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Union Plaza, Part 1

Union Plaza
Courtesy By AmyESMaierPR - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

This year we mark a golden anniversary: The Union Plaza opened on July 2, 1971. It has quite a history … and so does its location.

The address Number One Main Street is just a few steps south of a historical marker. There, on May 15, 1905, the San Pedro, Los Angeles, and Salt Lake Railroad auctioned off the heart of what we call downtown Las Vegas. The next year, the railroad completed construction of a Spanish-style depot. It tore down that depot to replace it with a station done in the Streamline Moderne style—a kind of Art Deco. It opened in 1940.

That depot came down when plans for the Union Plaza were ready. The key player in putting it all together was Frank Scott. His family came to Las Vegas in 1936 when the Union Pacific sent his father here to work. His son soon began working at a Texaco station on Fifth Street owned by Berkeley Bunker, then an assemblyman and later a U.S. senator and congressman. Scott later co-owned several businesses, became CEO of First Western Savings, and bought and renovated the Mizpah Hotel in Tonopah, which the Cline family has since bought and fixed up..

Scott was interested in building an underground parking garage on the old Union Pacific property. When he talked with the railroad company, one executive said something about a hotel. Scott dreamed of owning a hotel and thought that spot would be ideal. He negotiated for several years until getting that land and 61 more acres nearby. You may be familiar with some of what’s on that 61 acres: the World Market Center, the Lou Ruvo Center, and the Smith Center, to name a few.

Anyway, Scott also brought in some partners. One investor was one of my predecessors in the U.S. Senate, Howard Cannon, who represented Nevada for four terms. The others were an all-star team of legendary Nevada gaming figures.

Sam Boyd worked on California cruise ships before starting as a dealer at the El Rancho Vegas. He also was a Sahara executive and then general manager of the Mint. In the early 1960s, he and his son Bill and some partners had bought a casino in Henderson, the Eldorado, that became the foundation for Boyd Gaming.

Jackie Gaughan served at Tonopah Army Air Field during World War II. He started out at the Flamingo but soon moved downtown. He bought the Las Vegas Club and then the El Cortez. He and Mel Exber opened the Western Hotel and Bingo Parlor in 1970. He invested in the Boulder Club and the Golden Nugget.

J. Kell Houssels, Junior, came to Las Vegas after his father began investing in casinos, among other businesses, in the 1930s. Houssels went to West Point and then Stanford Law, and started practicing law in Las Vegas. But he decided to follow his father into the business. Kell, Senior, owned the El Cortez and then the Tropicana, cashing out mob interests. Kell, Junior, negotiated the deal to bring the Folies Bergere to the Tropicana and took on more responsibility for the Trop’s operations. The Houssels and their partners sold the Trop in 1968, but still had the Showboat, near where Fremont turns into Boulder Highway.

We’ll talk about what the dream team came up with next time.