On Nov. 7, 1941, one month before the attack on Pearl Harbor, the 58-room El Cortez opened on Sixth Street and Fremont Avenue in Las Vegas, the first hotel-casino in the downtown area.
Now grown to 364 rooms and the longest continuously operating casino in Las Vegas, El Cortez is undergoing an ambitious $21 million room renovation. Remodeling of the remaining 60-plus rooms in its 15-story tower is expected to begin in April.
The last major renovation of the rooms was more than 10 years ago. Owners were proud of the room size and amenities for the price, but customers indicated they wanted bigger bathrooms, said Mike Nolan, general manager, COO and one of the partners.
That insight and the need to upgrade the plumbing in the room tower drove the project. The response has been amazing, Nolan said.
"This puts us into the next realm," Nolan said. "The [rooms] are modern and functional, just something that really pops when you open the door. Not just the rooms, the hallways. It was an overall 100% redo."
The bathrooms feature larger vanities and showers, and rooms include fully lit makeup mirrors. Redesigned rooms include black and white floor tiles, rugs, carved wood details and modern accent furniture.
"The refreshed rooms offer a warm, modern design blended with a bit of whimsy while incorporating a splash of Spanish colonial revival-style," a project spokesman said. "Each floor features custom Las Vegas-inspired murals by local artist Orfin near the elevators and artwork showcasing some of the classic signs from the (nearby) Neon Museum in its halls. Accenting the mural is a bold pop of color, changing per floor, giving each level a distinctive personality of its own."
Among the recent additions to the property are the Cabana Suites in the former Ogden Hotel across the street; a series of suites that resulted from a "Design a Suite" competition in 2010; and the opening of Siegel's 1941 restaurant (a group of investors that included Bugsy Siegel owned El Cortez for a time in the 1940s) and Ike's Bar in 2015.
"One motto we've always had is: you can't stand still. If you're standing still, you're going backward," Nolan said.
In a downtown Las Vegas area that is experiencing a rebirth, El Cortez is the only hotel-casino in the Fremont East Entertainment District, just east of Las Vegas Boulevard. Nolan is the president of that district.
"We're getting a lot of new restaurants and nightclubs," Nolan said. "The residential now is starting to go. The Arts District is really growing. The Mob Museum is doing [great] numbers and has drawn so much interest to the area. The Neon Museum is doubling in size."
He credits Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh, who moved the company's headquarters downtown in 2013, and casino owner Derek Stevens (Golden Gate, the D and Circa, under construction) and others for downtown's momentum.
Even with the room upgrades and improvements throughout the property through the years, Nolan said El Cortez remains authentic to its roots.
"We have the loosest slots and the best slot promotions and the most liberal 21. We win awards for that," Nolan said, referring to the casino's rules for blackjack that are more favorable for players. "As people are driving by or coming to Vegas, they want to be here because it's a historical place, it's original, and that's what people want to see. I know when I travel, when I go into a town, I've always got to go to the historical downtown to look at it because that's the fun area."