Spruced-up El Cortez will keep old-time charm, owner says

A view of the lobby at the El Cortez in downtown Las Vegas Wednesday, May 22, 2019.

Renovation Underway at the El Cortez

The shower is shown in a renovated tower room at the El Cortez in downtown Las Vegas Wednesday, May 22, 2019. Launch slideshow »

In a world where corporate-owned casinos and hotels are now the norm, the El Cortez is a throwback. The same goes for co-owner Kenny Epstein.

The frontman for the small group that owns the downtown Las Vegas casino, Epstein, 77, still comes to work every day to an unremarkable office in a building about as old as he is.

He knows longtime patrons by name and tells stories about former El Cortez owner Jackie Gaughan, the famous Las Vegas businessman who also, at different times, owned properties such as the Flamingo, Plaza and Golden Nugget. Gaughan died in 2014.

“Jackie sold me a piece of the hotel in 1975,” Epstein said. “He sold us his piece of the El Cortez (in 2008) because he was getting old and he wanted us to have it. There was nobody like Jackie. I can’t say enough about him.”

While the property, which sits at 600 E. Fremont St., has retained its vintage look, the years have continued to pass and improvements continue to be necessary.

The El Cortez is set to undergo its latest renovations, a nearly total four-floor makeover of 64 rooms in its 15-floor tower, which was built in 1980.

The makeover — the second phase of a larger renovation project — will cost about $6 million. Work is scheduled to begin by early June.

Renovation work on 73 rooms on the first five floors in the tower was completed last year.

During the past decade-plus, Epstein said, he and his partners — a group that includes Joe Woody and Mike Nolan — have stuck more than $50 million into the place.

“We’re trying to live up to (Gaughan’s) reputation and keep it going,” Epstein said. “We’ve put a lot of money into this place.”

Built in 1941 for $245,000, the El Cortez was originally owned by John Kell Houssels, John Grayson and Marion Hicks. In 1945, the property was sold to a group that included infamous mobster Bugsy Siegel.

Walking through the El Cortez today, it’s easy to see Siegel is still a big part of its history. Customers can dine at Siegel’s 1941 restaurant, which displays a number of Siegel family letters, pictures and keepsakes acquired from Siegel’s daughter, Millicent, who died in 2017.

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El Cortez co-owner Kenny Epstein talks about recent renovations at the downtown Las Vegas property Wednesday, May 22, 2019.

Since Epstein first went into business with Gaughan, the resort landscape in Las Vegas has changed. The Strip is now dominated by a handful of large corporations.

“It’s better for Las Vegas, but what I can say is that we’re like the way things used to be,” Epstein said. “We’re here every day. We know our customers and everybody knows us.”

Next year, the owners plan to remodel the remaining 60-plus rooms in the tower. The new-look rooms feature more modern furniture and bathroom designs, along with vintage Vegas-inspired artwork.

“The remodeled rooms have bathrooms that are more modern with a much larger vanity,” Nolan said. “It just makes it easier for women, or whoever, to get ready. That helped modernized (the room), but we still tried to keep the original theme.”

Something that has always been important to Epstein is customer service. Gaughan taught him that, he said.

“A lot of these places today have great amenities,” Epstein said. “We’re trying to get to that level. I think they’ve lost, though, some of the old-fashioned ways of” connecting with the customers.

“That’s what we have going for us,” he said. “We care about this place.”

Epstein said he’s encouraged by some of the different projects happening downtown, including the Circa property that downtown casino owner Derek Stevens is building. As Epstein puts it, it’s always good when something new goes up in your neighborhood.

Jonathan Jossel, CEO of the nearby Plaza, agrees.

“Any improvements made downtown are great for all of us down here,” Jossel said. “More and more people are starting to realize you don’t need to just visit downtown during a trip to Las Vegas. With all the improvements, you can now stay, eat, play and have a vacation downtown.”

As for the old girl, as Epstein refers to the El Cortez, the old-time charm will remain after the latest round of renovations are complete.

“Of course we have tourists, but this is also a recreational center (for locals),” Epstein said. “This is where people have breakfast and meet with people and maybe play some horses. Downtown is great. There’s people now coming back downtown because it has more camaraderie.”