old gives way to the new

the Mob Museum was fascinating in part because it illustrated to some extent the rapid pace at which Las Vegas turns over. if something’s not profitable, not working any more — implode it to make way for something new!

two stories in particular piqued my curiosity about classic resorts and what became of them. the first was the Desert Inn, originally situated on the Strip about parallel to where our hotel stood on Paradise Road. it opened in 1950, the fifth resort on the Strip and the first to have its own golf course. when the original owner (Wilbur Clark) ran short of money, the Cleveland mob took over with Wilbur remaining on as figurehead while Moe Dalitz arranged financing and stayed in the background.

the resort enjoyed its share of fame and notoriety in pop culture, beginning in 1960 with the original “Oceans 11” which featured the Desert Inn as one of five heist locations. six years later, Howard Hughes arrived on Thanksgiving and, when his reservation expired ten days later and he refused to leave, he simply negotiated with Dalitz to buy the hotel, eventually handing over $13 million for the property. it was the first of many Las Vegas purchases for Hughes (and remained a Hughes property until 1988), which later included the Sands (about which more in a moment). the Desert Inn was also featured in Dynasty and Vega$ in the 1980s, “Sister Act 2” and, finally, Rush Hour 2.

despite a major renovation project undertaken in 1997, the Desert Inn didn’t last long into the 21st century. three days after a time capsule was buried as part of the resort’s 50th anniversary celebrations, Steve Wynn purchased the property with the intention to demolish it in favor of a new megaresort. a year later, in October 2001, the main tower of the Desert Inn was demolished.

the Sands Hotel and Casino opened a next door to the Desert Inn in 1952 — the seventh resort on the Strip. the Sands also benefited from the Ocean’s 11 filming in 1960; during their stay in Vegas, the five stars of the show performed at the Sands’ Copa Room in what became known as the “Summit of the Sands” and generally held as the birth of the Rat Pack. this performance also marked a (limited) action taken by the Sands to allow a degree of integration in highly segregated Las Vegas; in the 1950s, the Sands “allowed” Nat King Cole to stay and gamble at the resort and in the 1960s, Sammy Davis Jr. convinced the resort to hire and permit entry to more blacks.

in 1988, Sheldon Adelson bought the Sands and eight years later decided to demolish it to make way for what is now the gargantuan Venetian Resort Hotel Casino. the Sands got one last hurrah on film, though, when the plane from Con Air crashed into its soon-to-be-demolished lobby at the end of the film. (I encourage you to search for “Jon Stewart says Sheldon Adelson.”

 and so, when there’s money to be had or money to be made, Vegas has no qualms about wiring explosives up to any old building whose shine has faded and pushing a detonation button. of course, when the rivers of cash freeze over in a frigid economic climate, demolitions may go forward without anything to rise up from the barren waste left behind.

Mob Museum

although not precisely what I expected (though on reflection, I’m not sure what I expected), the Mob Museum was very interesting. it sketches the history of mob-law enforcement conflict in the United States from approximately the Prohibition era to the recent past — up to and including the apprehension of Whitey Bulger in 2011.

the government sold the building in 2000 (for $1) with the stipulation that the new owners restored it to its original state and develop into a cultural site of some kind. the creative director of the resulting project previously brought the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and the International Spy Museum to the masses while a non-profit board supervises the museum in conjunction with the city of Las Vegas.

as I mentioned previously, the second-floor courtroom was the space I found most interesting as it best retained its 1930s character. in 1950 and 1951, the courtroom hosted one in a series of dramatic public hearings about the state of organized crime in the United States — spearheaded by Tennessee Senator Estes Kefauver. resulting from the frustration of local governments at their inability to stem the growth of organized crime (often due in part to the rampant corruption among local politicians and police departments) the Senate Committee set out to address the problem as it pertained to interstate commerce, something over which the federal government claimed jurisdiction. an important component of the Kefauver Hearings were their televised nature — for the first time, Americans saw crime bosses responding to accusations and presenting their true natures, rather than gathering impressions through media reports.

in the courtroom, the judge’s bench has moved back to the north side of the room with bar and observer benches taking up the remaining space. three screens descend from the ceiling over the judge’s bench and a narrative of mid-twentieth century Mob courtroom drama is projected onto them.

the Museum boasts numerous other artifacts, some infamous, some pedestrian, some interesting, some disquieting. as we wound our way through the third floor, several of the other visitors to the museum seemed quite engaged by the more macabre displays on offer — notably the still blood-stained wall against which seven men were gunned to death in the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, and a barber chair in which another mobster had his throat slashed. one woman in particular relished the opportunity to riddle a cutout with virtual bullet holes from a Tommy gun.

the Museum offered lots of information on an impressive array of topics — wire tapping, money skimming, gambling tricks, Mob killings, Mob hierarchy and succession, the Mob in movies (including a story of how a consultant on one film ended up recreating his own crime for the movie) — but, in the end, as an historian, I found myself wanting much more about the history of the Mob in Vegas. maybe I should have gone to the Nevada State Museum instead? (though their website does nothing to convince me I made the wrong choice.)

