Wednesday, Feb. 2, 2011 | 2:05 a.m.
High above the casino floor where loyal customers are tethered to the penny slot machines, the El Cortez has spent months revamping its hotel to attract the young, hipster crowd finding its way to the new downtown.
Where outdated VIP suites screamed for updating, interior designers and architects heeded the call with sexy, sleek designs that could rival the newest accommodations at any Strip hotel.
Who knew a 70-year-old could look so chic?
The renovated suites are a result of the El Cortez’s Design-A-Suite competition that tapped local designers and vendors to breathe new life into the aging downtown hotel-casino.
Four Nevada-licensed design teams — selected from a pool of 32 applicants in July — have each spent six months refurbishing, reflooring and refinishing a 600-sqaure-foot suite into their version of a modern downtown suite — all for about $20,000.
The winning team, which will be announced Thursday evening, will get to put their mark on six more suites at the oldest continuously operating hotel-casino in Las Vegas.
By almost any measure, the budget was a challenge for the design teams.
The $20,000 limit is less than half of what would typically be spent on suite of its size. So designers worked around existing fixtures and ditched pricey accessories to provide the functionality needed in any hotel room while staying within the El Cortez’s limits. But the end product speaks more of a high-end suite than a budget hotel room.
“I was nervous when we initially gave the budget. I just wasn’t sure that we’d be able to have a high-end suite for that amount of money, but the result is beyond what we expected,” said Alex Epstein, the El Cortez executive manager who conceptualized the contest. “I think it’s excited everyone with the creativity and the possibility of what we’re able to do with our suites.”
The redesigned suites are just as eclectic as the newly redeveloped Fremont East district where the El Cortez sits. There’s a mid-century hangout for the baby boomer crowd, a shimmering gold retreat for those looking for Vegas glitz and a few contemporary options in between.
But despite the modern style of most of the new suites, each team created its design with the El Cortez’s rich 70-year history in mind, bringing in photos and paintings of the hotel’s original ranch façade lined with classic Cadillac sedans and inserting accessories reminiscent the hotel’s mob ties.
A bowl of bullet casings sit on a desk near the door of Urban Design Studio’s “Big Sleep” suite. They fit in naturally with the mob den vibe.
Tina Enard, lead designer and owner of the Reno-based Urban Design Studio, said the goal was merging contemporary elements with old Vegas charm to create “the perfect blend between crime and charisma.”
“We love it. It’s comfortable and it’s fun. It doesn’t just look like your typical hotel room, and that’s something we always try to do — bring a little entertainment in. It’s got that old Vegas vibe, which is what this hotel is all about,” Enard said.
The oversized yellow wingback chair behind the desk is where the big boss might sit, and the striped carpet is suggestive of a mobster’s pinstripe suit, Enard said. A tumbleweed lamp and faux crocodile skull sit next a wall-sized mural of a desert full of secrets only Bugsy Siegel might know.
A few floors below is “The Rec Room” suite where guests are transported to an era when downtown Las Vegas was in its prime.
Designers Jamie Thomas and Bryan Hamlin of the Nevada and Colorado-based Worth Group brought in a wood-paneled bar and custom linoleum flooring to replicate a mid-century rec room.
A light fixture and table purchased at a downtown antique shop and a painting owned by former El Cortez owner Jackie Gaughan finish off the vintage Vegas feel.
“The colors might be a little more vintage, but everything has cycles. The patterns that we choose are reflective of that era but are more modern to appeal to the younger crowd that is coming to the area,” Thomas said.
UNLV graduates and freelance designers Charles Mais and Nidia Settembre chose to make major structural and layout changes to their suite, building a double-door armoire and placing a desk within the existing closet.
A dark wood headboard separates the bedroom from the living room space, creating an intimate feel in the otherwise open floor plan.
Mais and Settembre’s suite, appropriately named the “Hint Suite,” is a mix of styles, with hints of luxury, vintage and contemporary design. They paired pieces such as pop art paintings of Marilyn Monroe with trendy accessories for a feeling of diversity in the room.
“We’re hoping it evokes that feeling of glamour and is also a warm and comfortable room. I think with the colors and textures we’ve chosen, it definitely alludes to that. It’s just fun,” Settembre said.
With its futuristic white furnishings and gold flooring and ceiling, Mikel Patrik and Patrick Peel’s “El Contempo” suite is perhaps the biggest departure from the El Cortez’s old Vegas style. A wall covering made from a photo of the El Cortez taken in 1950s is the only reminder of the vintage property.
“That was really part if the goal,” Patrik said. “After they walk through the El Cortez casino, up the elevator and to the 11th floor, we want them to walk in and say, ‘Wow, that’s inside the El Cortez?’ and we did it.”
“Gold modern glam” is how the Las Vegas-based designers describe their suite accessorized with gray shag carpets, brassy light fixtures and a mirrored headboard.
A gold beaded curtain that could be found on a burlesque stage divides the bedroom from the living room.
But as others in the design community commented while touring the suite, will it appeal to the El Cortez’s longtime customers who cherish the hotel’s traditional charm?
“We took a risk. A lot of pieces in here, including the floor, are a risk,” Peel said. “It really comes down to personal taste and actually seeing what the client is going to go for, what will push the image that they are going for.”