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November 21, 2014

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Arizona Street: A trip back to the 1940s

BOULDER CITY -- Cars cross the brick-lined plazas seldom and slowly. Townsfolk, many of whom are in their senior years, take a break on the store-front benches.

Children ride bikes, then leave them unlocked as they run into Central Market for a Hershey bar. Everyone you pass smiles and says "hi."

And when kids go home for dinner and adult ramblers call it a day, Boulder City's Old Town section of Arizona Street still speaks in tones of old-fashioned, hardy friendliness.

It's a Norman Rockwell painting come to life.

"When Disney finds out how neat this place is, it will figure out a way to duplicate it," says Damon Ohlerking, recently hired as Boulder's first urban designer in more than 60 years.

During the Great Depression, Boulder City was conceived by the federal government to house the more than 4,000 workers who built Hoover Dam. It was the nation's first planned 20th-century town.

Most residents felt privileged to live in this genuine all-American city, insulated from the reality of the Depression, with idyllic, safe surroundings and new social, religious and educational facilities.

As the years went on, the dam was completed, the city became more expensive to maintain, and locals wanted more of a say in their town government. In 1960, Boulder City became an independent municipality.

In the wider scheme of things, a 65-year heritage doesn't qualify as an old town.

"Back East, anything built from 1930 on is considered fairly new," says Boulder City Police Chief David Mullin. "But in the West, that's historical."

With his fist, Mullin pounds on a wall of the lower-level Arizona Street police facilities.

"This is built out of the same material that the dam was built out of," he says.

He walks down a hall and through a passageway, pointing to the 14-inch-thickness.

"This is the sturdiest building in town," he says. "We can't rejuvenate it, because we can't cut through the walls."

Like those walls, Arizona Street's legacy is as solid as a rock -- the street is integral to an experiment that hasn't crumbled. And while it has undergone restoration efforts over the years, it hasn't yet been torn down by human hands or machinery.

Arizona Street is the east-west, one-quarter-mile crossbar in the A-shaped area called the Historic District, or Old Town Boulder City.

Hotel grandeur

Beginning with the Dutch colonial-style Boulder Dam Hotel on the south side of the street and near the west end of that crossbar, a stroll along Arizona Street is a journey back in time.

Through the 1930s and early 1940s, the privately owned hotel was once Nevada's most splendid.

"Guests thronged the halls and dining room," writes Boulder City historian Dennis McBride in his book, "In the Beginning ... A History of Boulder City, Nevada."

Its steady clientele included Hollywood celebrities, American politicians, European aristocrats and Far Eastern royalty.

But the start of World War II ended the boom.

"Tourists quit coming to Boulder City when gasoline was rationed and tours of Boulder Dam were prohibited," McBride writes.

Subsequently, the building went through a succession of owners, all of whom failed to return the hotel to its original grandeur.

And although it was closed at times because of code violations, foreclosure auctions and neglect, the hotel never collapsed.

Today, it buzzes with renewed promise. The city of Boulder City, the Boulder City Chamber of Commerce, the Boulder City Arts Council and the Boulder City/Hoover Dam Museum formed the Boulder Dam Hotel Association and have begun serious fund-raising and renovation efforts.

The lobby looks much as it did in its heydey, paneled in Southern gumwood that resembles rich oak. It beckons weddings and special events in its re-awakened charm.

And Tiffany's Restaurant, which features a gourmet menu and terrace seating, leased to restaurant owners by the association, hums during noon and dinner hours. The Chamber of Commerce and the Arts Council have moved into the building, as have two small gift stores and small offices.

Fountain theme

A walk across the South Hotel Plaza will further reflect Boulder's beginnings.

A babbling fountain and bench, built in 1988, half encircle an oak tree. Directly across the street in the North Hotel Plaza, the same fountain theme is repeated.

"Local architecture and fountains remember to look like the dam and hotel," Ohlerking says.

"It's the quiet of the water that bore the town ... the sandstone benches are a piece of sculpture."

