El Cortez Celebrates 80 Years in Downtown Las Vegas

The historic El Cortez Hotel and Casino is celebrating 80 years in Downtown Las Vegas this Saturday.

The iconic Las Vegas landmark is the oldest continuously operating casino in the city and remains the only casino to be included on the National Register of Historic Places.

To mark the special occasion, El Cortez is throwing a birthday bash that will feature a commemorative speech from Mayor Carolyn Goodman and fireworks show starting at 9 p.m. Guests can also celebrate with complimentary champagne, taking a chance at winning a $35,000 gambling giveaway and more.

In celebration of El Cortez’s 80th anniversary, here’s a look at some of the resort’s major historical milestones!

El Cortez in its early years. Photo Credit: El Cortez/Courtesy

1941: The El Cortez Makes Its Debut

The El Cortez Hotel and Casino opened on East Fremont Street a month shy of the United States entering World War II on Nov. 7, 1941. John Houssels, John Grayson, and Marion Hicks–Los Angeles Architect and developer– partnered up to build and operate the hotel-casino for $245,000 ($4.5 million today). 

At the time, it was Downtown Las Vegas’ first major resort with 59 rooms at the time and was designed in a Spanish ranch theme that is still a prominent feature to this day.

1945-46: The Mob Takes Over

The El Cortez gradually became a profitable establishment and caught the attention of organized crime figures Bugsy Siegel, Meyer Lansky, Gus Greenbaum and Moe Sedway, who ultimately purchased the El Cortez for $600,000.

The hotel’s interior was remodeled but no other significant changes were made during their ownership. Houssels eventually purchased the property back in May 1946, and announced a $250,000 expansion that included a nightclub, barbershop, swimming pool, and a four-story wing.

1950s: New Additions and Theme Changes

The resort underwent several major renovations and theme changes during the 1950s. Notably, the El Cortez’s infamous neon arrow, marquee, and signature sign were installed in 1952 and still remain an iconic fixture.

That same year, the El Cortez adopted a pirate theme that included the opening of the “Buccaneer Bar,” with cocktail waitresses dressed in pirate costumes. The swashbuckling theme was short-lived however and abandoned in 1957.

Jackie Gaughan pictured in 1965. Photo Credit: El Cortez/Courtesy

1963: Jackie Gaughan Purchases the El Cortez

Casino owner and operator Jackie Gaughan added the El Cortez to his collection of Las Vegas properties for $4 million.

Gaughan would oversee numerous renovations and structural changes to El Cortez, including the addition of the hotel’s Tower II in 1980– bringing the overall room count to 297. The casino magnate nearly spent every day of his life on the casino floor and even lived in one of the hotel’s penthouse suites until his death in 2014.

Guests can still stay in Gaughan’s vintage style suite upon special request.

New high-limit room featuring remodeled carpet. Photo Credit: El Cortez/Courtesy

2008-Today: El Cortez Changes Ownership and Expands

Gaughan eventually sold the property to his long-time business partner and friend Kenny Epstein and his family. Since then, El Cortez remains one of only a few family-owned and operated hotels and casinos in Las Vegas. 

Since taking over, Epstein’s family has overseen numerous additions of the boutique Cabana Suites in the former Ogden Hotel Building, bringing the total room count to 364 rooms in 2008. The family has also overseen the property’s recent $25 million renovation project over the past three years, which has included remodeling over 200 rooms, 42,000 square feet of carpeting, an updated lobby, and a new high-limit room.

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