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April 21, 2014

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70-year-old El Cortez aims at younger downtown crowd with revamped suites

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Leila Navidi

Designer Tina Enard of Reno-based Urban Design Studio puts the finishing touches on their suite “The Big Sleep” at the El Cortez Hotel during the designer reveal of the suites that were redesigned for the Design a Suite Downtown competition at the El Cortez Thursday, January 27, 2011.

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El Cortez Suites

Mikel Patrik stands inside Launch slideshow »

El Cortez: Competing to Redesign History, Part 2

For the past six months, four teams of Nevada-licensed designers - chosen from a pool of 32 applicants - have been designing suites in the historic 70-year-old El Cortez Hotel & Casino. The Sun has been there every step of the way, from renderings to construction to completion. Get an inside tour of each finished suite, which had to be designed on a $20,000 budget. Winners will be announced at an event at the El Cortez from 5:30-8:30 p.m. Feb. 3 - and the winning team gets to design six more suites in Las Vegas' oldest continuously operating casino.

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 »

KSNV: El Cortez Design Contest, Part 1

KSNV coverage of renovations to the El Cortez from Feb. 2, 2011.

High above the casino floor where loyal customers are tethered to the penny slot machines, the El Cortez has spent months revamping its hotel to attract the young, hipster crowd finding its way to the new downtown.

Where outdated VIP suites screamed for updating, interior designers and architects heeded the call with sexy, sleek designs that could rival the newest accommodations at any Strip hotel.

Who knew a 70-year-old could look so chic?

The renovated suites are a result of the El Cortez’s Design-A-Suite competition that tapped local designers and vendors to breathe new life into the aging downtown hotel-casino.

Four Nevada-licensed design teams — selected from a pool of 32 applicants in July — have each spent six months refurbishing, reflooring and refinishing a 600-sqaure-foot suite into their version of a modern downtown suite — all for about $20,000.

The winning team, which will be announced Thursday evening, will get to put their mark on six more suites at the oldest continuously operating hotel-casino in Las Vegas.

By almost any measure, the budget was a challenge for the design teams.

The $20,000 limit is less than half of what would typically be spent on suite of its size. So designers worked around existing fixtures and ditched pricey accessories to provide the functionality needed in any hotel room while staying within the El Cortez’s limits. But the end product speaks more of a high-end suite than a budget hotel room.

“I was nervous when we initially gave the budget. I just wasn’t sure that we’d be able to have a high-end suite for that amount of money, but the result is beyond what we expected,” said Alex Epstein, the El Cortez executive manager who conceptualized the contest. “I think it’s excited everyone with the creativity and the possibility of what we’re able to do with our suites.”

The redesigned suites are just as eclectic as the newly redeveloped Fremont East district where the El Cortez sits. There’s a mid-century hangout for the baby boomer crowd, a shimmering gold retreat for those looking for Vegas glitz and a few contemporary options in between.

But despite the modern style of most of the new suites, each team created its design with the El Cortez’s rich 70-year history in mind, bringing in photos and paintings of the hotel’s original ranch façade lined with classic Cadillac sedans and inserting accessories reminiscent the hotel’s mob ties.

A bowl of bullet casings sit on a desk near the door of Urban Design Studio’s “Big Sleep” suite. They fit in naturally with the mob den vibe.

Tina Enard, lead designer and owner of the Reno-based Urban Design Studio, said the goal was merging contemporary elements with old Vegas charm to create “the perfect blend between crime and charisma.”

“We love it. It’s comfortable and it’s fun. It doesn’t just look like your typical hotel room, and that’s something we always try to do — bring a little entertainment in. It’s got that old Vegas vibe, which is what this hotel is all about,” Enard said.

The oversized yellow wingback chair behind the desk is where the big boss might sit, and the striped carpet is suggestive of a mobster’s pinstripe suit, Enard said. A tumbleweed lamp and faux crocodile skull sit next a wall-sized mural of a desert full of secrets only Bugsy Siegel might know.

A few floors below is “The Rec Room” suite where guests are transported to an era when downtown Las Vegas was in its prime.

