They Made Things Happen Downtown

A local couple, Richann and Larry, signed up for a Friday morning tour that was the kickoff for a whole week of events planned in celebration of their respective birthdays. Both had been involved over the years in many important redevelopment projects for the city, namely in downtown Las Vegas, and during the 2-hour trek, they contributed lots of information that related to my own narratives, essentially filling in the historical blanks in many cases.

Per usual, we started at the Mob Museum once the city’s federal courthouse and post office built during the era of Hoover Dam. Turns out, Richann was directly involved in the city’s acquiring the historic building from the federal government about 20 years ago. Former Mayor Oscar Goodman and other city leaders led the effort to establish what is now the National Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement. We checked out the lobby of the Museum that still retains a wall of old-fashioned bronze post office boxes.

Once we got to Fremont Street, Larry recalled his role as a redevelopment specialist in assisting the city in building the Fremont Street Experience in 1995. At the time Downtown was in decline and this project, the electronic canopy, revived Fremont Street with a new lease on life. He specifically recalled his efforts to negotiate with the casino hotels on the street to acquire their “air rights” to build the canopy. He reminded us that another redevelopment idea instead of the canopy was to build a series of water canals along Fremont – with a catchy name Las Venice. But the canopy prevailed and remains a testament to the brand and the mystique of a city celebrating light architecture.

At the corner of Casino Center, we talked about how the Golden Nugget, a 1940s casino, was re-made in the 1980s into the most luxurious hotel casino Las Vegas had ever seen. It was the only Downtown property to host a major Las Vegas performer, Frank Sinatra, with his own showroom. Richann showed an iPhone photo of Sinatra’s private dressing room which has been preserved exactly as it was 35 years or so ago.

Walking into Binion’s Horseshoe generated lots of stories and anecdotal remembrances. Benny Binion, a Texan, opened the upscale saloon-type casino, a “carpet joint,” in the 1950s which is where the World Series of Poker began. Larry stepped down the stairs to what was once the hotels famed restaurant, looking to see if he could find the restaurant booth that served as the office for Binion in running the casino.

We popped into the new Circa Resort, once the Las Vegas Club, one of the early gambling establishments on Fremont. We checked out Vegas Vicky (companion to Vegas Vic) who was once outside but, now, is ensconced beautifully in the rotunda of the hotel. Vic and Vickie were actually married in ceremony in the 1990s, so we noted that given their living arrangements, they are more of a modern couple these days.

Walking across the street, we went into Main Street Station Casino Hotel, an amazing Victorian palace-like property that houses an expansive collection of antiques from around the world. Larry recalled once visiting the warehouse of the eccentric hotel owner and seeing cascades of fabulous antiques piled up to the ceiling. Along with all the antiques the hotel is famous for a piece of the Berlin Wall that’s part of the Men’s restroom.

Walking back to Fremont, we paused at the intersection where the town was founded in 1905 as a railroad stop in the Mojave Desert. Passenger train service stopped in the late 1990s and Richann recounted years of efforts to try to develop high speed train service to and from LA. The Plaza Hotel now occupies the site, a classic 1970s property that has been in lots of movies like Back to the Future and Casino. The hotel also features a dazzling mid-mod porte cochere topped by the restaurant and bar of former famed Mayor Oscar B. Goodman – who, himself, had a cameo in the movie Casino.

Trekking back down Fremont, we ran into lots of the usual activities and characters of the day. The street buskers were starting to come out, assigned to sidewalk circles through a daily lottery system. There was the young magician, a regular, who made playing cards twirl around in space, and the showgirl pairs were starting to arrive, with a wave, a wink, and a take my photo gesture.

Out of the historic casino district, we paused at Slotzilla Plaza, the transition block to Fremont East, and Larry recalled the complicated efforts to acquire the individual properties to create a new commercial block Downtown about 20 years ago.

At Las Vegas Boulevard, we saluted the 1960s Hacienda Horse and Rider, the flagship sign of the Neon Museum that was installed in the median in 1996. We looked ahead and surveyed the Fremont East Entertainment District, a 40-block redevelopment district started over a decade ago, a project that Ricahnn and many other worked on for many years. A counter point to the casino district, it is a non- gaming area, an entrepreneur district with bars, restaurants, shops, galleries, murals and festivals.

We noted the new mural of Tony Hsieh, the legendary figure who shaped the neighborhood with his resources and his vision. His redevelopment effort called the Downtown project invested several hundred million dollars in the neighborhood and is said to have owned 30 blocks or so. Sadly, Tony Hsieh died in 2020.

Continuing our trek down Fremont, we passed lots of local restaurants and bars, some old and some new, many favorites – there are said to be 19 such establishments in the first block or so.

Walking on we checked out the vintage inspired neon signs installed along the way – a city project that Richann also worked on. As pylon signs streetside, they’ve become iconic features of the cozy new arts neighborhood, the Martini Glass, Dancing Girl, Ruby Slipper, and the Vegas Chevron Arrow. We gave a nod to the now-famed Container Park, and as the tour ended, the birthday couple paused and posed at the Vegas Arrow sign, both harboring generous smiles that set the tone of the day.