Las Vegas Sun

April 16, 2014

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Giving a Dam about history

The ornate hallways that once guided celebrities such as Shirley Temple and Will Rogers to elegant rooms have deteriorated. The hotel walls have yellowed. The green carpet has worn.

Creaks and cracks that did in the popular Sands and Aladdin on the Las Vegas Strip also crippled the Boulder Dam Hotel in Boulder City.

But, unlike its glitzy neighbors to the north, residents in the small community didn't want to see their 65-year-old hotel implode live on the television news.

They wanted to salvage the building.

So why would volunteers dedicate hours of their time to organize fund-raisers, spruce up vegetation and haul trash from the Colonial-style hotel in the heart of downtown?

"If you were to walk into the lobby of the Boulder Dam Hotel, you would know the answer yourself," Bill Ferrence, president of the Boulder Dam Hotel Association, said. "It's a special building to the community and they don't want to lose it."

The 12-member board that heads the association has quietly gone about gutting the hotel and creating space for specialty shops. But for this week -- Historic Preservation Week -- the crew doesn't mind boasting about the project.

"We want this hotel to be the hub of Boulder City," Ferrence said as he showed off the main floor, which is nearly completed. "And we think it will be."

The Boulder Dam Hotel was built in 1933 and quickly became a popular stop for Hollywood stars. It was one of the few hotels in Nevada with air-conditioned rooms, each with a bathroom. Rooms went for about $5 a night.

"When it was built, it was the nicest place in the West," Ferrence said. "Celebrities from all over the world came here."

Some intriguing stories have come out of the hotel's glory years.

Howard Hughes crashed his experimental plane in Lake Mead in 1943 and spent two months recuperating in a Boulder Dam Hotel suite. A 9-year-old Temple stayed with her parents on their way to New York.

Locals still carry fond memories of watching stars glide in and out of the 83-room hotel -- even if the celebrities were there for not-so-glamorous reasons.

Many dropped by Nevada because divorce laws were more lax. The stars had to establish residency before the process was complete, so they stayed at the hotel during the six-week waiting period.

"I played trumpet in a small band at the time," Tommy Nelson, a 66-year resident of Boulder City, recalled. "A lot of the celebrities who were there for divorces would come out to be entertained. If I tried to name them all, it would be impossible."

One of the familiar faces who took in Nelson's music was Boris Karloff. Two days after the actor's divorce was finalized, he was married again.

The hotel quieted during World War II, when a gasoline shortage kept most Americans from traveling. And the once-bustling business never quite recovered from the war.

"Different owners gave it a try, but it didn't work out," said Nelson, who worked on the Hoover Dam from beginning to end.

Former state Sen. Cliff McCorkle even gave it a shot in the 1980s, but soon gave up because it cost about $40,000 a month to operate the hotel and keep the building up to code.

The Boulder City Fire Department once shut the place down because it wasn't up to codes. And by the early 1990s, the hotel had earned the reputation of being a "flop house."

Longtime Boulder City resident Fred Donaldson and his friend helped change that.

"In May 1993, a guy named Fred Donaldson walked into my office and asked if I'd like to listen to an idea about saving the hotel," Ferrence said.

Donaldson was one of many residents who grew tired of watching the grand hotel deteriorate as it repeatedly changed hands. He felt the building in the middle of a historic downtown deserved more care.

"I went in there when it began to look like a rat trap," said Donaldson, 68, who worried that a fire would destroy the building. "With that kind of history and background and its dominance in Boulder City, I couldn't imagine it not being there."

Seven months after Donaldson's meeting with Ferrence, the Boulder Dam Hotel Association was created. The nonprofit group is made up of representatives from the city, the chamber of commerce, the Boulder City Arts Council and the Boulder City Museum and Historical Association.

The association bought the hotel for $550,000 and has since poured more than $1 million into restoration.

With the exception of a carpeted floor, the hotel lobby is nearly identical to the great room that welcomed celebrities and townspeople alike. The same planks of rare southern gumwood still cover the lobby walls.

Name plates listing the famous people who stayed in the rooms remain on each door to the small rooms.

Outside the lobby, crews have torn down walls, ripped up carpeting and unhinged doors. Walls were repainted, hard-wood floors refinished and the entire building was brought up to current codes.

"Our task when we took it over was huge," Ferrence said. "If we'd known how huge, we probably wouldn't have taken it over."

The association hired Tate and Snyder Architects of Las Vegas and Melvyn Green and Association of Torrance, Calif., to help design the improvements and to help work on older components of the structure.

Green, a structural engineer who specializes in historical buildings, said the concrete and masonry work at the hotel is solid, but the wood framing likely wouldn't have survived an earthquake.

"It was built during The Depression, so they were watching their costs," Green said.

The walls and interior beams were reinforced with steel, but Green said he was careful to maintain the integrity and character of the building.

"The character-defining elements of the building are most important," Green said. "When you walk down the corridors, even though there are stores, you can feel the rhythm of the rooms."

The stores are specialty shops that have filled spaces on the main floor. The Boulder City museum will move into a spacious area adjacent to the shops in July. The basement -- where Hughes recovered from his injuries -- will soon be rented as office space.

About 25 hotel rooms on the third floor will be restored during the last phase of the project. Those planning on staying at the new hotel probably can count on adding a zero to the end of the fee charged in the early 1930s.

"We're going to make the rooms as close to the originals as we can, but they will be newer and nicer," Ferrence said.

Ferrence estimated that the association will need to raise close to another $1 million to complete the project by its 2000 deadline.

Passersby may not be able to see the improvements inside the old hotel, but old-timers who know what is happening appreciate the association's effort.

"I was in hopes they could bring it back because I realized it would take a lot of money," Nelson said. "But it looks like now they have the show on the road."

Donaldson, who is a member of the association, said he isn't too surprised that the community came together to save its treasured hotel. Boulder City was developed to house workers who built Hoover Dam.

The community remains close-knit, he said. And residents cherish and protect their history.

"There are certain things that need to be imploded," he said. "But the Boulder Dam Hotel is not one of them."

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