Designers Jamie Thomas and Bryan Hamlin of the Nevada and Colorado-based Worth Group brought in a wood-paneled bar and custom linoleum flooring to replicate a mid-century rec room.

A light fixture and table purchased at a downtown antique shop and a painting owned by former El Cortez owner Jackie Gaughan finish off the vintage Vegas feel.

“The colors might be a little more vintage, but everything has cycles. The patterns that we choose are reflective of that era but are more modern to appeal to the younger crowd that is coming to the area,” Thomas said.

UNLV graduates and freelance designers Charles Mais and Nidia Settembre chose to make major structural and layout changes to their suite, building a double-door armoire and placing a desk within the existing closet.

A dark wood headboard separates the bedroom from the living room space, creating an intimate feel in the otherwise open floor plan.

Mais and Settembre’s suite, appropriately named the “Hint Suite,” is a mix of styles, with hints of luxury, vintage and contemporary design. They paired pieces such as pop art paintings of Marilyn Monroe with trendy accessories for a feeling of diversity in the room.

“We’re hoping it evokes that feeling of glamour and is also a warm and comfortable room. I think with the colors and textures we’ve chosen, it definitely alludes to that. It’s just fun,” Settembre said.

With its futuristic white furnishings and gold flooring and ceiling, Mikel Patrik and Patrick Peel’s “El Contempo” suite is perhaps the biggest departure from the El Cortez’s old Vegas style. A wall covering made from a photo of the El Cortez taken in 1950s is the only reminder of the vintage property.

“That was really part if the goal,” Patrik said. “After they walk through the El Cortez casino, up the elevator and to the 11th floor, we want them to walk in and say, ‘Wow, that’s inside the El Cortez?’ and we did it.”

“Gold modern glam” is how the Las Vegas-based designers describe their suite accessorized with gray shag carpets, brassy light fixtures and a mirrored headboard.

A gold beaded curtain that could be found on a burlesque stage divides the bedroom from the living room.

But as others in the design community commented while touring the suite, will it appeal to the El Cortez’s longtime customers who cherish the hotel’s traditional charm?

“We took a risk. A lot of pieces in here, including the floor, are a risk,” Peel said. “It really comes down to personal taste and actually seeing what the client is going to go for, what will push the image that they are going for.”

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  1. I stayed at the Odgen Suites 2x so far. I never had the opportunity to stay in a "real suite", so I rather got a room in the Suite Building. However, the rooms were really nice, but one of the 2 rooms I got was so small because the bed was so big and that's why it was just a big bed in a small room, beautifully decorated, a newly remodeled bathroom, everything in perfect order. Nothing to complain about.

    What is also exceptionally good that's the 24 hour security guard in front of the building. It really gives you the feeling that you are absolutely safe in this sometimes "strange" neighborhood.
    They also offer free movie channels that run without commercials. Such a feature is hard to find in any other Vegas hotel. It's great before falling asleep and contrary to all what the other hotels say when they want their patrons only sleep 4-5 hours and spend the rest of the time on the casino floor. I appreciate such features and it keeps me returning to the legendary El Cortez :)

    Greetings from Switzerland

  2. Won a $2000 jackpot at the bar, put an $80 tip on the bar asked him for some top shelf vodka. Bartender said: "I'd have to charge you for that." I took the tip off the bar and sat at a table and waited about 30 minutes to get paid and fill out the G2 form. They said there was a promotion if I'd come back I'd get to draw a wallet out of a prize drum. "That's OK I won't be back."

    If the employees are sub-par what good is the decor?

  3. Very innovative redesign of the rooms.
    I hope they haven't changed my favourite Room 321 in the "vintage" part of the hotel. I used to specifically request that room each time I stayed there.
    The article calls Jackie Gaughan the former owner of the El Cortez. Who did he sell it to and when?
    I have stayed at the El Cortez many times since my first stay there in 1998. They always gave great value, and their slots were looser than other places.
    Good luck to them in the future.