Old Las Vegas Post Office & Federal Courthouse

one of the places I found most interesting in downtown Vegas was the courtroom on the second floor of what is now the Mob Museum, and what once served as the Las Vegas Post Office and a Federal Courthouse. the Mob Museum (about which more later) was interesting, but I was somewhat dismayed by how generic most of the building felt. the courtroom was one of the few places in the museum that not only retained its original character but also used the feeling to the benefit of the exhibit.

an Federal administrator named James Wetmore oversaw the design and construction of the Las Vegas Courthouse. he began working for the government as a court reporter, then for the Treasury Department while he worked on a law degree from George Washington University. in 1911 Wetmore became executive assistant to the Supervising Architect of the Treasury; four years later he became “acting head” of the department in the expectation the post would be temporary. he retired from that position 18 years later and in the intervening years saw his name go onto buildings from Des Moines (US Courthouse) to Juneau (State Capitol) to Baltimore (Post Office & Courthouse) to Albuquerque (Federal Building & Courthouse), as well as the courthouse in Vegas. during his tenure overseeing New Deal works projects, Wetmore supervised 1,700 draughtsmen and had his name inscribed on the cornerstones of over 2,000 federal buildings.

stylistic decisions fell to a subordinate, Louis Simon, who exhibited a fierce preference for the classical style.  (have you ever wondered why so many federal buildings of the 1930s have such a similar classical or neo-classical style? now you know why!) both aesthetic frustrations (a desire to experiment with more modern styles, such as Art Deco and Moderne) and the use of in-house architects rekindled an animosity between Wetmore’s office and the American Institute of Architects. the Depression had taken a notable toll on the employment prospects of the members of the AIA and during the 1920s, Wetmore nearly doubled his staff (to some 750 people). how can your private sector members expect to find work on large projects, notably those funded by one of the few places with money to spend, when they’re bursting with workers? moreover, although a 1926 act allowed the government to commission private architects to work on projects, it did so sparingly.

the Las Vegas Post Office was part of the federal building program initiated by Hoover and went up between 1931 and 1933. neo-classical in style, the design aimed to inspire similarly tasteful private architecture endeavors; the owners of existing and future casinos took no notice and made no effort to follow the governmental example. undertaken at the same time as the nearby Hoover Dam, the Post Office & Courthouse was the first federal building (excluding a smaller post office built a few years earlier) constructed in Las Vegas and, for law-abiding citizens, proved a source of pride. (perhaps for those citizens living or working outside the bounds of legality, too …) when it opened, the first floor offered 11 windows for postal service transactions; fewer remain in use today, but we did buy our entrance tickets from someone behind one of those windows.

once construction began, problems cropped up — for a start, it was discovered that the building was 32 feet off-center from Third Street. footprint already excavated and foundation already poured, the  intended impressive/imposing view down that avenue had to be abandoned. shortly thereafter, it came to light that the company that won the contracting bid (by undercutting their nearest competition by $10,000) had forged important signatures; his contract was terminated, a grand jury convened, and a new bidding process launched. once a new bid was accepted six months later, work continued without incident until the post office began operating in November 1933.

the building was named to the National Register of Historic Places in thirty years ago last week and continued operating as a post office for several years. the government turned over control of the building, to become a museum and cultural center, in 2002; the Mob Museum opened this time last year.

Vegas Vic

at the end of January, I headed out west for some much needed time off — to Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon. I’ve been to Vegas several times — a perk of having friends who lived there and, for a period, living within reasonable driving distance — and went to the Grand Canyon with my family when I was 11 or 12. my traveling companion, however, had never visited either so it was interesting to experience both in a new way.

it doesn’t take very long before I reach my quota for Vegas spectacle. the Strip is something else to experience and there really is a lot to see and do … so long as shopping and gambling are near the top of your desired list of activities. we spent our first day soaking up everything from the Wynn to Bellagio and I lobbied to take a break on the second day and head downtown to get a taste of what Vegas looked like in the old days.

one of the most iconic site downtown (coming in after the more modern Fremont Street Experience) is Vegas Vic, the neon cowboy perched atop what once operated as the Pioneer Club Casino. the building dates from 1918, initially serving as a restaurant, clothing store, and offices before serving as a club and cocktail lounge from 1942. the casino was one of the most successful downtown for several decades, going through a series of remodels and expansions in the 1960s and 1980s. at one point it was owned by the proprietor of the Frontier Hotel (where we stayed during our Vegas Homecoming several years ago, shortly before it was demolished to make way for what one day might be the mega-resort Montreaux but which at the moment is a desolate vacant patch between Fashion Show Mall and Circus Circus).

