A Past Worth Preserving

Before celebrating the best of our current city, we pause to remember that ‘then’ is as important as ‘now’

La Concha and guardian angel | Photo by Jon Estrada

La Concha | Photo by Jon Estrada

Las Vegas has long defined “the past” differently than most cities—here, it usually means last weekend. As such, we’re not known for our embrace of history (Bugsy Siegel was mayor, right?) or our preservation of architectural relics (How many casinos have we imploded this decade?). Too often we view “newest” as a synonym for “best,” an attitude that’s hazardous to any city’s heritage.

Sometimes, though, we do pause long enough to understand the importance of preventing our landmarks from slipping into Lost Vegas. Enter the Nevada State Register of Historic Places, which was established in 1979 “to recognize those places that express history, archaeology or culture important to Nevadans,” says JoAnn Kittrell, public information manager for the Nevada Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

Unfortunately, the Great Recession put a halt to that recognition for several years. Kittrell says statewide budget cuts resulted in the Nevada State Register program being mothballed in 2008; it was reestablished in 2013, and since then, four Las Vegas sites have been designated as historic landmarks. The most recent was the lobby of La Concha Motel (now the Neon Museum visitors center), which followed the “Welcome to Las Vegas” sign, Lorenzi Park and the Harrison House, a guest house where many African-American entertainers stayed in the days when the Strip was segregated.

Photo by Geoff Carter

Photo by Geoff Carter

The latter site is in the Historic Westside, the ward of Councilman Ricki Barlow. “Having that historic designation attracts more people to the area, locals and tourists alike,” Barlow says. “We were looking for stories to tell, [and] now people can stand at those sites where history took place.”

Achieving official historic status also helps raise a building’s profile and makes it eligible for a variety of public and private grants—essential for maintaining aging structures.

“Preservation organizations bring outside expertise to planning and redevelopment that not only can save cities and jurisdictions public dollars but also provide a path to communities with a past,” says Heidi Swank of the Nevada Preservation Foundation.

Obtaining recognition is a process that involves a number of experts who gather and weigh the validity of applicants, such as La Concha. “A collection of architects and preservationists in the western United States, including the Neon Museum, have sought to celebrate the importance of the La Concha Lobby to the region’s architecture,” Kittrell says.

From the Guardian Angel Cathedral to La Concha Motel (below), Paul Revere Williams left an indelible mark on our city. | Photos by Jon Estrada

From the Guardian Angel Cathedral to La Concha Motel (below), Paul Revere Williams left an indelible mark on our city. | Photos by Jon Estrada

So what are the requirements to be considered for inclusion on the Nevada State Register of Historic Places? A site must be at least 50 years old and be associated with “significant” persons or events and/or embody a distinct historic or design period. Among other buildings previously recognized for their important roles in the story of Las Vegas are the Huntridge Theater (1944) for its streamline moderne design; the Morelli House (1959) at 861 East Bridger Avenue as an outstanding example of mid-century modern and a hangout of the Rat Pack (it was once the home of the Sands’ entertainment director); and the Westside School (1923) and the Las Vegas Post Office/Courthouse (1933, currently home to the Mob Museum).

Of course, some of our city’s finest structures that meet eligibility prerequisites are still awaiting official designation. The Little Church of the West (1942) is the oldest building on the Strip and the final vestige of the Last Frontier Hotel, as well as where Elvis Presley and Ann-Margret at least pretended to get married in Viva Las Vegas. The mid-century Guardian Angel Cathedral (1963) on Las Vegas Boulevard has glorious mosaics and was designed by legendary architect Paul Revere Williams. The mission-style Lincoln Hotel (1910) on Main Street once catered to railroad passengers and workers during our city’s infancy. And the Las Vegas Country Club (1968) possesses an elegantly eccentric ’60s design and has long been the stomping grounds of many of our city’s movers and shakers. (Yes, the Country Club is only 47 years old, but why not get a head start?)

The interior of Morelli House

The interior of Morelli House

If she had a vote, Swank says she’d cast it for the circa 1963 Bridger Building, noting the contrast of aqua stone and transparent glass walls that make it an excellent example of the early-’60s international style. “It is buildings like the Bridger Building and the even more fabulous 302 and 304 Carson Avenue complex (which also dates from the 1960s) that—if allowed to remain—will someday make Las Vegas feel like an old city, a city with history,” she says.

Barlow echoes the importance of preservation, not just for the past but the present, as people and organizations “try to tie the old in with the new and hold onto the rich history, but at the same time take the community forward.”

It may not be an easy balancing act, but one that’s necessary to preserve our city’s treasures.