Thanks to Hollywood and the 1991 movie “Bugsy,” many people believe the glory days for Las Vegas began with the opening of the Flamingo Hotel Casino in 1947. However, the honor really goes to El Cortez, which was the first casino resort in Downtown Las Vegas when it opened in 1941.
Today, El Cortez is the longest continuously operating casino in Las Vegas, and the management and staff are fiercely proud of the history behind the property. For proof, look no further than the fact that 47 rooms of its total 360 are “Vintage Rooms” that date back to when the original structure was built 81 years ago.
The Vintage Rooms have a cult following and are frequently requested by guests. They are located on the part of the property closest to the corner of 6th and Fremont, beneath the iconic El Cortez neon sign that has been in place since 1952. They are reachable by a narrow stairwell that begins next to the craps tables at the heart of the casino.
General Manager Adam Wiesberg invited Gaming America to El Cortez on National Blackjack Day, March 2, to announce a long-awaited facelift for these living bits of history. After eight decades, the floorboards were a bit squeaky, and some other signs of age were showing, so all Vintage Rooms closed in April for an overhaul that is expected to be completed by this fall.
“We have wanted to remodel them for some time but there are challenges with remodeling an 80-year-old building,” Wiesberg said with a laugh.
Two Vintage Rooms already received their facelift, and were shown to outsiders for the first time on March 2.
“We are limited as to how much we can do to the structure, but our mock-up rooms look amazing, and we cannot wait to welcome guests into those new rooms,” Wiesberg said.
As nostalgic as Vegas gets
Las Vegas is well known for continually reinventing itself, and one consequence of that mindset is older casinos are demolished and replaced, not venerated and preserved – even those that were extraordinarily popular in their heyday. Just to name two examples that used to be kings of The Strip, Bellagio was built where the Dunes used to reign, while across the street Venetian and Palazzo loom over the long dead bones of the legendary Sands.
Many of the casinos that have survived and still are on their original sites bear little or no resemblance to their humble beginnings, such as the Flamingo, Tropicana or even Caesars Palace.
All of which makes the longevity and continuity of El Cortez all the more remarkable, and its history rather compelling.
According to a timeline carefully tracked by the casino’s marketing department, El Cortez was built in 1941 when John Kell Houssels partnered with John Grayson and Marion Hicks, the latter a Los Angeles architect and developer. Construction cost $245,000, and the result was a resort with 59 rooms that was designed in a Spanish ranch theme.
In 1945, El Cortez was sold to some of its most notorious owners: Gus Greenbaum, Meyer Lansky, Moe Sedway and Bugsy Siegel (later investors in the Flamingo) purchased it for $600,000.
Geoff Schumacher from the Las Vegas Mob Museum recently confirmed El Cortez was the first hotel casino in the city to be owned by the Mob.
In 1946, Houssels reacquired El Cortez. He and partner Ray Salmon tacked on a $250,000 expansion that included a barber shop, nightclub, swimming pool and a four-story wing. The property then underwent a remodel in 1950.
In 1952, the “new” Hotel El Cortez held its grand opening. The property’s neon arrow, marquee and signature sign were installed and still shine on the property to this day. Over the years, El Cortez has undergone numerous renovations to the interior of the hotel but has maintained the same façade since the early fifties.
Eleven years later, in 1963, Vegas legend Jackie Gaughan purchased El Cortez from Houssels for $4m. Gaughan maintained ownership of the hotel casino for five decades, and resided at the hotel until his death in 2014.
Gaughan is credited with being instrumental in the development of Downtown Las Vegas. At one point in time, he owned one-third of the land in the area. His residence at El Cortez is described as a time capsule, with much of the suite preserved as it was in the 1980s. This includes a pale pink-and-gold interior, dramatic lighting, statement furniture pieces and more, all of which combine to transport guests into a different era.
The Gaughan Suite is kept alive as a hidden gem, located on El Cortez’s 15th floor and available to book by special request only.
Speaking of the Eighties, the El Cortez Guest Tower II was built in 1980, bringing the hotel’s overall room count to 297.
The next major upgrade took place in 2006, when El Cortez renovated the casino and its guest room interiors.
In 2007, all Downtown properties got a tourism boost when the Fremont East Entertainment District became official. There now is a trail of trendy bars and restaurants leading visitors from the cluster of casinos on Fremont Street to El Cortez, a few blocks east.
One year later, in 2008, Gaughan sold El Cortez to his longtime family friend, partner and gaming pioneer, Kenny Epstein. Since then, the property has been one of only a few family-owned and operated hotel casinos in Las Vegas.
In 2009, El Cortez added 64 El Cortez Cabana Suites in the former Ogden Hotel, bringing the property’s room count to 364.
El Cortez completed a $25m renovation just in time for its 80th anniversary celebration in November 2021. As part of the remodel, El Cortez revamped the casino floor with brand new ceilings and a woven Axminster carpet by Brintons, a renowned manufacturer.
When devoted El Cortez guests heard its vintage rose patterned carpet was to be replaced, thousands flocked to the hotel to purchase a square of the carpet they knew and loved from years past.
Other features from this extensive renovation included 200 remodeled, premium tower rooms and suites that inspire a modern take on historical themes. The suites are said to draw inspiration from the Spanish Colonial Revival era, with decorative elements including black-and-white floor tiles, traditional-style rugs, modern accent furniture, and carved wood details.
El Cortez also unveiled a new high-limit room and an updated hotel lobby in 2021.
Balancing preservation with modern comfort
Wiesberg told Gaming America the latest renovation was no small task.
“Our Tower was originally built in 1980, and it has seen various updates with new carpet, paint and furniture over the years,” he recalled. “But in 2021, we did a complete remodel, costing about $100,000 per door. We removed material down to the framework, so everything is truly brand new. The Tower rooms offer great views of The Strip and surrounding mountains and now include a modern design that maintains the authentic, vintage Las Vegas experience El Cortez tries to preserve.”
Asked to describe the balance of venerating history and offering guests a comfortable stay, Wiesberg noted El Cortez not only was the first casino resort built Downtown, it is the only standing casino listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It received the honor on February 22, 2013.
“That history is very important to us, and we feel a responsibility to preserve it the best we can,” he explained. “We rely on our team to produce brand new, modern designs and fixtures but we insist the authentic, historic feel to come first.”
On National Blackjack Day, Wiesberg reported El Cortez had 15 blackjack tables, eight of which were single-deck, with five double-deck games and only two six-deck games – a highly player-friendly mix in an era of analytics pushing for a higher house advantage.
According to Wiesberg, making single deck and double deck blackjack available is a sign of loyalty toward existing customers, and a way to attract new customers who research “best blackjack in Vegas” online. “El Cortez benefits from being owned by true casino pioneers and great operators. Our current CEO, Kenny Epstein, was partners with Jackie Gaughan, so the property has really been under the same operating team for decades,” he said. “We have always been known for great value and it has served us well and will continue to be a primary focus. What really sets El Cortez apart, though, is the personal attention we provide, and the unique, authentic experience guests can find here that can’t be found in any other property.”