Las Vegas’ historic downtown post office received $800,000 in new funding Monday and is also going to get help from the FBI and “Casino” author Nicholas Pileggi.
And while previous city announcements have said the museum will focus on broader Las Vegas history, “including the influence of organized crime,” a presentation Monday indicated that the museum’s exhibits will be tightly focused on the valley’s colorful Mafia past.
The Las Vegas Centennial Commission approved the funds for exhibit acquisitions and an expensive seismic retrofit. Interior refurbishing was recently completed, and there’s at least two years of planning and construction left before the museum opens.
“It’s a very complex project,” said Nancy Deaner, manager of cultural affairs for the city of Las Vegas. “Not only is it a historic project for our community, but it has far-reaching tentacles all over the United States.”
Deaner provided an overview of what the exhibits in the three-story building would cover, including:
• Las Vegas’ development in the days of Prohibition and bootlegging.
• The influx of organized crime.
• How mob operations in various cities were connected.
• A guide to “following the money” from its sources through the money laundering process.
• The infamous Kefauver hearings on organized crime.
The post office building, located on Stewart Avenue next to the shuttered Lady Luck Casino, was also the city’s first federal courthouse and was one of the sites of the Kefauver hearings, named for crusading U.S. senator C. Estes Kefauver of Tennessee.
Organizers recently met with FBI officials in Washington D.C. and secured a promise that the agency will locate and loan organized crime artifacts for the museum’s displays.
That could include photos, weapons, cars and other evidence, said Ellen Knowlton, the former head of the Las Vegas FBI office and president of 300 Stewart Ave. Corp., the nonprofit that’s working with the city on the museum.
The commission approved a grant of $300,000 that the nonprofit will use to buy artifacts as they become available.
In addition, Mayor Oscar Goodman said Pileggi — who wrote “Casino: Love and Honor in Las Vegas” as well as the screenplay for Martin Scorsese’s 1995 film — is willing to join the project, perhaps initially by writing a script for an introductory film.
“He said whatever we need,” Goodman said. “He wants to be a part of this.”
Goodman, who defended organized crime figures in his pre-mayoral career as an attorney, has long championed the idea of a mob-themed museum. On Monday, he gushed again about some crowd-pleasing possibilities, including allowing visitors to purchase “mugshots” of themselves and having a recorded voice read visitors their Miranda rights as they enter the exhibits.
Projections call for the museum to attract 800,000 visitors a year and to serve as a daytime destination downtown.
“I think our numbers are fairly conservative,” Knowlton said, noting the popularity of the International Spy Museum in Washington D.C. That museum saw more than 1 million visitors in its first year, more than twice as many as estimates predicted.
The exhibits at the Las Vegas museum won’t glorify organized crime, she said. The aim is to show the history of organized crime in America and how law enforcement worked to extract the mob’s influence from gaming.
“There’s no other museum like this,” Knowlton said.
A survey conducted last year found visitors and locals were divided about the most appealing museum topics.
More than 70 percent of the tourists polled loved the idea of a museum dedicated to organized crime.
A third of the locals in the survey, however, preferred a “vintage Vegas” theme that would look at the architecture, music and personalities that dominated the valley from 1930 through the 1950s. Only 17 percent put the organized crime emphasis in first place.
City spokeswoman Diana Paul said the museum’s focus “hasn’t changed.”
“It’s been pretty consistent as far as having the museum showcase the city’s history through that period, emphasizing organized crime,” she wrote in an e-mail.
Centennial commission members also voted to contribute $500,000 toward the anticipated $3.6 million bill for seismic upgrades to the 76-year-old building. The commission previously allocated $1.2 million for this part of the project, and the museum organizers will seek other grants to make up the difference.
The commission’s funds come from the sale of license plates commemorating Las Vegas’ 2005 centennial.
The overall preservation effort on the post office building, now dubbed POST Modern, has an estimated price tag of more than $30 million.
Contact reporter Alan Choate at email@example.com or (702) 229-6435.