Thursday, April 28, 2005 | 8:37 a.m.
While many expect a gleaming future for Steve Wynn's latest megaresort, Wynn Las Vegas, it is built on the site of the old Desert Inn, which carries a rich past.
And Wynn, famous for ushering in the megaresort age in Las Vegas, becomes the latest high-profile owner of the site.
San Diego businessman Wilbur Clark came to Las Vegas in 1944 and built what originally was called Wilbur Clark's Desert Inn, then the largest hotel in Las Vegas with 300 rooms and a three-story tower. It opened on April 24, 1950, the fifth resort on a two-lane highway that would become the Las Vegas Strip.
After Clark's death in 1965, the DI's succession of owners included the colorful Moe Dalitz and billionaires Howard Hughes and Kirk Kerkorian.
Over the years, Vegas mainstays Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr. and Nat King Cole were among those who headlined the Desert Inn's 530-seat Crystal Showroom.
The resort's championship golf course was home to major men's pro tournaments in the 1950s and '60s and women's pro tourneys in the 1980s.
The definitive Las Vegas TV drama "Vega$" was shot on the grounds of the resort from 1978 to 1981.
But in the 1990s, the Desert Inn faded -- an elegant, venerable dowager unable to measure up to the vital, fresh-faced kids on the block.
Wynn's ownership represents the likelihood of a resurrection of the property's past glory because he not only has a proven vision for success but also is firmly entrenched in Las Vegas' rich past.
In its prime, the Desert Inn -- for better or worse -- was significant and historic. For the better, it was one of the first local resorts to end the practice of prohibiting blacks from being guests in the hotel and casino. For the worse, it was the center of mob activity in Las Vegas when Dalitz ran it.
Wilbur Clark's Desert Inn was built at a cost of $4.5 million. (By contrast, the 2,700-room Wynn Las Vegas has a $2.7 billion price tag.)
Wilbur and his wife, Toni, were world travelers who, wherever they went, promoted not only the DI, but also Las Vegas in the days before the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority was formed for that purpose.
Toni Clark-Finuf, who earlier this month celebrated her 90th birthday, became a local society legend for her elaborate parties at the couple's opulent home on the Desert Inn Country Club golf course.
"The opening of the Desert Inn brought her into the community because, before that, Toni was not so sure she was going to like living here," said Larry Finuf, Toni's husband and business partner in Finuf's Apparel for Gentlemen, which operated at the DI from 1978 to 1989.
"She became the social hub in town and was fondly referred to by many as the First Lady of Las Vegas."
Finuf said when the Desert Inn closed, "Toni was not sad because she accepted it, saying that things move on and life changes. She is happy for Steve and Elaine, who have invited her to help cut the ribbon on opening night."
Perhaps the Desert Inn's most intriguing era began when the reclusive Hughes rolled into town.
Hughes, who in November 1966 rented all of the resort's ninth-floor penthouse suites, bought the DI in 1967 for $13.25 million after Dalitz, who needed the rooms for his high rollers, tried to kick Hughes out.
"The Desert Inn was the gem of Las Vegas," said Robert Maheu, for years Howard Hughes' main representative, referring to the years before, during and after Hughes owned it. "Events like the (Professional Golfers Association) Tournament of Champions excited so many people in town."
Hughes' purchase of the Desert Inn ushered in the corporate era of Las Vegas gaming resorts. He later bought the Sands, Castaways, Silver Slipper and Frontier.
In a heavily tourism-driven market, the Desert Inn remained a place that locals considered welcoming.
"The best way to sum it up is that the DI was the hotel on the Strip for Las Vegans," said Burton Cohen, president of the Desert Inn in the 1970s and '80s.
"The people who lived here regarded the DI as the epitome of class. It was really something to have a wedding or other social affair at the DI. And it maintained that class and elegance over the years."
In 1988 Kerkorian, who later built the MGM Grand hotel-casino, acquired the Desert Inn and operated it for five years before selling it to ITT Corp.
After that, business began to taper off. Even ITT's $200 million renovation that converted the Desert Inn into one of the most luxurious Strip properties with marble and chandeliers couldn't stop the DI's downward spiral.
In 1997 Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide Inc. took over ITT and began looking for a buyer for the Desert Inn. After several prospects fell through, Wynn bought it in April 2000, purchasing it for $270 million as a birthday gift for his wife, Elaine.
Wynn felt the 715-room, 220-acre property was underutilized, especially competing against the 3,000-5,000-room, billion-dollar neighboring resorts, including ones that Wynn had built and sold.
The Desert Inn, four months after celebrating its 50th birthday, closed on a dreary, rainy August day in 2000.
Wynn followed the same formula with the Desert Inn that he had used with the Dunes and Castaways -- knock it down and build something much bigger and hopefully much better.
Cohen said it is unfair to compare the old Desert Inn to the new megaresort.
"The DI was a small, intimate hotel," Cohen said. "But if anyone can bring the class that the Desert Inn had to the operation of a large hotel it would be Steve Wynn. I believe the history of the Desert Inn will carry on with great flourish with the Wynn Las Vegas."