Many of the most storied spots in Las Vegas entertainment history were showstoppers: The pulsating neon marquee of the Sands, the Riviera’s velvet-swagged showroom, the Sahara’s celebrity-packed lounges. All glorious, all gone. But one less-glitzy landmark lingers: the Harrison House.
During the days of segregation, black entertainers were not permitted to stay at the very Strip hotels that paid top dollar for their talent. So headliners such as Sammy Davis Jr., Nat King Cole and Pearl Bailey would spend their nights at Harrison House, a humble bungalow in the Historic Westside (a neighborhood that flourished, beginning in the 1930s, as an enclave for black Las Vegans) at 1001 F St. Now, with a new president and a new renovation plan, the Harrison House is ready for a new chapter.
“The house has a really significant history in the story of Las Vegas with African-American entertainers, but it hasn’t been highlighted very much,” says Harrison House president Ashanti McGee.
The house itself needs some work. “It is pretty worn down. There are a lot of things that need to be upgraded, so we’re trying to do a face-lift of the interior, exterior and the yard,” McGee says. Beyond landscaping and paint, the hope is to make the house “an LEED-certified green historic building,” and to that end, architect Rick Van Diepen of Greenview Global is spearheading the restoration plans.
Building public interest and raising funds for renovations will be the first step, and McGee thinks that Las Vegans’ growing appreciation for their history is making these projects easier. “I think we’ve got a lot of people that have a love for historic preservation and a love for showing people that there actually is a history of Las Vegas,” she says. “I think there’s a resurgence—between the restoration of the Historic Westside School [and] The Mob Museum.”
The house was added to the National Register of Historic Places last year, but the story of the Harrison House is about more than just one building. “It also helps explain a lot of things that exist now, [such as] the Historic Westside’s issue of not being developed,” McGee says. “At one time it was a flourishing, productive area of town—there’s a history behind that decline and a reason why a lot of people still celebrate it.”
After Harrison House’s improvements, the next step will be “promoting and telling people the story behind the [home] and creating tours, of [both] the Harrison House and the neighborhood.”
Tour the Historic Westside during a two-mile hike, in partnership with the Outdoor Afro Las Vegas Meetup group, on February 19 (meetup.com/outdoor-afro-las-vegas).
Photos by Cierra Pedro