Houssels, the original owner, bought it back and invested an additional $250,000 for expansion. The resort’s iconic roof sign also went up that year.
  • 1950s: The El Cortez’s neon “Gambling” arrow and awning were put up in 1952. For several years in the mid ’50s, the resort featured a pirate theme. The bar was dubbed the Buccaneer Bar and the supper club became the Pirates Den. Cocktail waitresses wore pirate costumes and paintings of pirates adorned the walls. But when Jack Smith became the general manager in 1957, this theme was eliminated. The dinner theater then turned into the Cirque Room. In 1958, the Celebrity Lounge opened and offered nightly entertainment from 5:30 p.m. to 6 a.m.
  • 1960s: In 1960, the El Cortez’s lounge was renamed the V.I.P. Lounge. Jackie Gaughan bought the property from Houssels in 1963 for $4 million. A gaming and promotions visionary, he created the city’s first fun book. Gaughan was also the state’s first licensed boxing promoter, and he brought several big fights to the El Cortez. In the mid ’60s, the attached parking garage was built with four floors at the top that housed 50 additional rooms.
  • 1970s, ’80s & ’90s: The 102-room Ogden House was built across the street from the El Cortez in 1974 to provide overflow accommodations. Construction cost approximately $750,000. In 1980, a 15-story guest tower was erected bringing the resort’s room count to 297. Fremont Street Experience emerged in 1995, which ushered in an era of revitalization for both the El Cortez and downtown Las Vegas.
  • 2000 to present: In 2007, a $20 million makeover began that included an overhaul of the Ogden House. Control of the El Cortez transferred to IKE Gaming, which is run by Gaughan’s longtime associates in 2008. In 2009, the 64-room El Cortez Cabana Suites, a South Beach-style boutique hotel, was unveiled. The resort kicked off its Design-A-Suite competition in early 2010, and the Emergency Arts center, which is home to a variety of arts-related spaces, opened shortly after. The walkway between the El Cortez and Las Vegas Boulevard was landscaped and renamed the Jackie Gaughan Parkway in October 2010. Currently, the center bar is being renovated and will be relaunched as The Parlour in September 2011.

Four years later, the property was sold to a group of men from the Midwest – Gus Greenbaum, Moe Sedway, Dave Berman, Meyer Lansky and Bugsy Siegel. They were a “family” of sorts, as all of them had ties to organized crime. Siegel left a few months later when he purchased the Flamingo. Shortly after, Houssels reacquired the El Cortez.

During Houssels’ second tenure, the brick and mortar building, which has never been razed or gutted, underwent a $250,000 expansion. A four-story wing was added along with a barbershop and nightclub. Perhaps, the most important enhancement was the iconic roof sign, joined afterward by a neon arrow pointing inside toward the “Gambling.”

“We call that our ‘new’ sign,” joked Nolan. “It was put up in 1946.”

The El Cortez didn’t change hands again until Gaughan purchased it in 1963 for $4 million. He erected a parking garage that houses 50 rooms (now dubbed the “Pavilion Rooms”) in the mid ’60s and a 15-story tower in 1980. A promotions visionary, Gaughan also launched the city’s first fun book. Still a thing of greatness, it’s filled with coupons for free drinks, free slot play and meal offers.

Ownership of the El Cortez transferred once more in 2008 to IKE Gaming, which is comprised of Gaughan’s deep-rooted colleagues including the Epsteins and Nolan. To this day, the 90-year-old patriarch lives in a penthouse suite at the resort. He can be found playing poker in the casino most afternoons.

Respecting the past while shaping the future – it’s a line that Epstein is keenly aware of. “You’re not going to get such a classic Vegas experience anywhere else. But we are doing new things and with such a new outlook,” she said. “We’ve had to work extremely hard to remain relevant in these changing times.”

Indeed, the El Cortez has been seamlessly blending the “classic” with the hip and modern. Recent years have seen renovations – now totaling a whopping $28 million – touch every nook and cranny of the resort. Of course, anything that’s 70 years old needs some upkeep if it’s going to stick around. So there are projects in the works that range from installing a new air filtration system and remodeling the bathrooms to painting the exterior. Slot enthusiasts at the resort also have a choice between playing one of 274 coin-operated machines, which sit alongside some of the latest, most high-tech coinless video gambling devices in town.

“We try to keep historic elements like that alive as long as we can keep the parts,” said Nolan.

In 2009 the contemporary El Cortez Cabana Suites were unveiled. Resulting from a major overhaul of the ’70s-era Ogden House, this 64-room boutique hotel brings a taste of Miami’s South Beach to downtown.

