Updated January 14, 2022 - 6:03 am
It wasn’t the first hotel built in Las Vegas, as some have claimed, but the Golden Gate is a hotel full of firsts.
When John F. Miller opened the 10-room hotel on the corner of Main and Fremont streets in 1906, then called the Hotel Nevada, telephones were still a bit of a rarity. But when telephone lines were installed in Las Vegas it was Miller’s hotel that got the first telephone, and with it the first phone number in town — “Ring 1.”
It opened as the first casino in Las Vegas. In 1959, it became the first to serve the 50-cent shrimp cocktail, a dish that would become a staple and in some ways a symbol of Las Vegas.
And it was the first gaming property that Derek Stevens and his brother, Greg, acquired in Las Vegas back in 2008, a move that would be a catalyst for change for downtown Las Vegas in the 14 years since.
As the hotel celebrates turning 116 this week, Stevens recalled why the Golden Gate was the perfect entry point into Las Vegas for him.
“I thought coming to Las Vegas, it was important for me to come out, shut my mouth, listen, learn, watch and learn about the hotel business, learn about the beverage business, learn about the the slot business, the table game business. And I just thought that this was the right fit where I could kind of cut my teeth,” Stevens said Thursday while standing under the Fremont Street Experience canopy between the Golden Gate and Stevens’ latest development, Circa.
Stevens took what he learned from running, expanding and modernizing the historic hotel and applied it to his renovation and rebranding of Fitzgeralds to the D Las Vegas in 2012. Stevens said those experiences greatly influenced the eventual design for Circa, which opened in 2020 and remains the newest resort in downtown.
“Without the Golden Gate, Circa wouldn’t be here right now,” Stevens said.
116 years of history
When Miller opened the hotel’s doors in 1906 across from the train depot, it wasn’t the only lodging around. There were tent hotels, and the wood-framed Overland Hotel had managed to go up just before Miller’s Hotel Nevada, according to UNLV history professor Michael Green.
“Golden Gate is the oldest hotel here. It wasn’t the first hotel in Las Vegas. Sometimes people mistakenly say that, but there were other hotels first,” Green said.
But there was something about Miller’s hotel that stood out.
“It was made of concrete, which also suggests a degree of permanence that the others had not had,” Green said. “A concrete hotel in this place when the population in 1906 was an estimated 320. That’s a leap of faith.”
That permanence proved true, as the building stands as the oldest hotel in Las Vegas. The Overland would later become the Las Vegas Club before eventually closing its doors for good in August 2015.
During its lifetime, the Golden Gate has seen it all. Gambling was outlawed in 1910, forcing the hotel to put its card tables and roulette wheels away for two decades. It withstood Prohibition from 1920 to 1933 — and is now home to the Bar Prohibition that is complete with a framed 1933 newspaper announcing the end of the ban on alcohol sales and distribution.
The Hotel Nevada in 1931 became Sal Sagev — or Las Vegas spelled backward. In 1955, a group of businessmen from the Bay Area took over operations of the property, giving it a face-lift and giving the casino its Golden Gate name, a nod to the Golden Gate Bridge, according to Green.
Those Bay Area businessmen also gave Las Vegas the shrimp cocktail, which was modeled on a dish that was found on Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco. That dish, Green said, “became bigger than the food itself.”
“It seemed to represent what old Las Vegas was supposed to represent. Good, cheap food, and good entertainment,” Green said.
Ode to the past
The Stevens brothers came into the fold in 2008, and in 2012 gave the property its first major renovation in a half-century by adding a 35,000-square-foot luxury tower with 16 suites. They completed a second expansion in 2017, adding a casino entrance from the Fremont Street Experience.
Stevens takes pride in owning downtown’s oldest and newest casinos in the Golden Gate and Circa. While he demolished other old buildings to make way for Circa, including the Las Vegas Club, the Golden Gate holds a special sentimental value to him.
The hotel rooms and casino floor underwent major upgrades and modernization, and the place now has 129 rooms. But for those looking to step into a time machine of sorts, the Golden Gate offers the “Original 10” rooms that date to the hotel’s opening in 1906.
“Obviously, I’m not opposed to new,” Stevens said. “But I’ve always viewed Golden Gate differently. And I viewed this as having a wonderful opportunity to purchase the property also came with maybe a non-legal community obligation to preserve it and invest in it.”