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November 21, 2014

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Boulder Dam Hotel about to turn 70

After surviving about 25 owners, numerous bankruptcies, and a long, slow decline from a first-rate hotel popular with celebrities and royalty to the brink of demolition and back to respectability, the Boulder Dam Hotel turns 70 next week.

The opening of what is now a historic anchor of downtown Boulder City will be celebrated Saturday with a festival from noon to 4 p.m. at the hotel on Arizona Street between Nevada Way and City Hall.

Boulder City resident Sharon Schultz, 59, said it's important to recognize and celebrate the city's history and prominent historical buildings such as the hotel.

"It's part of our history and that's what Boulder City is built on is its history," she said.

Bill Ferrence, past president of the association that now owns the hotel, said: "In other places in the country 70 years is the new kid on the block. But here 70 years is our city. Before that it was cowboys and Indians."

Lee Tilman, who moved to Boulder City in 1931 to find work on the dam, said the hotel is "kind of like the Washington Monument in Washington, D.C., It's been here a long time and it's one of the icons for the city."

The Boulder Dam Hotel opened Dec. 15, 1933, as the nation struggled through the Great Depression, but the fledgling Boulder City area surged with workers building the Hoover Dam, then called Boulder Dam, seven miles east of the town.

With private bathrooms in every room and air conditioning -- luxuries at that time -- and with the tourist attraction of the massive dam, the hotel's heyday came early in its history. Movie stars including Shirley Temple, Will Rogers and Bette Davis, and royalty such as a prince and princess from Norway, and an English dutchess, stayed at the hotel during the 1930s.

Nightly rates ranged from $3 to $6.50, an unaffordable amount for many of the dam workers.

"That hotel was clear out of my category as far as a place to live," Tilman, 91, said. "Most of us were living out here were under the Mesquite trees."

But the hotel was popular with the "upper crust," said Dennis McBride, a Boulder City resident who has written books on the dam and the Boulder Dam Hotel.

The hotel added a southeast wing with 18 rooms in 1934, and another 30-room expansion opened a year later to bring the total number of rooms to 83.

The hotel boomed with the rich and famous, dam tourists and the occasional visitor waiting out the six-week residency requirement to get a quickie divorce -- and then came World War II, McBride said.

Gasoline rations, the virtual end of tourists from Europe, and the closing of the dam to tourists that came with the war, kept hotel visitors away and started the long downward spiral of the property that lasted for most of the next 50 years, McBride said.

For by the time the wartime obstacles to tourism were lifted, the hotel, like Boulder City, was losing tourists and prestige to Las Vegas resorts, he said.

"In the ensuing years people would come and fall in love with the hotel and buy it, and then it would destroy them," McBride said.

During the subsequent decades the slow decline of the hotel included a stint as a retirement home in the 1960s.

In the 1980s former state Sen. Cliff McCorkle bought the hotel, renovated a handful of rooms and reopened the hotel restaurant. But high operating costs eventually forced him to declare bankruptcy, he said.

A new group bought the hotel, also with plans to renovate the historic building, but those plans fell through after a partner who was to fund the renovation died in a car accident, McBride said.

The building, placed on the National Historic Register in 1982, was shut down by the city Fire Department in the early 1990s due to code violations and safety concerns.

"The hotel was condemned and on the verge of being demolished," McBride said.

But then several nonprofit groups in the city got together to save the building.

The Boulder City Arts Council, Chamber of Commerce, Museum and Historical Association, and the city came together to create the Boulder Dam Hotel Association and bought the building in 1993.

"There was every reason to believe it might be torn down," said Ferrence, who is also manager of the Boulder Dam Credit Union. "It definitely had fallen out as a place for anyone to stay."

Through government grants and private fund-raising, the group spent about $2.4 million on the building, Ferrence said.

The basement where Howard Hughes once stayed while recovering from a plane crash at Lake Mead in 1943 was turned into office space for the chamber and a bar. Rooms on the first floor were turned into a hallway of gift shops, an art gallery, and a small dam museum in the back of the building. Upstairs, 22 rooms were fixed up, and they're the only rooms left in the hotel now.

Although many changes were made, McBride said much of the building still looks as it did 70 years ago.

"Someone from 1935 would not have culture shock if they saw it and sat down in the dining room for lunch," he said.

The white-painted brick building looks virtually the same from the outside, except of course for the neon vacancy sign in the window. Likewise the lobby, which still has the original wood-paneled walls, hasn't changed much, he said.

Ferrence said the building has turned a profit during the last several months, and it appears it will at least break even. In addition to the office and shop leases, the hotel charges $89 to $139 a night for rooms.

"I think we've turned a corner," he said.

McBride said the transformation of the hotel into a mixed-use office/commercial/hotel building seems to be the best chance to make the building profitable.

"How much longer it will survive, who can tell?" McBride mused. "But 70 years is a long time for anybody or any building, and so worthy of a great celebration."

The Saturday celebration will feature Hawaiian Halua dancers, and a raffle for a five-day trip to Hawaii. Hotel management had hoped to drop 2,000 orchids from a helicopter on the festival-goers. But the City Council turned down that request on Tuesday, citing concerns about the mess the flowers could leave all over downtown.