Golden Gate reborn: A Las Vegas hotel and casino is restored to its former glory

Last night, the Golden Gate Hotel & Casino pulled out all the stops to show that the city’s oldest resort is bigger, better and more luxurious than ever.

Mayor Carolyn Goodman at the relaunch party at the Golden Gate Hotel & Casino in downtown Las Vegas

Mayor Carolyn Goodman congratulates the owners of the Golden Gate Hotel & Casino (from left: Mark Brandenburg, Greg Stevens and Derek Stevens).

A boutique hotel on the corner of Fremont and Main streets, the property, which originally opened as the Hotel Nevada in 1906, just completed a major renovation project – the first in more than five decades. To celebrate the accomplishment as well as usher in a new era, the Golden Gate hosted a glitzy, speakeasy-themed party. There was a lot of drinking and eating (especially of shrimp cocktails, which were introduced here in 1959), along with merrymaking by flappers who literally danced until they collapsed. A tribute to a decadent heyday, the relaunch event felt like traveling back in time to the Roaring ’20s. It also gave a nod to the Rat Pack era. Mark & The Martinis performed ’50s and ’60s hits, like “Luck Be a Lady” and “Mambo Italiano,” in front of a delighted crowd of several hundred VIPs, media members and special guests, including Councilman Bob Coffin and Mayor Carolyn Goodman.

“We are so lucky to have this wonderful, wonderful renovation. What a heartbeat it’s bringing to downtown Las Vegas,” said Goodman, who proclaimed the day be designated for honoring the Golden Gate’s historic past.

A timeline for the Golden Gate

  • 1905: A land auction gives birth to the city of Las Vegas and the site of the future Golden Gate Hotel & Casino.
  • 1906: The Hotel Nevada opens to the public. Room and board cost only $1 per day.
  • 1907: Las Vegas’ first telephone is installed at the property. Its number is “1.”
  • 1910: Gambling is outlawed in Nevada.
  • 1925: Dusty Fremont Street is paved.
  • 1927: Fremont Street is lit up by the first installation of neon signage.
  • 1931: Gambling is legalized in Nevada again, and the Hotel Nevada becomes the Hotel Sal Sagev – which is Las Vegas spelled backwards!
  • 1933: Prohibition ends.
  • 1955: Italo Ghelfi and his partners, a group of Italian-Americans, leave San Francisco to open the Golden Gate Casino on the first floor of the Hotel Sal Sagev.
  • 1959: The Golden Gate Casino introduces the shrimp cocktail to Las Vegas at a bargain price.
  • 1964: The hotel expands during the Rat Pack era – with the original exterior concealed in favor of a more “modern” look.
  • 1974: The owners of the Golden Gate Casino buy the Hotel Sal Sagev, and it becomes the Golden Gate Hotel & Casino.
  • 1990: Ghelfi’s son and stepson (Craig and Mark) buy out the other former partners and restore the building’s historical appearance.
  • 1995: Fremont Street Experience transforms downtown Las Vegas with a four-block-long, 10-story-tall overhead light canopy.
  • 2008: New partners – Derek and Greg Stevens – join Mark Brandenburg, as another chapter of the Golden Gate Hotel & Casino is launched.
  • 2010: Du-par’s brings its classic 1938 recipes and home-style cooking to the property.
  • 2012: The dramatic renovation is completed. It restores the Golden Gate Hotel & Casino to its former first-class status.

And, oh, what a past it’s been! Spanning more than 100 years – from 1905, when John F. Miller bid $1,750 at a land auction to buy a patch of dirt across from the railroad station, to 2012, when a brand new five-story room tower was constructed featuring 16 stunning suites – the Golden Gate has stood solidly and endured in the face of change. The property is also noted for installing the city’s first telephone in 1907. Always a fine example of hostelry, it partied through the Roaring ’20s and survived Prohibition. When the Rat Pack was in full swing in the late ’50s, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. all drank and played at the Golden Gate. Thus, several of the hotel’s new suites have been designed as a tribute to them.

