Black Landmark Has a Green Future

Historic boarding house highlights the struggle between the past and future in West Las Vegas

The former Harrison Boarding House at 1001 F St. is decidedly unsexy—a relentlessly plain white one-story house in a neighborhood choked by empty lots. Set smack in the middle of West Las Vegas’ neglected historic core, you’d hardly expect anything else. Under the crumbling exterior lies a lavish tale, however: the underbelly of Las Vegas’ golden years, when many legendary performers—Sammy Davis Jr. and Pearl Bailey are two—had to sleep here, segregated, while they played the Strip.

While most of us wouldn’t slow down to give the Harrison house a second look, Katherine Duncan decided last spring to buy the place and restore it as a museum, cultural center and model of modern energy efficiency.

The house, built in 1942 and owned by Geneva Harrison, was one of the epicenters of black entertainment life in Las Vegas. According to a city brochure, “During one week in 1949 the house was graced with Jack Benny’s sidekick Eddie [‘Rochester’] Anderson, singer Bob Parrish, the Edwards Sisters, the Jubalaires and musician/singer Arthur Lee Simpkins.” The boarding house’s fortunes declined after the Strip was integrated. In recent years the home was privately owned and eventually fell into foreclosure.

Duncan is the president of the Ward Five Chamber of Commerce, which encompasses the west side of Las Vegas north of U.S. 95 and includes parts of downtown. She bought the house for $32,500 in April in conjunction with the Las Vegas Black Historical Society. Today the main structure and adjoining carriage house look forlorn. The portico is sealed off with white wrought-iron fencing, and the large lot is full of gravel and leafless, weary trees.

To boot, when Duncan bought the house, she discovered that thieves had skillfully stripped out the copper wiring and pipes. But during the next seven months, with more than $20,000 in community donations, she led renovation efforts. “We want to restore it to its original grandeur,” she says. “We want to tell the story that racism played in the 1950s and the historic westside.”

The goal is to restore Harrison House and turn it into a museum celebrating the Moulin Rouge, the first desegregated hotel-casino in Las Vegas. Duncan says longtime Moulin Rouge owner Sarann Knight Preddy has a large collection of memorabilia she’s willing to lend to a museum; Carrie Pollard, a former dancer, also has her own collection.

Everything was going fine until November, when the house was vandalized again. The water had been turned on, flooding the home.

“It’s a blow,” she says. “It’s a loss. We had so many donated hours.”

It’ll cost at least another $20,000 to re-renovate the house, and Duncan knows that getting donations a second time won’t be easy. On the other hand, she thinks this time there’s an opportunity to kick her green ambitions into high gear.

Duncan wants to transform the Harrison into a model “green” home, making it “totally energy efficient.” Such ambitions are rarely associated with poor neighborhoods, but Duncan wants to change that.

She’s enlisted a local firm, Shaw Sustainable, to sketch out some ideas for the building. Owner Howell Shaw wants the house to serve as an example for the neighborhood, “a prototype for people to come and take a look at what techniques are available to green their house. It’s one thing to talk about it. It’s another to see it.”

Duncan and Shaw are exploring everything from solar water heaters to a small-scale wind turbine to composting toilets. The house also will have Energy Star appliances, flooring made from bamboo, cork or sunflower seeds, and desert landscaping.

Despite the setbacks, Duncan is pursuing an aggressive rehab schedule. She wants to complete renovations to the Harrison house and reopen this month. Ultimately, she wants to get the building listed on the National Register of Historic Places—but she knows there’s likely to be tension between past and future and history and environmentalism. “At one point,” she says, “we will sacrifice historical integrity to make it energy efficient.”

These sacrifices may be small, but Duncan’s ambitions for one of Vegas’ perpetually ignored communities couldn’t be bigger. “It’s time,” she says, “for that neighborhood—our neighborhood—to come out of poverty.”