April 15, 2013

A New Designation for Las Vegas' Historic El Cortez Hotel

  • By: Katherine Flynn
Neon sign at historic El Cortez Hotel in Las Vegas. Credit: Roadside Pictures, Flickr

Las Vegas is legendary for being a city of neon lights and tourists -- a place where everything, from the amount of money in people’s wallets to the signs outside of hotels and casinos, is constantly in flux.

So when the El Cortez Hotel, the longest continuously running downtown hotel-casino in the city, was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in February of this year, Courtney Mooney, a historic preservation officer for the city of Las Vegas, saw it as a preservation victory in an ephemeral place.

“With the culture here, it’s very hard to convince people that historic designation is the proper thing to do,” she says.

The El Cortez was built in 1941 on Fremont Street, in the heart of Las Vegas’ downtown. It’s been in operation ever since, with a 1952 renovation bringing the addition of the iconic neon sign that still sits on top of the roof. It’s one of the oldest establishments on the street, and the only one to continue doing business under its original name. Although the building has undergone some changes and updates over the years, it’s still recognizable as the same vintage casino, favored by locals over larger venues that are traditionally chock-full of tourists.

“When you listen to the old-timers talk, it’s very much how old casinos used to be on Fremont Street,” says Mooney.

El Cortez hotel, Las Vegas. Credit: BradeleyGee, Flickr

Alexandra Epstein, executive vice president of the El Cortez, was excited at the prospect that the El Cortez would be the first existing casino on the register.

“It’s a great example of mid-20th century architecture,” she says. “In Las Vegas, there’s a tradition of rebuilding every 20 or so years. The fact that we’re in the middle of downtown is pretty special, I think.”

The nomination grew out of a suggestion by architectural historian Peter Moruzzi, who approached Epstein while at the casino and told her that, from his perspective, the El Cortez belonged on the National Register. Epstein and the owners commissioned Moruzzi to write and submit the nomination, and he did some digging into historical records and archives, unearthing some interesting facts -- including several instances of the El Cortez welcoming some of the first African-American performers into Las Vegas in the days of segregation.

While the El Cortez’s historic value is undeniable, it is also fortunate to be riding the latest trend in this trend-obsessed city: visitors’ desire to feel like they’re getting a slice of vintage, old-school Las Vegas.

“El Cortez has always kind of been that staple,” says Mooney. “They don’t have to go back to retro or make anything up because they never really changed.”

She continues, “They’re going to be such a great model to show the rest of the casinos that the world is not going to come to an end because they’re on the National Register."


Katherine Flynn is a former assistant editor at Preservation magazine. She enjoys coffee, record stores, and uncovering the stories behind historic places.


Each year, America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places sheds light on important examples of our nation’s heritage that are at risk of destruction or irreparable damage.

See the List