Las Vegas History Finds its Way Home
Preserving mid-century neighborhoods strengthens community at large.
STORY BY CHRIS LEWIS
PHOTOS BY MARK DUNTON
That’s the common reply when history and Las Vegas are used in the same sentence.
It’s a city that places a value on newness; a town that doesn’t hesitate to level a casino from decades past to make room for a new one, and a place where new housing developments sprout like crabgrass.
That’s the Vegas, and Nevada for that matter, in the minds of most. Long-time visitors and residents will often speak of “old-Vegas,” a euphemism when someone wants to describe class and authenticity.
But just off Las Vegas Boulevard—in the shadow of the Stratosphere—are a number of neighborhoods serving as a reminder of the past. The homes are distinctive in design, built just after World War II as the city transformed from a dusty old town with a handful of hotels to the bright neon and glitter of post-war Las Vegas.
Homes were influenced by the architecture of California, particularly around Palm Springs. Single-story ranch homes—many characterized by low-pitched butterfly roofs and large windows—were constructed with a variety of materials, an architectural design known as mid-century modern. These were charming communities where people planted roots and the neighbors knew each other.
PROTECTING THE FOUNDATION
“Old buildings are like memories you can touch,” says Heidi Swank, executive director of the Nevada Preservation Foundation (NPF). “We spend 90-95 percent of our time in buildings, so there’s the place where history happens.”
Heidi and Associate Director Michelle Larime are the driving force behind protecting the old neighborhoods. This past October, the Las Vegas city council unanimously voted to make the Beverly Green community only the second to receive a designation on the Las Vegas Register of Historic Places.
It was a two-year process stewarded by Heidi, Michelle, and the foundation that required convincing not only the city’s preservation and planning commissions, but the residents themselves on the value of a historic designation.
It wouldn’t mean their taxes would go up or a new homeowners association would be created, making home improvements impossible. What it would do is protect the integrity of the buildings from the outside, and hopefully, instill more pride into the community.
Heidi and Michelle—both residents of Beverly Green—feel it’s time to celebrate the history the city does have.
“It may not go back as far as it does in Boston, but we’re never going to have that until 200 years from now,” Heidi says. “So let’s let that go and realize we’ve had some amazing architects who built houses here.”
A NEW FRONTIER
With the end of World War II, an entire generation was eager to start their lives. Jobs were plentiful, and young cities like Las Vegas were ripe for discovery. The Hoover Dam was completed, bringing thousands of new residents to the city. The Flamingo was now a big success as the Rat Pack performed regularly. Vegas Vic, donning cowboy hat and plaid shirt, shone bright over Fremont Street as he stood above the Pioneer Club. The Sahara, Riviera, and Tropicana were on the way.
During the war, Las Vegas’ population stood just above 8,000. By the 1950s, it grew to more than 45,000. New jobs meant new money, and it also meant more housing was needed.
The result was the development of neighborhoods just off Las Vegas Boulevard. Renowned architects like Franklin and Law built homes in the historic John S. Park neighborhood in the ‘40s and ‘50s. Hugh Taylor built homes in Paradise Palms, Desert Inn Estates, and Beverly Green. And Zick and Sharp designed homes in Paradise Village. Many were custom homes but there were also plenty of tract homes, which were designed differently than today.
“In the ‘50s and ‘60s, homes were designed not to look the same. Somehow we got away from that,” Michelle says.
Hugh Taylor’s portion of Paradise Palms, for example, had two floor plans to choose from, but 10 different elevations.
Mike Monahan, 61, has lived in Beverly Green pretty much his entire life. His dad, Charles, bought the house in the late 1960s when he helped open up Caesars Palace. After graduating from Bishop Gorman High School, Mike lived out of state before moving back in the mid-80s. By then, Mike’s mom was living alone, so he moved his family into the house of his childhood and never left. Over the years, he’s seen the neighborhood go through good times and bad.
“The neighborhood just got old,” he says. “It didn’t have any identity of any sort.”
The homeowners he knew growing up passed away or moved on, and his community went through a tough transition during the ‘80s and ‘90s. It became so transient; he didn’t even know his neighbors back then.
But then, Downtown Las Vegas started to turn around. After the renovation of Fremont Street and the completion of the World Market Center, Mike started to see changes all along downtown. A younger, hipper crowd moved in. Businesses and restaurants came back. Much later, Tony Hsieh started the Downtown Project and moved the Zappos headquarters there, and it really began to take off, including Mike’s neighborhood.
“When downtown, the restaurants, and bars got hot, that’s when it picked up again,” he says.
Today, Mike knows just about everyone on the block again. And since the historic designation, he feels the pressure to maintain appearances.
“I feel kind of guilty. I swear I will work on this,” he says about his landscaping.
HOME & HISTORY 2017
Last year was a good year for Heidi, Michelle, and the NPF. With the success of Beverly Green, they’re now working to make the Paradise Palms and Paradise Village communities historic neighborhoods. Their volunteer base is growing, and they’ll soon move into a larger office space.
They’re also finishing up the final details of their biggest event of the year: Vintage Vegas Home & History 2017. Produced in cooperation with The Neon Museum, the annual event occurs the last weekend in April and will be the largest of its history.
“This is our major fundraiser,” Michelle says. “We hope to grow this into a cultural tourism event that can help support our community work throughout the rest of the year.”
Over the event’s two-and-half days, the public can attend cocktail parties, neon bus tours at night, lectures, and guided and self-guided tours of various vintage homes in many of the historic neighborhoods.
Both Michelle and Heidi—who splits her time between the NPF and serving as a Nevada State Assemblywoman—realize their work is just beginning and its impact goes beyond just trying to preserve some old homes.
“It helps people develop a sense of place,” Heidi says. “And by getting the word out (with events like Home & History), we can start to plant the idea that this is a solid, established, historic community—that we have roots here. And I think that is something we desperately need in southern Nevada is people to feel like there already are roots.”
VINTAGE VEGAS HOME & HISTORY 2017
Friday: Cocktail party & neon bus tour
Saturday: Walking and bus tours, Lectures, Martini tour
Sunday: Self-guided showcase home tour, Cocktail party