Tucked inside the U of the South Hotel Plaza is the Old Town Depot. It's a railroad-themed cafe where servers wear striped visor caps and aprons that mimic bibbed overalls.

Rena Vannier, who has lived here since 1979, owns the restaurant's building and rents it to her family to operate.

"Customers bring in gifts," she says. "One man worked on the Union Pacific here in Boulder City in 1931 and brought in an old photo." She displays it among her copious memorabilia.

Next door is Fire and Water Gallery, which also honors Boulder's tradition.

"The name of our gallery is derived from the art mediums that we have, which relate to the elements," says gallery owner Sharon Heher, whose grandfather owned a general mercantile store in Boulder.

"Fire is the pottery. Fire is the glass-blowing pieces. Water is the acrylics, water color and hand-made paper."

She says understanding her contemporary mediums, which also reflect the city's images, is understanding Boulder's tradition.

"How many cities are built from a Depression project?" she asks. "That project had so many sacrifices, which nurtured the strength of the city."

"Arizona Street is the center of Old Town. This is a campus. With dance, art and theater," she says, referring to her gallery, a neighboring dance studio and the Boulder Dam Theater.

At the corner of Arizona Street and South Hotel Plaza stands an original fluted metal lamppost -- one of many along the street.

Vintage theater

As you make a right turn, you hear the theater sing of a bygone era. Resounding from outside speakers as the day wanes are show tunes by Cole Porter and George Gershwin, or Dixieland by Louis Armstrong.

Unlike the glossy, high-tech cineplexes that have sprung up throughout Henderson and Las Vegas, the Boulder Theatre is an original movie house.

Chandeliers and art deco wall sconces are vintage early '30s. Corn is popped on the early '40s popcorn maker. Though gone are the days of the nickel matinee, Boulder Theatre prices are a bargain at $5 for first-run films. And the biggest bucket of popcorn you ever saw -- 170 ounces to be exact -- is $4.

Owner J.J. Brennan still uses old aluminum letters to spell out movie titles on the two theater marquees.

And while big movie houses boast high-tech sound systems, Boulder Theater relies on the crisp acoustics of more than 60 years ago.

Brennan, his wife and other family members sell tickets and snacks, run the projector and keep the theater maintained.

A few doors away is Shannon's Pasta Pub. It's like a scene from a James Dean flick when 25 highly polished Harley-Davidsons are parked outside.

They're owned by friends of the Shannons -- themselves bike enthusiasts.

Sandy Shannon does all the cooking and makes her own pasta six nights a week.

How do you get Italian from a name like Shannon?

"My husband is Irish, and I am Mexican. If you put the two together, I guess you come up with Italian food," she says.

In addition to the well-leathered, well-mannered bikers, clientele include Boulderites, boaters from nearby Lake Mead and Las Vegans "all the way from Summerlin," Shannon says.

The corner store

The mom-and-pop theme continues at the Central Market, owned by Helen and Wayne Goble.

Good meat and produce and hometown service keep the locals coming back. It's a corner store in the old sense of the word.

"We're in competition with Vons," Helen Goble says, referring to the superstore that moved into a strip mall on Nevada Highway.

"The only thing we can really provide is service. We want to treat every customer as if they are the best customer we've got."

The Gobles have owned the store since 1983. Shortly after they took it over, a fire destroyed everything but the outside walls. When they rebuilt it, they kept the hometown flavor.

On the California Avenue side of the market is a well-accessed outdoor bulletin board. A sampling of the notices flapping in the breeze: Boulder City Computer Club. Free puppies. Furnished room for rent, $300 a month, must like dogs.

In back of the market on California Avenue, just off Arizona Street, is the eight-lane Boulder Bowl.

"I think we are the last in Southern Nevada where you keep your own score. There's no automatic scoring," says employee Theresa Osman.

On one wall is a large board that displays the names and photos of local bowlers who have exceeded their highest scores.

"There's a lot of incentive here that you wouldn't find in the bigger houses," Osman says.

The bowling alley faces Escalante Plaza, one of the many green pockets strategically placed in the community by the town's first designers.