  4. FromBellevilleCanada,

    Jackie Gaughan sold his stake in the property in 2008. The Epstein family now owns most of it. Gaughan still lives in a penthouse at the El Cortez and can be seen around the property daily.

  5. I always stay at EC. The place is a classic and they have 3:2 single deck blackjack as well as great comps. The EC makes you feel like a king even on a budget. Long may they thrive.

  6. I've walked outside El Cortez at night down Fremont at least a hundred times and never had a problem with safety.

  7. mred and chazbean: I would not consider the E-C a dump. To the contrary. I just think sometimes you should not be too picky. mred, the 80 dollar tip on the 2000 dollar payout was extremely generous in my eyes. I usually tip 20 on the hand paid royal flush for 1000 dollars and 10 dollars if I get the 4 deuces for 500 dollars. That's a reasonable tip in my eyes. Then, if I ask for the best vodka or champagne they have, then it's ok if I still have to pay.
    Don't forget, ever winner of 300 dollars and up gives you a certificate for an envelope. I got to choose between the jacket or the slot-play envelope. I left the E-C with 3 jackets and aprox. 5 additional slot plays. Most of them are worth 10 bucks, but, believe it or not, one slotplay I picked was a 50 dollar free-play. Now that was a nice extra.
    What you get when you check-in at the E-C is a very nice room in a lower middle-class hotel. You know that in advance and therefore you don't expect rooms like at Bellagio or Venetian. But you pay only a fraction of that, too. So what's the complaint? Honestly, I don't see many reasons for complaints there, except perhaps the very limited selection on the late night menu at Katje's Coffee Shop.
    From Switzerland

  8. JimboinTuscon

    Me too, I walked from the Golden Nugget down to the El Cortez for so many times over the past few years, and I never ever had a problem.
    Ok, once crossing Vegas Boulevard, I become a bit more careful and try to keep my eyes open for every fast move I see. But then again, it's only 1 single block and there's usually this security guard showing presence at the corner.
    I even walked from the E-C to the Western at days because they have some of the very best videopoker machines there, even for low limit players. Even this was not very dangerous, at least during the days. At nights, I must admit, I would not do that walk after having had 5 Coronas. I would call for a taxi.
    And I even walked from the E-C to the Gold Spike and up till Vegas Club on Odgen and never had any problems.
    I just think that the entire neighborhood is less dangerous nowadays than it was in the late 80s. Also, I see less drug dealers or hookers standing around. They must have gone elsewhere.

    From Switzerland

  9. Congratulations to the finalists, and thank you to Alex Epstein for bringing a modern vision to a classic Vegas property. Downtown 3.0 is well underway!

  10. The E-C has 1 big advantage: it's far away from all the noise on Fremont Street, all the vendors, the crazy light show, the extremely loud and sometimes annoying rock concerts, and all the big mess. I think people that REALLY came to Vegas for gambling and shaking off their day-to-day troubles at home appreciate the peaceful atmosphere of the legendary El Cortezzzzzzzzzzzzz :)
    And I like this voice of this legendary marketing speaker when they announce new and more Royal Flush winners. This guy really knows his job :)

    From Switzerland

  11. I love what the new owners have done with the place. What a novel idea here. Glad someone is putting some real entrepreneurial spirit back into Vegas casino ownership!

  12. Keep in mind, the $80 was what I had on me, I had not got the $2000 yet. I probably had a gallon of "Belvedere" in my car trunk, so it is not the free drink but the thought that counts. Also the employees at the restaurant were nasty, "this is closed, no prime rib, blah blah"

    I didn't call the place a dump, just why should I go somewhere were the employees are nasty. They don't have to kiss my ---, but they could be "civil."

    I don't gamble anymore since I won $50,000 on a keno two year ago, and the casino industry supported people like Sandoval, I mean Gov. Somoza

  13. I went to the cashier the other day, it was early in the morning after playing videopoker for approx 8 hours nonstop. I had about 5 chardonnday intus and was feeling ok because I didn't lose anything that night.
    So I came to the main cage where to lovely philippino girls were chatting as they had nothing to do. Then, one of them said.....I love you.... (she didn't say it to me, unfortunately....), and I instantly replied..... hey babes, I love you, too, but would you please be so kind and change these coins for me.". We all had a chuckle and then I left.
    I think the E-C is a very special place. It's not perfect. There are no perfect casinos, but this is really a place for normal people looking for some fun :)

    From Switzerland

  14. Boris doesn't annoy anyone. He has great insights and is clever. Someone who only posts to abusively complain about another poster is the annoying one.

