John S. Park may not be the most celebrated figure in Las Vegas history, but he is regarded as one of the most important.
Park, for whom the historical downtown Las Vegas neighborhood and elementary school are named, moved to town in 1906 at age 53. He owned First State Bank, which stood on the corner of First and Fremont streets until 1957 , and he eventually became president of the Consolidated Power and Telephone Company, later known as the Southern Nevada Power Company.
From the beginning, Park set out to make a home of what was merely a stop on the Union Pacific.
The town was tough, but by all accounts, Park was tougher. Park bought Kyle Ranch in the northeast valley and built himself a home, referred to by the locals as "the mansion." Park’s bank was one of the few in Nevada to withstand the failing economy at the height of the Great Depression, according to Michael Green, professor of history at the College of Southern Nevada.
"Even George Wingfield out of Reno went bankrupt, and most did," Green said, referring to the wealthy and powerful banker, politician, miner and hotel owner. "First State Bank did just fine. It is really a testimony to Park’s ability and fortitude."
Park had his hands in a little bit of everything during the early days of Las Vegas, Green said. "Many of the early arrivals to Las Vegas invested together," he said. "Park was no different. He was very much in the middle of things."
While the family mansion was outside of town, chosen for its close proximity to water, Park spent much of his time in his home on the northeast corner of Fourth and Fremont streets, right in the middle of the action.
"When we think about the people who built Las Vegas, people usually go back to the Mormon settlers and jump to the casino builders, but (Park) was truly one of our founding fathers," Green said. "John S. Park is a key figure of the builders of this community. If we forget him, we lose part of our history."
The city of Las Vegas is attempting to ensure that never happens. In 2003, the city’s Historical Preservation Commission approved the designation of the John S. Park neighborhood as a historical resource. A couple of months later, the neighborhood was added to the state and National Register of Historic Places.
Later in life, Park and his family resided in the neighborhood, roughly bounded by Charleston Boulevard to the north, Franklin Avenue to the south, Fifth Place to the west and 10th Street to the east .
Courtney Mooney, city of Las Vegas historic preservation officer, said it is important to keep historical resources such as the John S. Park neighborhood, built in the 1940s, for future generations to enjoy.
"The neighborhood is a great snapshot of American life," she said. "Funding from the (federal) government was provided to build homes for military families."
Las Vegas received priority funding from the Federal Housing Administration due to the city’s role in the nation’s military defense efforts. The result was one of the valley’s first tract home communities.
Developers George Franklin and John Law built most of the houses, offering four models if home buyers did not have their own plans. The houses were mostly ranch-style and sold for between $4,000 and $12,000, according to the city’s website.
Neighborhood residents sought historical designation as protection from commercial encroachment. In 1999, casino innovator Bob Stupak sought approval for his plans to build a Titanic-shaped, 1,200-room casino, complete with an 1,800-seat theater housed in an iceberg in the vicinity of the neighborhood.
A local historian and author in his free time and honorary consul of Monaco by trade, Jonathan Warren spent some of his youth living in the John S. Park neighborhood and attending the school of the same name. Warren said he has fond memories of the area.
"The first time I walked home alone from school was from John S. Park Elementary," he said. "In some ways, (the neighborhood) is still very similar to the way it was in 1969. The people who say, ‘There’s no history or culture in Las Vegas,’ those people need to get out more."
Contact Paradise/Downtown View reporter Nolan Lister at email@example.com or 702-383-0492.