“We are the Las Vegas original. No other hotel/casino can say that,” said Mark Brandenburg, one of the owners of the Golden Gate.

In 1955, his stepfather, Italo Ghelfi, and several partners came from San Francisco to open the Golden Gate Casino on the first floor of what was then the Hotel Sal Sagev. When Brandenburg was 13 years old, he started mopping floors. Later he would bus tables and park cars. By 1990, Brandenburg bought out the other partners. In 2008, he was joined by Derek and Greg Stevens, the brothers who purchased the former Fitzgeralds and transformed it into The D Las Vegas. All three have been committed to restoring the Golden Gate to being a first-class boutique hotel.

Indeed, the Golden Gate is looking fine. At 16 rooms, the new tower is perhaps the smallest expansion to take place in recent Las Vegas history. And the accommodations are comparable to what you’ll find on the Strip. Blending contemporary amenities with décor elements evocative of the past, guests will enjoy 50-inch flat-screen TVs, California king beds and sectional pull-out sofas in the 14 standard suites. All of them are climate-controlled with motion sensors. They are a real value as well, with rates ranging between $109 and $250 a night.

“You don’t have to be a megaresort to have a high-quality place,” said Brandenburg. “We’ve already had many people visit us from the Strip. Their impression is always the same: ‘I had no idea!’ They just love it here.”

The penthouse patio at Golden Gate

Each of the new penthouses boasts an enclosed patio – complete with a fireplace, ceiling fan, large flat-screen TV and gas grill.

In addition, the two penthouses, which occupy the tower’s entire fifth floor, are extravagantly furnished. True to the city’s heritage, they are themed for showgirls. The custom carpeting has feather imagery, and the artwork pays homage to the glittering gals – including Marilyn Monroe.

With Gensler, the global architecture and design company that produced the $8 billion CityCenter urban complex on the Strip, at the helm, the Golden Gate has truly been made over. Great care was taken to unify more than 100 years of history – from turn-of-the-century art deco embellishments to Roaring ’20s pinstripes. What results is a fresh new feel.

“The expansion and renovation greatly exceeded my expectations,” admitted Brandenburg. “It wasn’t clear when we started how we’d take something so historic and blend it with contemporary expectations, but it has turned out wonderfully.”

The refurbishment has provided a chance to develop and improve existing facilities too. Among the highlights are a new porte cochère for valet parking and an enlarged casino floor. There’s a new high-limit room with three blackjack tables. Previously, guests could only wager up to $500 a hand, but now that maximum has been raised to $3,000. There’s also a striking new lobby lit by a vintage “HOTEL” sign. Its décor consists of wooden flooring, antique fixtures and a gold-colored, tin-like ceiling. Artifacts of the Golden Gate’s past are on exhibit in here. Hanging on one of the walls is a collage of photos from nearly every decade, and a large display case by the entrance contains items like gaming ledgers from 1907 and Prohibition-era whiskey bottles.

Flappers at the Golden Gate Hotel & Casino relaunch party

A bevy of beautiful flappers teased guests at the relaunch party.

There have been some modern additions as well. The hotel recently set up the first fully digital, high-definition surveillance system in the state. Approved by the Gaming Control Board, it’s situated in the casino next to the two-way mirrors that were used in the ’50s to detect cheats. In an effort to protect the environment, the Golden Gate has installed an Otis Gen2 elevator, another first in Nevada and only the 16th in the world. It uses technology that actually generates power as the car goes down, thereby reducing electrical usage. Closed-loop geothermal wells are also responsible for the refrigeration needed to keep drinks frozen at the hotel’s outdoor One Bar. Finally, the Golden Gate’s façade has been restored to its original condition – with present-day LED lighting.

So it’s easy to understand why this renovation project is such a big deal, as it preserves and enhances a Las Vegas legacy. Go see what has become of the city’s oldest – and newest – hotel.

“This is the year of the downtown renaissance,” explained Brandenburg, “and the Golden Gate Hotel & Casino is a true classic reborn.”

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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+.