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April 18, 2014

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A suite deal: El Cortez redesign contest, on a budget

Seven-decade old El Cortez invites designers to breathe new life into the aging downtown property by creating new guest rooms

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Leila Navidi

Tina Enard of Reno-based Urban Design Studio examines a suite at the El Cortez September 8, 2010.

El Cortez: Competing to Redesign History, Part 1

The historic 70-year-old El Cortez Hotel & Casino has turned four of its suites over to local design teams for a complete makeover - and the team with the best design gets to design six more suites in Las Vegas' oldest continuously operating casino. El Cortez's Design-a-Suite contest started with 32 applicants, and has now been narrowed down to four finalists. Meet each Nevada-licensed design team and follow along as they plan, and shop, to make their visions become reality on only a $20,000 budget.

Designers examine the El Cortez

Tina Enard of Reno-based Urban Design Studio examines the current suite at the El Cortez September 8, 2010. Launch slideshow »

El Cortez Suite Renderings

Freelance designers Mikel Patrik and Patrick Peel Launch slideshow »

Amanda Finnegan on the El Cortez design-a-suite contest

lasvegassun.com reporter Amanda Finnegan talks about the El Cortez Hotel and Casino's challenge to four local design teams to each design a suite on a $20,000 budget.

Map of El Cortez

El Cortez

600 E. Fremont Street , Las Vegas

Sun Coverage

While posh Las Vegas Strip hotels boast touch-screen remotes and 600-thread-count sheets, the El Cortez mostly leans on its 70-year history and downtown roots.

Sure, the hotel has stories to share of prolific mob owners, but history doesn’t sell rooms in a city where the notion of nostalgia for old landmarks is to invite the public to watch their implosions.

Nor can the El Cortez keep up with the finest in electronic gadgetry and elegant linens that are the signature of the newest Strip resorts.

So the El Cortez thinks the secret may be in improving the most basic of hotel amenities — the room itself. And to that end, it has challenged four design teams to breathe new life into the aging property by creating new guest suites.

Constrained by a $20,000 budget per suite, a fraction of what Strip resorts spend on renovations, designers competing in the Design-a-Suite contest have each been tasked with turning a 600-square-foot room into their version of a chic downtown suite. The public, along with a panel of judges, will decide early next year which team will get to expand their vision to six more suites at the oldest continuously operating casino in Las Vegas.

The contest is the conception of 25-year-old El Cortez Executive Manager Alexandra Epstein. She’s become downtown’s biggest advocate, first with her vision of turning the rundown Ogden House Motel across the street into the El Cortez’s stylish Cabana Suites, and later reopening a shuttered medical facility as Emergency Arts for local artists to showcase their work.

“We had been brainstorming for months on how does a property survive for 70 years, but still adapt to the community obviously changing around us?” Epstein said. “As opposed to just hiring a designer and telling them what we want, we really wanted it to be a collaborative process.”

The El Cortez received 32 applications for the Design-a-Suite contest before choosing the four finalists, all of whom are designers licensed in Nevada.

In total, the El Cortez will spend about $200,000 on renovating the 10 suites, which is just $45,000 shy of what it cost Marion Hicks and J.C. Grayson to build the 59-room downtown resort in 1941. Owners have since changed and about 300 rooms have been added, but the El Cortez is one of the few Las Vegas casinos to have never changed its exterior facade, retaining the same signage and original ranch-themed architecture.

The suites currently serve as accommodations for the El Cortez’s high rollers, but are far from the luxury suites of the Strip’s newest resorts. They resemble a bare-bones room at a midlevel hotel chain, with worn furnishings and outdated brass fixtures that haven’t been updated since the early 1990s.

The project is more than a fresh coat of paint. The hotel is gutting the 10 suites to bare shells, where the design teams will add flooring, hand-painted murals and updated furnishings.

The teams have been given few limitations for their designs, with the exception that 80 percent of their materials and furnishings must be purchased from the World Market Center and Las Vegas Design Center, a contest requirement the El Cortez hopes will stimulate the downtown economy.

“We really didn’t want to outsource anything,” Epstein said. “We wanted to use the resources we have in the Nevada limits.”

Since September, designers have navigated the showrooms of the World Market Center that remain largely empty, except for the two weeks a year that the Las Vegas Market show hits the design metropolis. Showroom managers seem relieved and eager to see a glimmer of business.