An older gentleman sits on a bench beneath a shade tree. Two kids throw a baseball. A toddler toddles near her mother.

Carl Oehler waits on the adjacent sidewalk for the CAT bus that stops on Arizona Street. It will return him to Las Vegas.

"I come down here for Mother Nature. I like the serenities and quietude, which you don't get in the concrete and steel of the cities. You don't have to scream. You can carry on a conversation in the normal decibel range."

The low-key ambience is due, in part, to Boulder City's ban on gaming. No casinos, no bright lights, no blaring noise.

Oehler points to the Central Market, Nevada Drugs across the street, the restaurants and the library a few doors away.

"They're all within walking distance. You don't even need a car in this town."

Senior hot spot

On the other side of the grassy plaza is the thick-walled Boulder City Police Department, built in 1932 for city offices. Today, the building also houses the United Way-funded Senior Center of Boulder City, which bustles with activity.

During the last six months of 1995, 1,721 people came into the center, notes administrator Marilyn Moore.

Seniors play pool, eat a hot meal, get social services such as legal assistance, join support groups and chit-chat.

"We engender sociability here," Moore says.

So does the Masonic Temple, almost next door. With a 150-strong local membership, the temple also hosts Rainbow Girl meetings and Eastern Star meetings in its sky-blue, glass-block windowed meeting hall.

The building uses bricks made by Mason members during the 1940s and laid in a "weeping mortar" style.

Like thick frosting oozing from uneven layer cakes, the mortar "covered up a lot of sins," says Frank Turner, lodge member since the 1950s.

"These were just people, not craftsmen. When they got off work at the dam, they went out and made bricks."

The Boulder City Library, one of Arizona Street's newer brick buildings, sits near the east end of the crossbar. Across on the north side of the street is St. Christopher's Episcopal Church -- yet another glimpse into Boulder City's past.

Built in 1932, it was struck by fire in 1978. In addition to most of the paintings and the stained glass windows, about half the pews were destroyed by fire, smoke or the water used to put out the blaze.

After the fire, the church was put back together in the old scheme.

"It was rebuilt and refurbished, not remodeled," deacon Shirley Putz says.

One notable piece of history sits behind the altar --- a rhyolite table for candles and flowers, originally used as an altar in Goldfield.

Recreation center

Step down from the church and cross to the Parks and Recreation Department building -- built in 1941 as a high school.

Inside and out, it's in spic-and-span, fresh-paint condition -- in keeping with Boulder's "clean, green" motto, says Roger Hall, the parks and recreation director.

In the old high school gym, kids play basketball, volleyball, and in-line skate. In 1991, the city added another gym on the north side of the building.

Hall keeps a cylinder of the concrete material that was removed to create a passageway between the old building and the new gym.

It's as hard as the police station walls across the street. Hall keeps it as a reminder of what the building -- and perhaps the city -- is made of.

"It's going to last," he says.

Next door is City Hall, formerly the elementary school, built in 1932. Its muted red-brick exterior, dark wood interior moldings and classroom floor plan have adapted readily to government offices.

Beyond and to the west on Arizona Street is Nevada Drugs, which was also the Bank of Nevada building, with prefabricated concrete panels that frame the sidewalk entrance.

The western corner of the building was for a time the Visitors Bureau where the "Dam Movie" was shown. The corner today is occupied by a chiropractic office.

Across the North Hotel Plaza, a movie about the dam's history continues to run at the Boulder City/Hoover Dam Museum -- a must-stop for Boulder City books and souvenirs.

The museum is expected to move into the remodeled Boulder Dam Hotel across the street within the next year.

Visitors roam in and out of the museum's current tiny digs. Marie Sullivan of the Boulder City Historical Association, which runs the museum, willingly shares her knowledge of the town's history.

"I don't have a get-every-dime-from-them-you-can attitude like they do in Vegas," she says.

Standing in this little building, on this little street, in this small town, this lady means to convey Boulder's friendliness.

As visitors leave, she never forgets to say, "Thanks for coming. Be sure to come back to see us."

IN MONDAY'S SUN: The future of Arizona Street.

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