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HOME > VEGAS > Vegas News > History of Las Vegas, Ancient and Recent, is Coming Together

History of Las Vegas, Ancient and Recent, is Coming Together

31 January 2006

Las Vegas Sun

by Dan Kulin

Although a common perception is that Las Vegas' history began with slot machines and neon, the city's roots can be traced to prehistoric times -- and will be saved for future generations thanks to millions of dollars in preservation projects.

The projects, ranging from centuries-old relics to more familiar 20th-century icons, represent perhaps the most expensive collection of historic preservation plans undertaken by the city.

Topped by the $20 million-plus restoration of the old downtown Post Office, the projects will help chronicle Las Vegas' history through eons, starting with a prehistoric riverbed containing the fossils of ancient marine life and extending through more recent historic landmarks such as the La Concha Motel's conch-shaped lobby.

The confluence of historic preservation projects came as the city celebrated its 100th anniversary last year, a celebration that many said fueled an interest in historic projects. The city's downtown revitalization efforts have been another contributing factor.

Michael Green, a Community College of Southern Nevada history professor, cited those two factors, but also characterized the numerous historic preservation projects as "a sign of a maturing community."

"The more people come here and want to make it their home permanently promotes a sense of community, and that promotes a sense of history," he said.

"Plus, there's the physical reaction to the 1990s when we blew up a lot of hotels that were part of our history. People were all saying Las Vegas just blows up its history, which led people to say, 'Oh yeah, here's some history.' "

The projects in progress include:

* Preservation of the prehistoric riverbed next to Centennial Hills Park at North Buffalo Drive and Elkhorn Road. Funded by a $4 million federal grant, the plan calls for trails, construction of a fence around sensitive areas and the reintroduction of some native plant species.

* The Fifth Street School project, in which about $9 million will be spent to preserve one of the city's earliest school buildings.

* The roughly $1 million relocation of the La Concha lobby to the evolving Neon Museum.

* Efforts to secure up to $500,000 to restore another early school, the Westside School.

* The recently moved railroad cottages, which are to be renovated and put on display at the nearby Las Vegas Springs Preserve -- a massive project in its own right located at the valley's original water source.

Another $145,000 will be spent on signs marking these and more than a dozen other historic sites around downtown, such as the old Las Vegas High School.

While the historic buildings may never rival the Strip as a tourist attraction, they will perhaps have niche followings in addition to being a draw for locals. For example, the Neon Museum, which boasts a vast collection of the area's distinctive signs from the past, could have regular open hours in about a year.

"We're seeing a dynamic coming together of these things and a great deal is going on," state Historic Preservation Officer Ron James said.

"The Las Vegas Centennial helped raise the awareness ... We may never eclipse the Bellagio or the Strip with historic preservation ... but there will be some that come here for that."

"And there are few businesses in this world that would turn up their nose at another 2 percent in revenue," James said, referring to the possible economic effect of history-related tourism.

While the projects might be expensive, James stressed that it is important to remember that they involve "nonrenewable resources."

Corinne Escobar, president of the Preservation Association of Clark County, said the historical landmarks give the community a sense of its origins.

"It gives us our identity, and once you lose your history, you lose your identity," she said.

Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman said he considers the preservation of some historic landmarks a "public trust."

"This is for those of us who live here, and so future residents can see the history," Goodman said.

Those interested in exploring Las Vegas' history may begin their search in the La Concha lobby, which is to become the permanent visitors center at the Neon Museum on downtown's northern edge.

The Neon Museum, also called the Boneyard, has more than 200 neon signs on a few dusty acres along McWilliams Avenue off Las Vegas Boulevard North.

The signs have been out for display for about 10 years, but can be seen only by appointment. That would change after the La Concha lobby is moved from the Strip to the museum where it will be the museum visitors center.

The lobby, the only piece left of that building, is a large white conch-shaped building, described by city Cultural Affairs Manager Nancy Deaner as "classic early Vegas."

The lobby is on the site of the old motel, just south of the Riviera, where it is waiting to be cut into pieces, "like a large orange," moved and reassembled, Deaner said.

The move and restoration is expected to cost about $1 million, to be funded by grants from the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority ($300,000), the Las Vegas Centennial Committee ($100,000), the state (up to $600,000) and private funds (about $200,000 to date).

The public funds, however, require $300,000 in matching private donations, which means the project needs another $100,000 in private contributions to unlock the grants, Deaner said.

Under a best-case scenario, Deaner said, the final $100,000 will be raised during the next several weeks, permitting the La Concha lobby move to begin in mid-March.

Green said the burgeoning Neon Museum is a natural attraction for Las Vegas.

"It's our indigenous art form," he said. "Because Las Vegas is associated with neon, it's just a perfect combination."

The Fifth Street School and the old Post Office have been the projects that have received the most public support from Goodman.

The city has set aside about $4 million for the Post Office renovation, which could cost another $20 million -- or more -- to fully renovate. The largest expense will be retrofitting the building to bring it up to code so that it would not collapse in an earthquake.

Already, a wall has been taken out in an old courtroom, and the ceiling and counters from its years as a post office were removed. The mayor held his State of the City address in what was once the mailroom, but the renovation is far from complete.

The city is in the process of hiring an architect to design the final product. The building's transformation into a museum is expected to highlight, among other things, its shared history with organized crime.

The Fifth Street School renovation, expected to cost about $9 million, is set to begin this summer and could take about a year.

The school, which is on Las Vegas Boulevard South at Clark Avenue, across from the federal courthouse, was built in 1936 and operated as an elementary school for more than 30 years. The Spanish mission style-architecture features an interior courtyard where the city's recently closed time capsule was placed.

The Westside School, an even older building than its downtown counterpart, is now home to the Economic Opportunity Board and radio station KCEP. The city is seeking up to $500,000 from the state to renovate the building at Washington Avenue and D Street.

Courtney Mooney, the city's historic preservation officer, said the 84-year-old building needs a new roof, heating and air-conditioning system, lights, stucco, paint and possibly windows.

In addition to its age, the 1922 building is significant because it was one of the first schools attended by Paiute children, Mooney said.

The old railroad cottages also are relics from that era, having mostly been built around 1910.

Four of the cottages have been moved to the Las Vegas Springs Preserve. The preserve, which covers 180 acres near U.S. 95 and Valley View Boulevard, is set to open in spring 2007. Its more than $200 million price tag includes construction of a state museum, gardens, trails -- which the cottages will be placed along -- and an amphitheater.

Copyright © Las Vegas Sun. Inc. Republished with permission.


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