“Gold modern glam” is the design mantra that guides Las Vegas designers Patrick Peel and Mikel Patrik as they purchase mirrored headboards and sleek white sofas in their attempt to bring the El Cortez up to speed with Las Vegas luxury hotels.

Their shimmering gold ceiling is a design risk, but one they hope will stand out among the competition.

“Everyone else seems to be minimal in their furnishings or using a lot of color and or are very modern, something you would see over in Aria,” Peel said.

A few floors below Peel and Patrik, Bryan Hamlin and Jamie Thomas of the Nevada and Colorado-based Worth Group are harboring a midcentury rec room, complete with a wet bar and Vegas relics like a painting owned by former El Cortez owner Jackie Gaughan.

Click to enlarge photo

Breanne Antos, left, and Tina Enard of Reno-based Urban Design Studio check out home accessories at a store in World Market Center September 8, 2010.

“When you think retro and what Vegas was in those days, you think about lounging, about having dinner parties and people coming over,” Thomas said. “We wanted it to be familiar to the clientele that has frequented the El Cortez over the last seven decades, but also something that would appeal to the new, younger crowd that is coming downtown.”

Reno-based Urban Design Studio owner Tina Enard and her designers are also paying homage to Vegas history and the El Cortez’s once mobster owners with their “Big Sleep” suite. Between their wall-sized desert mural, quirky accessories and sophisticated furnishing, Enard said it’ll be “the perfect blend between crime and charisma.”

The “Hint Suite,” designed by UNLV graduates and freelance designers Charlie Mais and Nidia Settembre, falls somewhere between modern and retro with hints of vintage, hints of contemporary and hints of luxury, the designers said. They’re using textures such as velvet, snakeskin vinyl and glass to achieve the eclectic feel.

For some of the design teams, the Design-a-Suite contest represents more than a chance to put their mark on a downtown hotel. It’s the opportunity to work after a long drought in a city where new construction and renovations are few and far between. That was on the minds of El Cortez executives when they developed the contest.

“We wanted to give back to the community because we know from experience how the economy has changed our own community,” Epstein said.

Click to enlarge photo

Designers Mikel Patrik, from second from left, and Patrick Peel of Las Vegas attend a workshop to learn a flooring technique they will use in their design at Semco in Las Vegas Friday, November 12, 2010.

Peel and Patrik found themselves causalities of the recession after they both lost jobs at two separate Las Vegas design firms last year. Since then, Peel started his own company, A’Peeling Designs, while Patrik is focusing on launching his career as an artist. The Design-a-Suite project is their first hospitality design job since they lost their jobs in 2009.

“I’m always trying to get out there and remind people that I’ve stayed in Las Vegas. A lot of my friends and colleagues have decided to move since there is no work here, but I want to make Las Vegas my home and where I’m going to be successful,” Patrik said.

Other designers said the contest is a chance to keep creativity flowing in a slow market.

“We saw it as an opportunity to remind people that we are here,” Enard said. “We’ve definitely been hit hard by the economy; everyone in the design world has. It’s a positive. That’s what design is supposed to be: fun and creative, and we needed to remember that.”

Katharine Euphrat contributed to this report.

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  1. Always a favorite of mine, and fondly called the El Whoretez (she'll take your money but definitely show you a good time!), this is precisely the reason they have survived so long and doing surprisingly well when others are struggling. Jackie knew how to hand pick his underlings and taught THEM how to hand pick their underlings. The result is a well run, creative and customer oriented business much loved by locals and tourists alike. Save for the F&B department, which has a ways to go to re-learn the 70 year old philosophy of good service outweighs portion control, the EC is usually my first choice to play whether I'm in residence or visiting.

  2. A great group of leaders at the El Cortez who have been on a streak of brilliant enhancements which appeal to the core customer and a younger, hipper crowd, as well. I think the past 5 years will be seen as part of the golden age of the Dean of Downtown casinos. From the barber shop (Mr. Ortiz operates the only one Downtown) to the Beat Coffeehouse at Emergency Arts, to the Cabana Suites to the shirts in the gift shop (I have 10. They're the best value in Las Vegas) this is the most enjoyable area in Las Vegas.
    A benefit of the Great Recession is depressed room rates that have allowed us to stay at Encore a couple times. A wonderful place, excellent service and rooms. But, I still have to make a couple stops at El Cortez during our average 4 day visit.