new owners in the early 1990s, however, found they couldn’t compete with the larger, flashier casinos popping up along the Strip and at either end of the new Fremont Street Experience and the Pioneer closed in 1995. it remained vacant for three years before reopening as a souvenir shop. the owners retained both the vintage Pioneer Club sign and Vic on the front of the building; he’s still smiling down at tourists with his hat nearly brushing up against the screen of the Fremont Street Experience — they had to shave a few feet off for the new screen to fit.

Vic grew out of an ad campaign designed to draw people to Vegas; he originated on literature generated by a West-Marquis company, offering his trademark “Howdy Podner” greeting on postcards and elsewhere. because of his huge popularity, the Pioneer Club commissioned a Utah firm to construct a neon version. the result was the existing 40 foot structure, erected in 1951; at the time, Vic waved, puffed on a cigarette and said “Howdy Podner” every fifteen minutes. complaints about his volume prompted executives to silence Vic in 1966 for nearly two decades; he regained his voice in the 1980s but fell silent again at in 2006. he stopped waving in 1991.

after the casino closed in 1995, Vic feel into disrepair with no one maintaining him. ultimately, the Neon Museum offered to perform the upkeep if the property-owners paid the electric bill to illuminate Vic each day; the proprietor declined the offer and ended up restoring the sign themselves. now he’s got a red and yellow-checked shirt and a seven-and-a-half gallon hat, rather than the white and yellow-checked stripes and ten-gallon hat of the 1960s. and at some point he got hitched to the Glitter Gal across the road.

behind Hoover Dam

travel is all about trying new things, sometimes simply by virtue of being someplace new, but also because it brings you into contact with all kinds of new people who are involved in all kinds of different activities. take my second trip to Las Vegas, for example (it was the second, wasn’t it? or the third?), friends of the friends I was visiting were heading out to Lake Mead on their boat. those of you who have known me for long enough understand that I grew up in a canoe-outing, fishing-off-a-pontoon-boat type family and this was my first experience on a personal motor boat.

the coolest thing about being on the water was coming up to the back side of the Hoover Dam. on my previous trip to Vegas, we walked across the top of the dam and took in the looooooooong view down to the surface of the Colorado River at the base. construction lasted from 1931-1935 but the location had been scouted as a location for a potential dam beginning at the turn of the century. increasing population resulted in increasing demands for reliable irrigation systems and electricity. at the time construction began, Las Vegas claimed roughly 5,000 residents and somewhere between 10,000 and 20,000 unemployed workers descended in hopes of getting a job on the project. at its peak, just over 5,200 people were on the payroll (which, by terms of the contract, expressly prohibited Chinese labor and, by practice, included no more than 30 black people). not surprisingly, extreme weather and harsh working conditions led to the death of 112 laborers during the course of the project; the first man died in 1922 while scouting the location and his son was the last man to die, exactly thirteen years later. the official record doesn’t include deaths marked down as “pneumonia,” which workers claimed the company used to avoid compensating families for what was actually carbon monoxide poisoning from tunnels (which reached upwards of 140 degrees).

it’s been years now since I visited (four? five?) and I wonder how much lower the water levels have gotten. spillways run along either bank but they’ve only been used twice — once in 1941 to test their functionality and once in 1983 due to natural flooding. following both uses, engineers found major damage to the concrete lining of the spillway tunnels and the underlying rock. the cause each time was the same — cavitation — and, in theory that’s now been fixed. like I said, though, who knows if or when the Colorado River will raise to sufficient levels to test the spillways out. not any time soon, judging by how contentious an issue water has become out west.

bright lights in the City of Sin

no, dear readers, I have neither abandoned nor forgotten you. there was merely the matter of four fantastic weeks of football which I was obliged to watch and celebrate. lots of persuasive arm-twisting to get people to join me for 6:30 a.m. or mid-work-day matches. now it’s back to the important work of dreaming about what new (or old) places I might visit (or re-visit) here and in my travels.

during this hiatus, one of my co-workers went to Las Vegas for the first time (to celebrate her twenty-first birthday) and was, in a word, underwhelmed. it’s hard not to have certain expectations for a city with such notoriety; pop culture has cultivated such an unattainable image of what Vegas ought to be, what ought to happen there, the insanity and hilarity that will ensue on any visit, that reality won’t be able to compare. or, at least, not for anyone I know. with the bigger-than-reality dimensions Vegas takes on in popular culture, upon hearing her reflections I was rather thankful that my primary purpose in visiting Vegas each time was to see friends.

