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Future Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement preserves local and national history and architecture.
In a city where older buildings are frequently razed and not preserved, the Las Vegas Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement, aka The Mob Museum, is atypical. The museum is under construction in the former United States Post Office and Court House that was dedicated on November 27, 1933 as the city’s first federal building. It was built as part of an enormous federal construction program undertaken by Congress and the Hoover Administration in the late 1920s and early 1930s.
According to Robert Jay Chattel, AIA, of Chattel Architecture, Planning & Preservation, Inc., who is serving as the consulting preservation architect on the project, the Mob Museum is preserving not only the history of organized crime and law enforcement in America, it is preserving a part of Las Vegas’ physical history through rehabilitation of the post office and courthouse that was first listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1983. According to Chattel, who has more than 25 years experience in historic preservation projects, the building is significant not only for its neo-classical architecture reminiscent of the period in which it was built, but also for the historic events that unfolded inside the building, namely the famed Kefauver hearings.
On November 15, 1950, the Senate Special Committee to Investigate Organized Crime in Interstate Commerce, led by U.S. Senator Estes Kefauver (Democrat-Tennessee), held the seventh in a series of 14 nationwide hearings in the building’s second floor courtroom. The Kefauver Committee investigation contributed to and accelerated the national debate on organized crime that developed after World War II. The two-year investigation, which heard more than 800 witnesses, revolutionized the then new medium of television, had a profound impact on the public perception of organized crime in America, and contributed to the explosive growth of Las Vegas as the entertainment and gaming capital of the country.
The March 1951 Time magazine cover on Kefauver summarized the Committee’s findings: the Committee had “turned up a sinister pattern of organized crime in the U.S.” and evidence suggested that such crime is “not limited to any single community of any single state, but occurs all over the country.” The Committee concluded that organized crime in the U.S. was “big business,” dominated by two major crime outfits: the Capone Syndicate and the New York Syndicate. The Committee also stated that since the repeal of Prohibition laws, the focus of these crime syndicates was on big-time gambling.
In 2005, the National Register listing of Post Office and Court House was amended to include national significance for its association with organized crime. According to Chattel, “The Kefauver Committee had a profound and singular impact on Las Vegas; an impact that cannot be matched in any of the other cities where hearings were held. It is here in the courtroom and surrounding galleries that The Mob Museum will focus on the importance of the Kefauver Committee hearings, both locally and nationally, and the events that occurred within this very building.”
Chattel is working closely with architects and engineers to preserve the integrity, architectural detail and charm of the original building as it is being rehabilitated to house The Mob Museum. He is involved in implementing a number of grants associated with historic preservation, including a Save America’s Treasures grant managed by the National Park Service, an Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) grant and three Economic Development Initiative grants.
While it may not have resulted in immediate federal legislative action, the Kefauver Committee and its aftermath had a profound impact at the state and local level. Several states passed anti-gambling legislation and local law enforcement began to crack down on criminal activities. The effect of the Committee in Nevada and Las Vegas, however, was markedly different.
Though difficult to document, historians often credit the outcome of the Kefauver Committee hearings with cementing Las Vegas as the gaming capital of the country. With the crackdown on illegal gambling and organized crime following the Kefauver Committee hearings, many exiled gambling operators moved their operations to Las Vegas, since Nevada was the only state where gambling was then legal. Authors Ed Reid and Ovid Demaris, in their book, The Green Felt Jungle, estimated that the mob had up to $300 million invested in Las Vegas by 1962. Those numbers would only continue to grow over the next two decades—mirrored by explosive growth on the Las Vegas Strip.
Federal Judge Paul McCormick from Los Angeles, best known for ruling against segregation, presided over the first session in the courtroom on March 2, 1934. Because Nevada had only one federal judge, located in Carson City, other federal judges, often from Los Angeles and San Francisco, traveled to Las Vegas twice yearly to hear cases. In his preliminary remarks, Judge McCormick said, “...this building and courtroom are a credit to the genius of the engineering persons who brought it into being and had to do with its construction. It is dignified and elegant. Let us hope that the character of the work done here will be in keeping with this…It is hoped that justice may always prevail here…”
In 1945, Judge Roger Thomas Foley (1886-1974) was appointed by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and commissioned by President Harry Truman, to the bench at the United States Post Office and Court House. He went on to hear several important cases in the courtroom, including notorious cases involving tax evasion and illegal gambling schemes—many involving alleged and admitted organized crime members.
Nominated by President John F. Kennedy, Judge Roger D. Foley (1917-1996), son of Roger Thomas Foley, was appointed district court judge in July 1962 and presided at the United States Post Office and Court House. The building was used as the federal courthouse through 1965 when a new federal building opened at 300 Las Vegas Boulevard South and was renamed Foley Federal Building in the late 1980s.
According to Bob Stoldal, a member of the 300 Stewart Avenue Corporation, the non-profit board that is working alongside the city of Las Vegas to oversee development and construction of the museum, years of work and planning are coming to fruition as the museum begins to take shape.
“The goal of the museum is to tell the real and full story of organized crime and how law enforcement defeated and continues to battle the mob,” said Stoldal, who also serves as chairman of the Historic Preservation Commission, City of Las Vegas, and chairman of the board, Nevada State Museum and Historical Society.
“Given world-wide fascination with organized crime and the world-class team behind the project, the museum is poised to become an important historic destination and tourist attraction in downtown Las Vegas—on par with the city’s other must-see attractions,” Stoldal said. “We are confident it will draw hundreds of thousands of annual visitors to the area. As such, it’s an important part of the city’s downtown redevelopment efforts.”
Core and shell construction is well underway just nine months following the August 2009 “wall-breaking” by museum board members, Las Vegas Mayor Oscar B. Goodman and former U.S. Senator, Richard Bryan. Seismic retrofit is almost complete; new mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems are being installed and restoration of architectural details has started. The Museum is scheduled to open in 2011.
For more information, visit themobmuseum.org.