When the El Cortez announced the winner of its Design-a-Suite Downtown competition recently, the downtown stalwart did more than decide the look for its suites; it reaffirmed its faith in the neighborhood.
“Jackie Gaughan’s always said that’s what’s good for downtown is good for the El Cortez,” executive manager Alexandra Epstein says. “That’s why we’re cultivating friendships with designers and the World Market Center and bringing in as many people as possible. We want to highlight our neighbors.”
Tina Enard of Urban Design Studio won the contest with a suite called “Big Sleep,” just edging out Patrick Peel and Michael Theime’s “El Contempo Suite.”
The “Big Sleep” mixes, in Epstein’s words, “crime and charisma.” Visually, it’s miles away from the drab green carpet and hotel-standard fittings it replaces. A single photo of a dry desert lakebed spans the entire length of the room on one wall, while a striped carpet recalls a bit of the pinstriped glamour of the Bugsy Siegel days.
A more literal nod to the subterranean mob connection can be found just inside the door, as a dish overflows with shell casings—truly an “only in Vegas” touch, and one that’s not out of place in a hotel that’s just down the street from the soon-to-open Mob Museum.
Brian Thornton of Brian G. Thornton Designs is as responsible as anyone for the competition’s execution, helping to create the guidelines for the contest and pull together the all-star jury. He has some insight into what set Enard’s design apart from the others.
“It’s got great acoustics, which is very important for a hotel room. You get a wonderful cocoon feeling, with the carpet complementing it. The colors and the materials bring a whimsical feel, but all of the finishes feel very grown-up. It’s timeless.”
Enard is no stranger to the downtown market, having done design work for several Boyd Gaming properties. And she was mindful of the past in designing the “Big Sleep.”
“I looked into the history of the property,” she says. “I learned that Bugsy Siegel used to own the hotel. So I played off of that, and the desert, juxtaposed that with sophistication.”
For El Cortez general manager Mike Nolan, picking a winner was difficult.
“I wish we had 24 suites to remodel,” he says. “Any of these designs could have won.”
Peel and Theime didn’t walk away empty-handed. The two relatively novice designers got an excellent consolation prize—a chance to remodel the lounge next to the casino’s Flame Steakhouse. Everyone involved with the competition agreed that “discovering” the two young designers was one of the best things to happen, and Nolan’s given them an important space to reimagine.
“We really want that to be a place where people can meet at the El Cortez,” he says.
The contest, which began with a call for entries last June, started with 32 entries; four selected in July built out their designs. Since completion, the rooms have been pored over, not just by members of the judging panel, but by the property’s engineers, housekeepers and regular guests.
“When we saw the different suites, we could picture different customers in each of them—like, oh, Darlene would love this one, and Gregory would like that one,” Epstein says with a smile. As a small, family-owned operation, there’s an intimacy between the El Cortez and its patrons that’s uncommon in Las Vegas these days. Most casino executive teams don’t know many of their guests’ names, much less their tastes in interior design.
Right now, guests can try any—or each—of the four suites for themselves. Next week Enard, Epstein and the rest of the team will begin remodeling the six remaining suites. Tentative projections have all six back in the rental pool by Memorial Day.
The Design-a-Suite Downtown competition is just the latest step the El Cortez’s owners have taken to keep the property—which turns 70 this year—relevant in the age of megaresorts and ultra-lounges. Over the past five years, they’ve invested close to $28 million in renovations.
According to Thornton, the casino’s found “the way to do it right.” “The El Cortez responded to the economic realities of today by creating the competition and letting all of these designers show off their creativity,” he says. “Alex had a brilliant idea that’s already been paid back many times over. The El Cortez got four great suites and launched a career for two young designers. I guarantee that you will see this again.”