El Cortez (1941-Present)
El Cortez (1941-Present)
Location: Downtown Las Vegas
600 Fremont St.
Las Vegas, NV 89101
What’s There Now: El Cortez
Closed: Still In Operation
El Cortez opens 1941
Hotel is bought by Bugsy Siegel and Meyer Lanksy
Siegel and Lanksy sell the property back to its original owners; use profits to build The Flamingo
El Cortez is sold to local gaming magnate Jackie Gaughan
More hotel rooms are added
15-story room tower is added
Major renovation and expansion
Gaughan sells the hotel but still lives on the top floor
Jackie Gaughan dies
When El Cortez opened it was not expected to last long. It was too far away from most of the other casinos and it was too “fancy” for Downtown, with a ranch style building, restaurants, entertainment, and a big (for its time) casino.
Now, more than 70 years later, El Cortez is the oldest, continually operating hotel-casino in Vegas that has never changed its name.
The hotel was built in 1941 by Las Vegas casino operator JK Houssels, Los Angeles architect Marion Hicks, and Los Angeles businessman John Grayson. They wanted to put it closer to the Glitter Gulch action but land costs were too prohibitive so instead they put The El, as it is affectionately known, several blocks away at 600 E. Fremont. That might not seem like a big deal now but then, when the bulk of the casinos were located within a block or two of one another, it was almost considered Siberia.
It cost around $250,000 and included 59 rooms, making it one of the biggest hotels in the Downtown area and certainly one of the most expensive. In those days the opening of most casinos involved slapping a coat of paint (maybe) on an existing room, putting in some tables, and opening the doors.
But The El was a success and by 1945 it had become so profitable that it caught the attention of some “businessmen” who wanted to get their foot in the door of the Las Vegas casino scene. Their names: Bugsy Siegel and Meyer Lansky. Although the mafia was already in Vegas, the purchase of The El by such high-profile mob figures as Siegel and Lansky is considered by many to be the start of the organized crime era in Sin City.
In 1946, Siegel and Lanksy sold the property back to JK Houssels and they used the profit they made to build The Flamingo, a move that didn’t end well for Bugsy.
Houssels was becoming a major player in Vegas and during the time he owned The El, he also owned or operated several historic casinos including The Thunderbird and Tropicana on The Strip, the Las Vegas Club in Downtown, and the Showboat on Boulder Highway.
In 1963 he sold The El to Jackie Gaughan, who until that time had been a minor investor in casinos like The Boulder Club and The Flamingo.
Gaughan added rooms to the hotel in 1963 and it operated with only minor updates all the way until 1980 when a 15-story tower added several hundred more rooms. Gaughan started living on the top floor of the tower.
The hotel received a major upgrade and expansion from 2006-2008 that turned what had become a dusty and somewhat dingy property into a more modern, yet still comfortable one. The casino and rooms were completely redone, restaurants were revamped, a new porte corchere and lobby were added, and new suites were added by refurbishing a small hotel across the street. But if you pay attention you can still see the original 1941 buildings at the corner of 6th and Fremont Street and you can still stay in rooms that have been in service for 70 years.
Gaughan sold the hotel in 2008 but lived on the top floor of the hotel tower until his death in March of 2014. He acted as The El’s goodwill ambassador and could often be seen playing poker or eating at the hotel’s restaurants.