The Dunes (1955-1993)
Location: Center Strip
3600 Las Vegas Blvd. S.
Las Vegas, NV 89109
What’s There Now: Bellagio
Dunes opens May 23
Dunes casino closes due to money problems; hotel remains open
Casino reopens in June after hotel is sold to new owners
Hotel adds golf course and convention center
21-story room tower opens
Dome of the Sea Restaurant opens
17-story room tower added
Oasis casino opens
Hotel declares bankruptcy
Property is sold
Japanese businessman buys the hotel
Property is sold to Steve Wynn
Hotel closes January 27
Major fire at closed hotel destroys major portions of it on September 16
Hotel is imploded October 27
Al Gottesman is credited with being the driving force behind one of the most influential and longest-lasting Las Vegas hotels, The Dunes. But who exactly was he? According to most Dunes histories, Gottesman is referred to as a “movie mogul” but the only thing that seems to support that reference is that he owned several movie theaters in Connecticut and Massachusetts, including the famed Palladium in Worscester. But Gottesman sold those theaters to Warner Bros in 1929 and what he did between then and the early 1950s when he popped up in Las Vegas are not well-documented. There are certainly no indications that he ever produced, directed, or had anything to do with an actual movie.
Could he have been a part of an organized crime syndicate? It certainly wouldn’t be surprising considering that most Las Vegas hotels developed during the time period came from mob money in one way or another, but since the history books are unclear let’s just refer to Gottesman as a the accepted “movie mogul” and leave it at that.
Gottesman and partners from Las Vegas bought a horse ranch at what is now the southwest corner of The Strip and Flamingo. Although now one of the busiest intersections in the world, in 1953 it was fairly desolate territory. The Flamingo had been up and running for nearly a decade across the highway but most of the action with hotels like The Frontier, The Desert Inn, The Sahara, and The Sands were happening much further north. The property was the southernmost to be dedicated to a major resort and would be, for a time, the first one that visitors driving in from California would encounter.
Whether Gottesman was involved in organized crime or not is unknown but it is widely accepted that money raised to complete The Dunes came from less than reputable sources. A alleged Rhode Island crime syndicate and the infamous Teamster’s Pension Fund were responsible for the bulk of the $3.5 million required to build the resort.
The hotel had an Arabian nights theme complete with a 48-foot tall sultan statue atop the porte corchere. There was a dinner theater showroom called The Arabian Room, a double-Olympic sized swimming pool in a V-shape billed as the “largest in America” at the time, restaurants, bars, and a casino, of course.
With all of the competition boiling over on The Strip, The Dunes wasn’t able to compete and suffered from money woes almost immediately. Management from The Sands was brought in to try to right the ship but the casino shut down at least twice in late 1955 into 1956 although the motel portion stayed open. The property was sold to a Chicago firm and had a “grand reopening” in June of 1956.
In 1959 the hotel added a golf course, convention center, and more parking.
In 1961 the hotel joined the high-rise boom by adding a 21-story tower bringing its room total to 450. Much of the property was redone at the same time, pulling back (a bit) on the Arabian Nights theme and going for a more modern, 60s contemporary look. Not long after the Sultan was removed from the top of the porte corchere and the iconic neon Dunes sign was added at the front of the property. He was moved to the golf course at the back of the hotel, visible from the interstate.
A 1965 addition to the property was the Dome of the Sea restaurant, a clam-shell shaped structure used projections inside to give the illusion of dining under water. It was located at the front of the property, more or less in the middle of what is now the lake where the Bellagio Fountains are located.
The next major expansion to the property was in 1979 when a 17-story hotel tower was added. In 1983 a second casino was added with an entrance closer to The Strip’s foot traffic. Dubbed the Oasis Casino, it was located where the current Via Bellagio shopping area is.
The following year, saddled by debt and an underperforming casino, the owners of The Dunes declared bankruptcy. It was sold in late 1984 to the owner of The Maxim, a hotel on Flamingo just east of The Strip.
The hotel was sold again in 1987 to a Japanese investor who promised big things but could never raise the money to upgrade the property.
I personally remember staying at The Dunes in the early part of 1989. I had booked one of the cheap motel style rooms out back but when I got there they gave me a room in the main tower overlooking The Strip for the same rate. By that time the entire property was seriously run-down and only a shadow of its glamorous former self.
The Dunes closed on January 27, 1993 and was scheduled for demolition later in the year but a fire in the mostly unoccupied buildings took care of a great deal of that work. The September 16, 1993 blaze destroyed much of the original motel style buildings at the back of the property and seriously damaged the casino and portions of the high-rise towers.
The final moments of The Dunes were quite spectacular. Treasure Island opened on October 27, 1993 and owner Steve Wynn connected the occasion to the implosion of remaining portions of The Dunes. A faux cannon shot from the pirate ship in front of TI “triggered” a massive fireworks and implosion spectacle that brought down the northernmost room tower and the Dunes sign. The remaining hotel tower was imploded “quietly” in 1994 to make way for the construction of Bellagio, which opened in 1998.
By the way, in case you’re wondering what happened to the giant Sultan statue… in 1985 a presumed electrical short in the lighted figure caused a fire that reduced the Sultan to ash.