Las Vegas Sun

November 18, 2018

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Wynn’s closure of Desert Inn strikes nerve with community

It certainly isn't the first time Las Vegas has lost one of its old-line resorts -- the past decade has seen the end of such long-time resorts as the Dunes, the Sands, the Landmark and the Hacienda.

Yet Steve Wynn's announcement several months ago that the Desert Inn will be shut down has touched a nerve in Las Vegas, perhaps more so than any of the previous properties.

When the resort shuts its doors on Monday afternoon, 50 years of history will come to an end with it. If Wynn ultimately decides to implode it, all that will remain of the Desert Inn will be memories and a major east-west thoroughfare named in its honor.

Other resort closings aroused sadness, "but not to the same degree," said Anthony Curtis, publisher of the Las Vegas Advisor newsletter.

"When those places closed, there were more of them around," Curtis said. "Now, there's no more Dunes, Sands, Landmark. El Rancho's next. The Sands may have been more sentimental, but it isn't hitting people the way this one does, because there's nothing to remind people of the old days."

"The other properties we blew up were pretty much used-up properties," added Bill Thompson, professor of public administration at UNLV. "With those places, there wasn't any sense of loss. The Desert Inn was an elegant property compared to those others. It had an elegant image, even if it was mobbed up in the '50s."

The D.I.'s history is long and colorful, beginning with its opening in 1950 by Las Vegas legend Wilbur Clark. From its earliest days, the property was positioned as the high-end resort, from its golf course to the Monte Carlo room, one of Las Vegas' earliest four-star restaurants.

The D.I. captured the national attention in a way many other Las Vegas properties didn't. When Howard Hughes purchased the property in the 1960s -- then spent the next several years ensconced on its top floor -- he lent an aura of corporate credibility to an industry under intense scrutiny for its mob connections. When TV series "Vega$" aired in the late 1970s and early 1980s, it brought the nation into the Desert Inn on a weekly basis. This January, the hotel-casino added one last piece of lore to its legacy when a Las Vegas woman hit a $35 million Megabucks jackpot there, an all-time slot-machine record.

It was an image perhaps challenged only by the Sands, the one-time home of the "Rat Pack" of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Joey Bishop and Peter Lawford.

In a purely historical sense, neither property had the significance of the Old Mormon Fort north of downtown Las Vegas, said Michael Green, historian with the Community College of Southern Nevada. But both are remembered because they represented history in a city with few historical roots deeper than a few decades.

"To a lot of people outside of Las Vegas, these two places (the Desert Inn and the Sands) really meant Las Vegas," Green said. "These were the places that represent the images of Las Vegas, in a far greater way than the Dunes, the Aladdin, the Hacienda and the Landmark.

"When people watched ('Vega$'), they knew about the D.I. It had more national currency than the others that have been imploded."

Yet remaining a part of the past helped spell the end of the property, Curtis said.

"In the two decades I've been here, it never made much (business) sense," Curtis said. "It was never really distinguished in terms of its gambling ... it was nothing special in that regard.

"If you look at what Vegas has become, it was totally left behind."

Perhaps no one person has helped create that new Las Vegas than Wynn, who replaced the Castaways with the Mirage and Treasure Island and the Dunes with the Bellagio.

Green theorized that Wynn could be facing something of a backlash from some Las Vegas residents for his repeated replacement of the old with the new.

"I wonder whether some of the reaction to the D.I. is a backlash of sorts against modern gaming and Steve Wynn," Green said. "Whether or not Wynn is right about the need to replace the current building, I think some people are looking at this as ... this is a guy who has a penchant for doing this. They might reach a point where they say, 'Gee, do we have to get rid of this place, too?' "

Wynn has discussed ultimately replacing the Desert Inn and its golf course with a massive new property, complete with 59-story hotel towers, a massive 30-acre lake, and an interior dominated by natural light and various flora. He's promised to re-create yet again the image of a Strip casino; now, Thompson said, he'll be under the gun to deliver.

"He's taking something away ... now the pressure should be on him to build something better," Thompson said. "I'm a free-enterprise guy. This is the way Vegas was built. We were built by guys like Steve Wynn, who do what they want to do.

"I'll certainly give him the benefit of the doubt here."