my first trip was chock-a-block with tourist attractions that were, for the most part, worth the effort. no matter how kitschy or cliched, you can’t avoid the sights that make a place famous. I find that the ones that I even have passing interest in are worth the effort, if for no other reason than to say you’ve seen one cultural icon or another. the fountains & gardens at the Bellagio were impressive, the canals at the Venetian something different, the floor shows were what one would expect, the Forum Shops gave me a headache from the lack of natural air, the lions at the MGM Grand were rather depressing, the Cirque du Soleil production of Ka was unquestionably spectacular — a stage that went fully vertical !, if also priced spectacularly.

but for all it’s glitz and glamor, had I not been visiting friends, I’m fairly certain I would have hated Vegas. (of course, if not for visiting those friends, I’m also fairly certain I would never felt any need to go to Vegas …) the very principles on which the city thrives — consumption, excess, careening headlong towards something “bigger” and “better” at any cost — are antithetical to the kind of travel that I enjoy. how many of the casinos that I saw when walking down the Strip for the first time in August of 2005 will be there in five, ten, fifteen years? some of them are already gone. the Bellagio seems iconic now, but so was The Dunes, which stood on the same location from 1955 to 1993. Vegas suffers from the same lack of “historical weight” as does San Diego and other sites in the American West, but Vegas has taken this deficit and capitalized on, exploited and extrapolated it. not only is there a lack of history, but there’s a complete rejection of the remotely culturally passe. Arabian themes? so early 90s (the Aladdin is now defunct). perhaps the Bellagio remains so iconic because it has modeled itself on something with historical weight (Lake Como in Italy) and Paris-Las Vegas is kitschy but memorable because it, too, rests on the historical cred of another structure.

my co-worker was disappointed that nothing truly “spectacular” happened; there were moments, she said, but nothing sustained, nothing that lasted. and maybe the fact that she didn’t have a sustained feeling of the exceptional lies rooted in that lack of historical weight. someplace that so cavalierly discards the icons of its past cannot produce the environment necessary to create moments of historical significance. I’m sure it happens for some people, that Vegas provides that experience for people who seek it out, but I’m also sure that I’m not the type of person to get satisfaction from that kind of experience (and I suspect that neither is my co-worker). I like my travel experiences to have more depth, and more permanence associated with them.

Hoover Dam

I’ve been to the Hoover Dam twice, visiting Gabrielle both times, and seen it from two perspectives: as a pedestrian crossing it on foot, and as a passenger on a boat on Lake Mead. far more impressive than the Gavins Point Dam on either account.

the first trip was just before I headed back to Knox for my senior year of college. it was also same week as Katrina, and I’d spent no small part of the week digesting news reports and coming to understand the scope of the devastation wrought on New Orleans. as such, it was nice to get out of the house and into the unrelenting desert sunshine for a view of something so massive and iconic.

initially known as the Boulder Dam (since it was to be constructed in the Boulder Canyon but relocated to Black Canyon), the dam was officially named for then-President Herbert Hoover, who was instrumental in getting the project initiated while Secretary of Commerce under Harding. it had been common practice to name dams after presidents — but not sitting presidents. at the time construction got underway, Hoover had an eye towards using the job-creation associated with the project in conjunction with his reelection bid; after he lost to FDR in 1932, Harold Ickes (the new Secretary of the Interior) admonished members of the project to revert to the Boulder Dam appellation. it wasn’t until a California Congressional representative (Jack Anderson) submitted a resolution to the House of Representatives in 1947 that use of the “official” Hoover name resumed.

construction of the dam began in 1931 and was completed in 1936 (two years ahead of schedule) and although there have been obvious benefits for the lower members of the Colorado River Pact (signed in 1922 to decide how to divide resources associated with said river), the environmental consequences of the Hoover Dam are also quite massive. in the six years following the completion of the dam, as the basin for Lake Mead filled, virtually no water reached the Colorado River Delta. the delta’s saltwater-freshwater zone which, at one time stretched some 40 miles south of the river mouth, turned into an inverse estuary, whereby the salinity at the mouth of the river is actually higher than in the ocean water surrounding it. additionally, the Hoover Dam eliminated the pattern of natural flooding that occurred along the lower portion of the Colorado River which, naturally, profoundly and adversely affected numerous species native to the river. of course, those who benefit from the energy generated by the dam accept the  endangerment of this flora and fauna (whether tacitly or implicitly). of the energy generated by the hydroelectric turbines, 29% goes to the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, 23% to the state of Nevada, 19% to the state of Arizona, and fully 15% to the city of Los Angeles. the price for cleaner energy?

(Hoover on wikipedia)