What’s more, the resort hosted an innovative Design-A-Suite competition last year. It challenged local interior designers to give new life to a standard 650-square-foot suite with a $20,000 budget. The four finalists had to source 80 percent of their materials and furnishings from the nearby World Market Center, a stipulation put in place to help stimulate the downtown economy. Visitors are now welcome to book a stay in these chic and whimsical suites named the Big Sleep, the Hint Suite, El Contempo and the Rec Room.

Without a doubt, the project dearest to Epstein’s heart is the Emergency Arts complex. The El Cortez had owned the long-shuttered building that once housed the Fremont Medical Center – where she recalls taking a pre-employment drug test in order to work at the resort years ago. In May 2010 it was re-launched as Emergency Arts, a creative collective of artist spaces, galleries, a yoga studio, a hair salon, a vintage repair store and a coffee shop.

“Emergency Arts has brought 40 small businesses to the neighborhood that otherwise would not be here,” explained Epstein, who is actively involved with the Neon Museum and the city’s Arts Council. Both she and Nolan are thrilled to see the El Cortez finding a new identity through the arts at the heart of the regeneration occurring in downtown.

“We hope this will improve people’s confidence in the area and inspire other businesses to come here,” said Nolan. “We still hold strong to Gaughan’s motto that what’s good for Las Vegas and downtown is good for the El Cortez.”

Their latest endeavor is sure to add excitement to the budding arts scene as well. The El Cortez’s central bar, built in 1982, has historically been a popular downtown meeting place. Re-imagined by the internationally acclaimed Friedmutter Group, the architecture and design firm responsible for The Cosmopolitan, it will reopen as The Parlour on Labor Day weekend.

“You’re not going to walk in and know immediately that it’s brand new,” said Epstein of the décor, which will feature rich textures, smoky mirrors, leather club chair seating and a baby grand piano. “The design suggests it could have been around for years.”

The Parlour will be the perfect place to grab a drink and raise a toast to the El Cortez. This glorious landmark is very different from all the other resorts in Las Vegas. Not bigger, not more lavish – but it maintains the integrity of the city’s past while fostering a warm, family feeling. Long live these differences, and here’s to 70 more years!

Old School Cool

How do you honor a 70th anniversary? The El Cortez is putting a fresh, fun spin on moments from the past for its loyal customers and friends. Seven monthly events, one for each decade, have been planned. They began in May and will wrap up with a big bash commemorating the resort’s November 1941 opening. Earlier events have included a screening of the film “Bugsy” and a vintage Vegas food truck competition. The El Cortez is marking its milestone in other ways too. Along with added player appreciation days, guests can delight in a special yearlong menu that resurrects old favorites. Order a classic cocktail, like a mint julep, at one of the bars. Or devour oysters Rockefeller and strawberries Romanoff in The Flame steakhouse. A few upcoming events are listed below. Now go celebrate!

• Aug. 6: Receive a fresh slice of strawberry pie from Marie Callender’s in the casino from noon to 6 p.m. if you’re a Club Cortez member.

• Aug. 13: Enjoy Vegas StrEATS, an ongoing food truck festival that will take place on the Jackie Gaughan Parkway from 6 p.m. to 2 a.m. Expect at least 10 food trucks along with live art and music.

• Aug. 14: Cool down from the summer heat with an ice cream treat. Staff members will hand out free Klondike bars to Club Cortez members from noon to 6 p.m.

• Sept. 3-5: Have a drink in the hotel’s brand new center bar. Oozing a decades-old ambiance, The Parlour will be unveiled over Labor Day weekend.

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I’m a Las Vegas native. By profession, I write at Mostly about the city’s hotels, but on other topics – gaming and transportation – too. I really love staying at hotels. And the ones here are among the biggest and best in the world. Some key things I’ve learned: Resort fees are inescapable (frustrating but true), a friendly attitude at the front desk may score you a great view and over-the-top room amenities – bath butlers, Japanese tea service, menus with “intimate” items – do exist. What else should you know about me? Well, I’m comfortable at a blackjack table. And I like eating late-night pancakes in hotel coffee shops. A lot. Follow Renee on Google+.

There is 1 comment for this article
  1. Owen A. Kearns at 1:08 pm

    Been coming through and to Las Vegas since the 1940s, first with my parents and now as a business/fun destination. Remember the “cool” of downtown when there was no strip. Serious down and dirty gambling with a few frills on the side. Great to read more about Jackie Gaughan. Consider Michael and Brendan great friends and certainly family has done much to promote the city apart from the corporate gaming side. Thanks for the story.