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Las Vegas Preservation Commission Turns 20, Looks At Its Own History

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Einbierbitte via Wikimedia Commons

Entertainers such as Pearl Bailey and Sammy Davis Jr. rented rooms at the Harrison House when African Americans — even showroom headliners — were banned from staying at Las Vegas hotels. Today the F Street building is on local and national lists of historic places.

The Las Vegas Historic Preservation Commission just did a deep dive into history — its own.

At a meeting last month, it heard a staff report on what the commission has accomplished since its creation 20 years ago.

Commission Chairwoman Claytee White, an oral historian at UNLV, said the commission has done a number of things to preserve the city's history over the past 20 years.

It funded the return of the Helldorado Days parade, created historic walking tours, put on photo exhibitions and perhaps most importantly it helped establish the Mob Museum and renovated both the Westside School and the 5th Street School.

Along with recognizing historic structures and providing preservation grants, the panel continues to bring Las Vegas history to light.

“The thing that we do I like so very much,” she told State of Nevada, “is we do surveys of areas in the city, determining their eligibility for historic preservation.”

White said a survey can cost between $25,000 and $30,000 to complete, which is why funding from several different sources has been vital.

“That funding is monumental because the city of Las Vegas is really, really involved in the preservation,” she said.

Support comes from

Despite its accomplishments, the commission has lost buildings that it wished to save. Some have been lost to development, others have been just too old and too damaged to save.

“We don’t want to lose any more of those valuable properties like that and we think that we’re about to lose another one. The El Portal Theater,” White said.

The El Portal Theater sits on Fremont Street. White said it was like Las Vegas' "early Smith Center."

“We’ve done many things to try to save it but people who own private property have rights and sometimes you cannot infringe upon those rights,” she said, “What we will probably be able to save are the iconic signs attached to the building. So, we will be happy with that.”

White said over the past 20 years she has seen a change in the whole region's willingness to preserve buildings. Beyond just saving them, historic places have become a draw for tourism.

“We see this interest that is amazing. It is new. It is part of our tourism activities now," White said, "And because of that we see an interest, we didn’t know that before. We didn’t know that people would come to Las Vegas to spend money other than on gaming.”

And now, for the first time, Las Vegas has its first full-time historic preservation officer. The officer will be the first person a homeowner in a historic area will have to go to about changes to their home.

Diane Siebrandt took the position about a month ago. Her experience is a long way from historic downtown Las Vegas.

She got her start in Iraq. First, she was part of a team excavating mass graves to help prosecute members of Saddam Hussien's government for atrocities against their own people.

Following that, she moved to the U.S. Embassy and eventually became the Cultural Heritage manager at the embassy in Baghdad. Her job was to help preserve the country's cultural heritage despite the conflicts between governments and rebels and different militaries.

In one instance, she gathered everyone from universities to opposing militaries to move a military base that had been set up at the ruins of Babylon. 

While it is miles and centuries apart, Siebrandt believes those kinds of experiences will help her efforts here.

“And I think that how it relates to my experience in Iraq is finding those people and engaging with those people that also find that older history just as interesting as the more recent history,” she said.

Siebrandt was looking for something more permanent after working as a consultant in Washington, D.C. when she saw the ad for a full-time preservation officer in Las Vegas.

“I thought, ‘wow, here’s a city so involved in preserving their history that they have two boards dedicated for that reason. And I thought I would just love to be a part of that,” she said.

White said the city is very fortunate to have a woman with Siebrandt's experience helping the commission with its next 20 years.

Guests

Claytee White, chairwoman, Las Vegas Historic Preservation Commission; Diane Siebrandt, historic preservation officer, city of Las Vegas

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