  15. The EC is always an old heavy smoking crowd. Many employees are not customer service oriented or just don't care. I think most Customer Service in Las Vegas is Unprofessional, even in the Top Venues and Hotels.
    That said, the Slots at EC usually let you play longer than anywhere else and the Table Games offer decent old time odds. If the Casino had a better ventilation system and looked Old and Classic instead of decrepid it would be nice. I always felt safe as they have security on the Fremont Street corner.

  16. I have found that the service employees in this town tend you treat you how you treat them. Yes, there are some that have no business dealing with the public but over all our experiences have been great downtown.

    You give them attitude, they give you attitude. You treat them good and they treat you good. Has worked for over 50 years for me in this town. ;-)

  17. mred, I may take you to task and have a friendly "arguement" with you from tine to time. But I'm happy to hear you've had some really good luck in your playing days! That's awesome. I agree, if someone tossed me an $80 tip and wanted a drink, I think I could peel the cost of the drink out of the $80 and gladly "comp" it in that way. So the tip becomes "only" $70 or whatever, still not a bad day at work.
    boris, when I saw the "El-Cortez" in the headline, I had to look to see if you commented. You didn't let me down!

  18. Hey Bakersfield

    You know by now that the E-C is one of my personal top favorites. And I mean it for a reason. I don't travel to Las Vegas with 150,000 in cash, but I am not the type of person to come to Vegas with only 300 in my pocket and plan to go drunk every single hour and make a fool out of myself. You know that.

    I am a gambler, ok, but I try to play the best games and play these games as well as I can , and over the years I became quite a smart gambler. In a way, there are trips in which I didn't lose anything at all. And that's quite an accomplishment if you play 3 weeks in a row, 10 hours per day, isn't it? Luck is one thing, but plaiyng well can help you to need a little less luck and still come out ahead in this funny game.

    My poker skills are good enough to easily compete in the 1-2 and 2-5 nl levels, but I would not want to play any higher than that. My videopoker skills are good enough for 3 different games, but I will need my little strategy charts from time to time. This makes it a little over 100 per cent game, if I pick the right games. And my b-j game is lose to 100 per cent, but not 100 per cent. I know that, so I don't play much of b-j lately. But I'm having fun. The E-C, with all due respect, has been treating me nice, and I have tipped a lot to the friendly waitress that knows my drink preferences by now. I don't even have to tell her what I want. She knows me. And that's somethign I never saw anywhere else so far. That's why, to me E-C= No 1 :)
    From Switzerland

  19. What a BLAST! To see the old El Cortez go thru many modifications over the past 15 years with this latest upgrade being 'top of the line'.

    Like many of those submitting comments, I'm an old EC customer. In fact, during my 'formative' Vegas years (the 70s and 80s), my Vegas vacation (no matter the time frame) ALWAYS included El Cortez. It was the EC, with it's Four Seasons Club, that enticed me to visit Vegas three and four times a year. The Four Seasons Club comped a slot player three nights per season (that's 12 free days a year) whenever a jackpot was won. Well, winning jackpots on quarter, half-dollar and dollar machines in those days was commonplace; the slots were soooooo loose. Talk about having fun, fun, fun. The rooms may not have been the best, but they were more than sufficient for spending a wonderful, fun-filled vacation in Vegas.

    I haven't stayed at the EC in the last 10 years (although I play there on most of my trips), I hope to stay there on my next. This makes two older venues that highly interest me; El Cortez and the Tropicana (they have also done a remarkable job of upgrading).

    Keep up the good work Vegas... and I (and my family and friends) will continue to vacation in your fabulous city.

  20. Way to go E-C great job on the upgrade, another reason to stay off the strip.