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July 28, 2014

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Lasting impression: Unchanged since the ‘50s, the Algiers Hotel stands alone

It's the sort of thing movies are made of.

A bygone era. A smoky lounge. A cozy group of neighborhood regulars sipping away the afternoons, sharing bellyaches carried over from the workday and rehashing the same stories and hazy memories from the week or even years before.

There are the heartfelt brassy comments and occasional bickering thrown from one end of the bar to the other, and the quiet discussion muttered by those huddled in between.

There's the intermittent, almost hypnotic roar of laughter accented by the charming nicknames Poor Ol' Sam, Good-looking Dave and Mr. Organ spilled out during the swell of a good joke.

There's the mildly contentious issue about whether the clear glass window stretching behind the counter lets in too much daylight.

Then there's the rich history hovering over the booths along the back wall, where local and state politicians used to gather for afternoon meetings, and businessmen played liar's poker with straightened dollar bills.

Welcome to the Algiers Hotel, where the outlandish, glitzy and transient nature of the Strip is muted by the hotel's kitschy charm, its retro cocktail lounge and the neighborly regulars who frequent it. "This is the last of the Mohicans," said 84-year-old Tom Harkenrider, referring to the hotel on Las Vegas Boulevard South, which for almost 50 years has remained nearly unchanged and still lures in much of the same crowd as it had during the past decades.

The Algiers was in the news this week when attorneys representing the hotel asked Clark County Commissioners to consider trading county land at Harmon Avenue and Las Vegas Boulevard for the land occupied by the old hotel. Attorneys said that long-term plans for the hotel call for an expansion to a 1,000-room hotel-casino, and the land swap would provide the space needed for a new Strip megaresort that would replace the old Algiers (the proposal surfaced Tuesday as commissioners decided to postpone sale of county land to a company that plans to build a Ferris wheel on the county's valuable Strip property).

But for now, the Algiers stands as it always has. And while much of old Las Vegas has been razed and replaced by flashy megaresorts, Algiers has remained true to its colors.

A 1950s hot spot

Built in 1953 and well-preserved in its vintage form, the grounds of the Algiers are almost eerie, but strangely inviting. The charm is unmistakable.

Standing on the small outdoor patio near the hotel entrance, the clicking of yellow light bulbs flickering from the hotel's red-painted restaurant is the only sound you hear.

Towering, trimmed palm trees sway slightly above the gazebos near the swimming pool. Wrapped around the pool and parking lot is the brick hotel's pink-and-turquoise painted exterior.

It's quiet. Save for the Riviera looming over the Algiers' south side, one would never know by standing in its courtyard that the hotel is on the Strip.

Remarkably, given the history of old hotels on the Strip, it hasn't reached the crumbling doom of its neighbors, nor has it lost its appeal among those who still appreciate the older end of the Strip.

"It is a wonderful piece of old Las Vegas," UNLV history professor Hal Rothman said. "It's one of the things that if in another city it would become a historical place ... It's the archetypical 1950s-style of the Las Vegas hotel."

The hotel was built by Marion and Lillian Hicks, who also built the once-neighboring Thunderbird, which later became El Rancho (imploded in October of 2000).

Unlike other Arabian desert-themed hotels, such as the Dunes and Sands, the Algiers has hung on.

"Our thought has always been to maintain it as it was, consistently remodeling but with same decor," Larry Kifer, owner of the Algiers, said.

"We used to worry all the time, every time they built a new hotel, that the people will dissipate," Kifer said. "What we've learned is that there is a market for our hotel."

And why not? There are no crowds, no long walk from the parking lot. No tipping the valets. No standing in line and no chaos from the incessant ring, clinks and clanks of slot machines.

The budget rates and retro kitch draw senior citizens, salesmen who can park their cars right outside their rooms, and Europeans looking for a more intimate place to stay than the megaresorts.

Designed and built with larger rooms and without a gaming area, Algiers was originally thought of as a place for an extended stay, be it a week or longer, Kifer said.

The 106-room hotel has only one suite, no casino (except for video-poker machines in the bar) and a staff of 31.

In the restaurant, which the hotel leased to Tommy's Rib & Steakhouse five years ago, black-and-white framed photographs of old Las Vegas hotels and long-ago celebrity faces cover the walls above the original booths.

At night the soft-spoken restaurant owner, Marilyn Johnson, plays Nat King Cole, Johnny Mathis and Bing Crosby and other music from 1940s, '50s and '60s.

"They like the old-time atmosphere," Johnson said of her customers. Many often tell her, " 'I came here in '59 or '60 and this restaurant looks exactly the same.' "

In the '50s and '60s it was a popular hangout among locals, including politicians and businessmen. The late Paul Price, a Sun columnist, would write his stories in the adjoining lounge, which is still frequented by some of the same customers.

Longtime locals

"I used to come here when the El Rancho was called the T-Bird," said Sam Stokke, a longtime bellman at the neighboring Riviera who has been stopping in at the bar for 32 years.

"This is the oldest bar on the Strip," he added. "It's gotta be. All the rest of the places are gone."

But so are many of the regulars who used to fill the bar. "A lot of people died off," Stokke said.

"There's an old story here. Everyone who sits here dies," added a regular named Karen (who declined to give her last name), referring to the seat she normally sits in. She rattled off a few names of those who had once kept the seat warm, as Stokke and another patron helped her recall.

Karen walked into the Algiers' cocktail lounge for the first time in 1969, and for the past two decades has been joining her friends regularly in the afternoons. If the hotel follows in the footsteps of its imploded neighbors, Karen and the others would be at a loss.

"I'd probably never go to another place," Karen said. "I don't think I could."

For now, Kifer said the hotel will stay the same -- although the Algiers has approval from Clark County for the expansion, which would include new hotel rooms, time-share units and a casino.

With a proposed London-themed hotel-casino that may be built next door, Kifer said, "There's a possibility that down the road we may have to do something.

"We would like to do something more cutting edge, but in a retro way, sort of like Ian Schrager (the designer who has transformed older hotels into fashionable hotel spots)," Kifer said. "I think there's a market here in keeping a hint of old Las Vegas."

Especially with Baby Boomers, Kifer said. "There's a bit of nostalgia that we all like to hold on to."

Barfly buddies

In the bar -- where customers come in and drop off garden-grown tomatoes for bartender Rita Moreland, and all of the returning tourists (who are so tight with the regulars that many attend their backyard parties) -- the nostalgia for the old Las Vegas lifestyle couldn't be more appreciated.

They share birthdays, holidays, Super Bowl parties and last-minute drink specials created by the bartenders who call around the neighborhood to enliven otherwise lonely nights.

The bar's window had been boarded up since 1969. They remember one day in October 1999 it was reopened to let in some light and offer a view of the courtyard.

"It was standing room only that night," bar manager Gina Maskunas-Fields said. "Everyone had come out for it."

Maskunas-Fields first walked into the bar in 1980s when she was in the military.

A few years later fate would bring her back -- twice -- once after she was married in a nearby chapel and came to the bar to party. Another time, she answered an ad for a job at the Algiers lounge, not remembering she had been there before.

"I walked in here and looked around and said, 'Oh my God, It's deja-vu.' "

That time she stayed and became part of the scenery.

"It's the neighborhood bar of neighborhood bars," Marskunas-Fields said. "It's like a family atmosphere. You come in here it's the same faces every day. If I don't see Sam for a couple of days in a row, I'll check on him. I'll call him to see how he's doing.

"Why do you want to go hang out at a place where you don't know anybody? You come here a couple days in a row and you know people."

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