Updated July 2, 2021 - 6:11 am
Long before the mega skyscrapers that line Las Vegas Boulevard, the LED canopy above Fremont Street and the endless suburbs stretching far beyond downtown, the hotel then known as the Union Plaza stood firmly at the heart of Sin City.
Friday marks the 50th anniversary of the historic hotel-casino’s grand opening at 1 N. Main St. in downtown Las Vegas. When the hotel now known as the Plaza opened its doors in 1971, it was dubbed the largest in the world with more than 500 rooms.
Mark Hall-Patton, the recently retired Clark County museum director, was a junior in high school when the Plaza was built. He said he sees the buildout of the hotel in the early 1970s as a sort of coming of age for Las Vegas.
“We don’t think much of it now, but at the time, 500 rooms was a huge hotel,” Hall-Patton said. “That’s a little boutique hotel these days, but it was a major step for Las Vegas back then. A step toward the megaresort, 3,500-room hotels we see today.”
The Plaza sits at the site of Las Vegas’ first train depot, which was built in 1905. Union Pacific bought the train station in the early 1920s and inspired the hotel-casino’s first name, Union Plaza. The hotel was home to an Amtrak station that offered passenger train service from Las Vegas to Los Angeles for many years until service ended in 1997. A downtown Greyhound bus station also was adjacent to the hotel until it closed in February.
Where downtown began
UNLV history professor Michael Green said the Plaza’s location gives the hotel-casino a special place in his heart, as it does with many other longtime residents and local history buffs.
“I would say that is where downtown Las Vegas really began,” Green said. “Back then, the train depot was sort of the center of town to a lot of people. So Union Plaza took that spot. It has seemed to be at the center of things ever since. It’s a meeting ground for our city’s history.”
The Plaza is synonymous with Las Vegas gaming industry legends such as J.K. Houssels Jr., Jackie Gaughan, Sam Boyd and Bill Boyd, who were early investors in the project.
It also has played an important role in Las Vegas film and TV history. Several movies, including “Casino” and “The Hangover Part 3,” feature the Plaza. It can be seen during episodes of “Ultimate Poker Challenge” and “Murder She Wrote.” Parts of music videos from The Killers, Lil Wayne, The Weeknd, Pink Floyd and Iggy Azalea show the casino.
Over the years, the Plaza has gone through several renovations, including a $35 million investment in 2010-11. Plaza CEO Jonathan Jossel said the property is a microcosm of what downtown Las Vegas has been through over the past two or three decades.
It’s an area that’s gone from “being sort of rundown and needing a new lease on life” to taking “on a whole new world” over the past several years,” Jossel said. “(The Plaza) sits at the very center of that.”
Despite reported talk of demolishing the Plaza by Oscar Goodman in the mid-2000s and the demise of several historic hotel and casino implosions over the years — including the Las Vegas Club in downtown Las Vegas as well as the Sands and the Dunes on the Strip — the Plaza still stands today. And visitors can dine on prime rib, filet mignon and more at Oscar’s Steakhouse, named for the former mayor.
Goodman’s wife, Carolyn, now mayor of Las Vegas, called the Plaza “an iconic part of the lore of Las Vegas standing the test of time and only getting better.”
The hotel currently features 995 rooms and suites, nearly double what it had in 1971. Despite the upgrades, the building has maintained its old-time Las Vegas feel over the past half-century, Jossel said.
“Throughout the years, we’ve made it more relevant and modern, whether it’s the murals on the exterior of the building, whether it’s the remodels, whether it’s a casino floor, all those elements are so new and exciting,” Jossel said. “And yet people still love the vintage glamour of the building.”
The Plaza is celebrating its five decades in Las Vegas with promotions and special events throughout 2021, including fireworks shows Friday through Sunday.
In May, the Nevada Preservation Foundation recognized the Plaza as a building of historical significance, the first commercial property to receive the foundation’s historic designation.
It’s the history behind the building but also the building itself, that made it deserving of the honor, according to Cynthia Ammerman, the foundation’s executive director. Ammerman told the Review Journal on Wednesday that the Plaza’s showroom remains “one of the last portals to Vintage Vegas shows.”
During a speech in May, she praised the structure for its “sweeping symmetry and stripped-down elegance.” The building’s architectural design presents “a stark and unexpected contrast to its neighbors, shedding the grandiosity of neon, the design embraced neo-classical modernism, a sprawling functional corporate and entertainment transit-oriented landscape, that could have been built in Tel Aviv or Latin America,” she added.
Today, the historic hotel-casino serves as the gateway to downtown’s Fremont Street Experience, right across the street from the newly built Circa, a project that many at the time said signaled a new era for downtown Las Vegas. Through it all, from the heyday of downtown to the dark days of the Great Recession to its cultural revival today, the Plaza persisted.
“Anyone who takes a picture with the camera facing west on Fremont Street over the last 50 years, Plaza is somewhere in the background,” Hall-Patton said. “It’s the anchor point of our entire downtown.”