  3. Room 321 in the old section of the El Cortez was my favourite room, and I specifically requested that room each time I booked at the hotel. I loved the layout with a king-size bed at one end, the TV on a dresser and a comfortable chair in the centre, and a two-seater sofa and coffee table at the other end. In addition there was a small separate room containing a desk and chair with good lighting. I even wrote a book with Room 321 at the good old El Cortez as the setting of my story. My old joke business card might still be in the room's Gideon Bible.
    So many of my wonderful memories of Las Vegas are of the El Cortez and the wonderful vacation value they have always given. It truly has top-notch ownership. Good luck on the renovations.

  4. They should get some media attention on the HG Channel. Same with the furniture mart. Get on cable with a redesign show. I like the 4th proposal. Hotels have too much furniture. More built in shelves, etc. verses too much furniture. How many drunks fall and hit their head on the coffee tables?

  5. The Cortez should have brought in the Reality TV peeps. It has all the requirements - and the renovations of the 4 competitors would be at no cost as soon as the sponsors rolled in.

    El Cortez - well...on that point, I would consider a design more themed with the area - lots of glass (to bring in the meth- pipe vibe) maybe pictures of bail bonds and pawnshops on the walls. A hand cuff chandelier and a toilet that also doubles as a sink - That would really bring in the true Cortez experience. I would also put a slot in the door of the suite - so room service could bring a plastic tray with a baloney sandwich, apple sauce, carrot slices and a small 5 oz carton of milk and just slide it under the door.

  6. I always stay at El Cortez. The place is special.

  7. after the golden nugget the cortez is the best downtown property they have really done a great job the last 5 years cleaning the place up it looks great!!!!

  8. Many congratulations to the El Cortez and Alex Epstein for having the vision and the loyalty to Las Vegas to make this happen. This is an example of the type of leadership, risk taking, and dedication to our city that will lead Las Vegas into the future.

    (For what it's worth, the former Fremont Medical Center, that is now Emergency Arts, was a JC Penney's multi-floor department store back in the day.)

  9. Please dont make it as cold and unwelcoming as the rooms in the Aria/Vdara monstrosity. Remember its rich history.

  10. As a Californian who spends a lot of time in Vegas, wireless Internet and a flat screen TV are absolute basics. A decent bed, clean linens and room and good maintenance is what will bring us back to your hotel for a second and third stay.

  11. I am proud to see these four finalists prove the "old guard" wrong...it's not so much a challenge when you have healthy budgets and the world of resources at your disposal. I want to shake so many designers that still think you have to spend millions to create an interesting, memorable, comfortable suite. These contestants are all winners for "getting it". That's why they're busy now, and will be rewarded during and after the recession.

  12. Bag and Gag the guys on the strip and make them listen to a lecture by Jackie on how to run a classy joint, be visible, listen to the customer and still make more money.

    Do that and the Strip would be a great place to visit again.

  13. I have been visiting the El Cortez for some years now. I have stayed at the rooms in the Pavillion (above the garage), the tower rooms, and I have also tried out the Odgen Suite rooms. Without exagerating, I can only say this: The El Cortez is THE PLACE to stay. It is so special that you can only feel it when you're there. It has a history unlike many others, and customer service inside is also special. I don't really care of whether or not I win money when I gamble there. They treat me nice and it gives me anything I need. Ok, the poker room offers games below my personal standards, so I avoid it.
    The suites at the remodeled Odgen House are nice. Some rooms are too small as the beds are too big compared to the room size. But it's ok. I think the value you get is unbelievable great and , as far as I remember, they even have free channel tv with commercial free movies going on.
    After staying at the Odgen Suites 2x, however, I decided to book the towers for my future visits. The rooms there are clean, with comfortable beds and everything is just right. And no resort fee.

    And the best of all: I love the old school videopoker section with coin-in/out machines :D

    From Switzerland

  14. Downtown is the future of Las Vegas. Nicely appointed boutique hotels, an understanding and respect of Las Vegas' storied past, adaptive reuse of older structures, historic neighborhoods with class and character, not to mention a gaggle of visionaries believing, investing and promoting it every single day... The Strip needs to learn from its older brother. Hint Hint...

  15. My wife and I spent our honeymoon at the El Cortez on May 3 1957. It was great back then

  16. I take the El Cortez any way and leave the Mandalay/MGM Grand / NYNY mass casino atmosphere behind. After all, we know that visiting Vegas costs money and losing is easier than winning. But what you decide, that's where you stay and where you like to spend your money. From that point of view, the E-C i clearly the best option for the low budget gambler and people that like to experience Vegas how it used to be for so many years: )

    From Switzerland