Moving Mountains, Building a City

How a Vegas pioneer helped shape the Valley’s soul

We’ve all heard the stereotype: Las Vegas is nothing more than a transient city, a plastic place where no one puts down roots, neighbors remain strangers, and the only civic duty is every man for himself. It’s not true, of course, and it never has been. But with the constant media flow of Vegas “mythology”—often delivered by our very own marketing gurus—sometimes we have to remind ourselves that we are a real community, built by people willing to devote their lives to an improbable dream. The recent death of Stuart Mason, a builder of the real Las Vegas, is occasion for such a reminder.

Mason came to Las Vegas with his wife, Flora, and their three children in April 1965. He had come from Coral Gables, Fla., to run the field for Taylor International, the lead contractor building Caesars Palace for Jay Sarno. At the time, Las Vegas had fewer than 100,000 residents; the Masons could make a real claim to being pioneers. Their home in the new Paradise Palms subdivision was surrounded by desert scrub. Overseeing a concrete pour on Caesars’ upper levels, Mason could look west and, between the train tracks and the mountains, see nothing but desert and shacks thrown together by homesteaders.

There was a city, of course—Las Vegas had been founded 60 years earlier—and there was a community, but there was still much to be done. His generation of urban pioneers, who moved west in the 1950s and 1960s to work in the burgeoning tourism and construction industries, gave the city much of the character it would have for the next half-century.

Mason was, by trade, a builder. You’ve walked through the places his company built, including Caesars Palace, the LVH (the former International and Hilton), Bally’s, the MGM Grand, the Venetian and the Palazzo. But Mason was a builder not just of the city, but of the community. After their daughter Debbie was diagnosed with Type I diabetes, the Masons learned there was scant support for those with the disease in area, so they helped to found the Las Vegas chapter of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. Throughout his career, Mason took a leadership role in the building community, serving as president of the Nevada State Contractors Board. And he gave back. When his synagogue, Temple Beth Sholom, needed a new home, he helped build it—and also served as president of the congregation. Late in life, he became deeply involved with UNLV Libraries, where he did more than just underwrite the innovative Mason Peer Research Coaches program—he got involved, spending time with university students and relishing time with those who shared his love for books and learning.

This is not the life of a man who lived in a city of transients. He, his family and his friends were building a community together. Meeting at each other’s houses, his generation created the religious and volunteer organizations that give life in Las Vegas much of its texture.

Civic involvement has always been a part of Southern Nevada. In 1911, the 800 residents of Las Vegas hadn’t even voted to incorporate as a city when 20 civic-minded women got together in a private home and created the Mesquite Club, a charitable organization that celebrated its centennial last year. Just this year, the opening of The Smith Center provided another example of how Las Vegas is a city of builders. Residents had a problem: Las Vegas didn’t have a world-class performing arts center. They didn’t just snark about the city’s lack of culture; they got together, raised money and organized a public-private partnership that yielded a multi-venue, state-of-the-art facility that has already added depth to the city. There’s a similar story behind The Smith Center’s Symphony Park neighbor, the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health, the Nevada Cancer Institute and innumerable other organizations that provide help to those who need it most: All of them are here because people care about their community.

Every generation, from the men and women who bought railroad lots in May 1905 down to today, has added something to the town. The city, much like Mason’s first Las Vegas job site, Caesars Palace, has grown beyond recognition: A few of us were here to see Evel Knievel jump the Caesars fountains on New Year’s Day, 1968; some were at the opening of the Forum Shops in 1992; others came after this January’s unveiling of the Octavius Tower. Aside from the fountains and the oval of the original casino, nearly everything has changed about Caesars. Those changes don’t mean that its history has been destroyed—they are the history. The same could be said about the transformations of the city as a whole.

Perhaps so many observers conclude that Las Vegas is a transient city without depth because the task of building a community in the desert seems so daunting: It would, it seems, take incredible hubris to try to form bonds in such a place. But it’s not hubris at all—it’s determination. It’s what makes a city live.

Not long ago, Stuart Mason had occasion to reflect on his time building Caesars Palace. There were considerable obstacles—both financial and logistical—to getting the hotel open. It was such a long shot, the smart money said they shouldn’t have even tried.

“Nothing was impossible, because we didn’t know any better,” he said, smiling at the memory. “When you’re young, and somebody says, ‘Go move that mountain,’ you say OK. You go move the mountain.”

That kind of mountain-moving doesn’t just get cities built. It gives them their soul.