Las Vegas Sun

September 16, 2019

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Downtown’s Thunderbird hotel gets a retro renovation

Thunderbird Boutique Hotel

Steve Marcus

A view of the newly renovated Thunderbird Boutique Hotel, 1215 Las Vegas Blvd. South, Tuesday, Oct. 9, 2018. The hotel was once owned by Bob Stupak.

Thunderbird Boutique Hotel

An exterior view of the newly renovated Thunderbird Boutique Hotel, 1215 S. Las Vegas Blvd., Tuesday, Oct. 9, 2018. The hotel was once owned by casino owner Bob Stupak. The original Thunderbird Hotel opened in 1948 at the site of the old El Rancho (soon to be the Drew Las Vegas). Launch slideshow »

There’s a delightful stretch of Las Vegas Boulevard that time seems to have forgot. Located north of the Strip and south of downtown, it’s neither here nor there. A place of diners, neon wedding chapels, scooter rentals, strip clubs, pawn shops and the famous Luv-It Frozen Custard, it’s both in the middle of the action and somehow remote.

It’s home to Thunderbird Boutique Hotel & Lounge, a quirky little spot that just got a big makeover.

California-based developer Ilan Gorodezki and his partners purchased the property in 2016. In 2017, the developer considered turning the property, once known as the Aruba, into a 15-story, 370-unit mixed-use apartment and retail space called the Thunderbird Lofts, according to reports.

The plans upset some residents in nearby neighborhoods, who thought the tower might dilute the area’s historic atmosphere. Despite receiving approval from Las Vegas, the developers ultimately opted to keep the original two-story motel structure intact and simply remodeled it.

Something old, something new

More than $5 million of renovations later, the revamped Thunderbird is gleaming with new life and a classic Las Vegas allure.

The Garden of Love wedding chapel perfectly encapsulates the renewed property. A majestic 60- to 100-year-old pine tree stands for an altar. Only the trunk and a few bottom branches are visible because it grows through a glass roof and soars into the sky.

Dappled sunlight shines down upon the place where a couple would stand. The tree gives a sense of almost magical spirituality to the room, a reprieve in the midst of white marble floors and Las Vegas glitz.

The tree is one of those strokes of genius that only come about via a thoughtful remodel. Originally, the tree was growing in an outdoor courtyard and was slated to be chopped down to make way for a new vision. Instead of being removed, it was made into a centerpiece, creating something better than brand new.

Prices range from $300-$700 (not including minister fee) for the 60-person chapel. The high-end “Majestic” package includes champagne toast, online ceremony live stream, unity candle or sand ceremony, flowers, custom music, digital photos and DVD, a personal wedding coordinator and use of the “royal bridal room with refreshments.”

The second and smaller chapel is more traditionally Vegas. Called the Crystal Wedding Chapel, it boasts crystal chandeliers and a bedazzled podium. It holds up to 40 guests, and prices range from $100 to $500 (minister fee not included).

Petra Doerr, who runs the wedding chapel, says they were going for something “modern, unique and clean.” Previously, the smaller chapel had a very masculine feel. Doerr took it in a more feminine direction and added “a little Las Vegas glitter.”

The rooms

“It’s easier to build than repair,” said, Shay Mordo, the director of operations. “But the vision was, ‘Let’s go make it happen, no matter what.’”

The 100 hotel rooms have a comfortably modern look. Rustic wood headboards give an earthy vibe, which balances some of the shinier mid-century modern highlights, such as trendy rugs and lamps. A turquoise, orange and yellow color scheme keep it interesting.

The exterior doors of the rooms are painted in alternating orange and yellow-green. The small lobby continues the visual theme, with sleek concrete floors, walls that have been clad in the reclaimed wood, and a single graphic lime-green painting for decoration.

Located in a separate building, the carefully decorated “Presidential” suite overlooks the outdoor pool. There are also eight junior suites.

Areas that would once have been dead space have been upgraded to outdoor lounges. These small islands of leisure space boast trendy outdoor furniture and lighting — like little islands of cool. An empty rooftop outside some second-story rooms is primed to be a future garden seating area.

“There are always more projects,” Mordo jokingly said. “Always something to do.”

Weekend prices range from about $190 per night for a 200-square-foot single queen room to $360 per night for a 600-square-foot premium suite. Weeknight prices range from $45 to $195 per night, respectively.

For comparison, a Saturday night stay at the D Las Vegas on Fremont Street ranges from $300 for a Deluxe Two Queen room to $700 for a suite. Midweek prices are $50 to $200, respectively.

Entertainment options

Throughout its history, the Thunderbird has often hosted live performances. It also has been a hotspot for the swing dance crowd in addition to hosting the Neon Reverb music festival about a decade ago.

A revamped 3,500-square-foot showroom can hold up to 300 or 350 guests, depending on the configuration. The numbers are big, but also small in comparison to the titans on the Strip.

Sitting in the new disc jockey booth, Mordo clicks through the new lighting configurations to show that the room is ready to party.

In addition to the showroom, the lounge has a small stage and projector, allowing for a second, more intimate event venue. On this weekday afternoon, a woman is setting up sunflower decorations for a planned modeling and photography event.

Mordo said that the word is getting out and space has seen increased interest by event organizers. On the day of the tour, a usual Wednesday, a woman is setting up for a modeling event with sunflowers. In early September, the inaugural Huka Pele Tiki Weekender did a buyout of the space. Mordo also says that the hotel was hugely successful during the recent Life Is Beautiful Festival in late September.

A uniquely situated future

Even Mordo admits the Thunderbird is not located in the best part of town. The area is huge on vintage charm, which also includes a local homeless population. But the rough edges belie a possible bright future.

It’s one of the closest hotels to the Arts District, which is finally gaining steam. And it’s near offbeat attractions such as Zak Bagans’ Haunted Museum and the Gold and Silver Pawn Shop.

The Thunderbird has managed to make itself new without sacrificing its history, and it's uniquely situated for the next iteration of Las Vegas.

“The current owners have done an admirable job with cleaning up that property over the past few years, said Realtor Steven Franklin, who goes by the nickname Downtown Steve. “It’s certainly an improvement from what it had been.”

Good eats

Historic photos of Old Vegas line the hallway to the lounge and restaurant. Some of the photos depict the former Strip hotel also called the Thunderbird — no relation, except perhaps spiritual.

Kelley Jones Hospitality in partnership with Todd Parmelee have built a new food and beverage program for the modern Thunderbird which features hearty crowd-pleasers, such as a “Hangover” breakfast burrito, pork belly sliders, a steak and potato wrap, fish and chips, flatbreads and a veggie burger.

The lounge offers bartop gaming, pool, beer pong and a full bar. Cocktails include Bloody Marys, the Blue Suede Shoes (orange and grapefruit vodka, citrus juices, blue curaçao and lemon-lime soda) and the 1948 Cocktail (whiskey, Aperol, vermouth and chocolate bitters).