LAS VEGAS — While posh Las Vegas Strip hotels boast touch-screen remotes and 600-thread-count sheets, the El Cortez mostly leans on its 70-year history and downtown roots.
Sure, the hotel has stories to share of prolific mob owners, but history doesn’t sell rooms in a city where the notion of nostalgia for old landmarks is to invite the public to watch their implosions.
Nor can the El Cortez keep up with the finest in electronic gadgetry and elegant linens that are the signature of the newest Strip resorts.
So the El Cortez thinks the secret may be in improving the most basic of hotel amenities — the room itself. And to that end, it has challenged four design teams to breathe new life into the aging property by creating new guest suites.
Constrained by a $20,000 budget per suite, a fraction of what Strip resorts spend on renovations, designers competing in the Design-a-Suite contest have each been tasked with turning a 600-square-foot room into their version of a chic downtown suite. The public, along with a panel of judges, will decide early next year which team will get to expand their vision to six more suites at the oldest continuously operating casino in Las Vegas.
The contest is 25-year-old El Cortez Executive Manager Alexandra Epstein’s idea. She’s become downtown’s biggest advocate, first with her vision of turning the rundown Ogden House Motel across the street into the El Cortez’s stylish Cabana Suites, and later reopening a shuttered medical facility as Emergency Arts for local artists to showcase their work.
"We had been brainstorming for months on how does a property survive for 70 years, but still adapt to the community obviously changing around us?" Epstein said. "As opposed to just hiring a designer and telling them what we want, we really wanted it to be a collaborative process."
The El Cortez received 32 applications for the Design-a-Suite contest before choosing four finalists, all of whom are designers licensed in Nevada.
In total, the El Cortez will spend about $200,000 renovating the 10 suites, which is just $45,000 shy of what it cost Marion Hicks and J.C. Grayson to build the 59-room downtown resort in 1941. Owners have since changed and about 300 rooms have been added, but the El Cortez is one of the few Las Vegas casinos to have never changed its exterior facade, retaining the same signage and original ranch-themed architecture.
The suites currently accommodate El Cortez high rollers, but are far from the luxury suites of the Strip’s newest resorts. They resemble a bare-bones room at a midlevel hotel chain, with worn furnishings and outdated brass fixtures that haven’t been updated since the early 1990s.
The project is more than a fresh coat of paint. The hotel is gutting the 10 suites to bare shells. The design teams will add flooring, hand-painted murals and updated furnishings.
The teams have been given few limitations for their designs, with the exception that 80 percent of their materials and furnishings must be purchased from the World Market Center and Las Vegas Design Center, a contest requirement the El Cortez hopes will stimulate the downtown economy.
"We really didn’t want to outsource anything," Epstein said. "We wanted to use the resources we have in the Nevada limits."
Since September, designers have navigated the showrooms of the World Market Center that remain largely empty, except for the two weeks a year that the Las Vegas Market show hits the design metropolis. Showroom managers seem relieved and eager to see a glimmer of business.
"Gold modern glam" is the design mantra that guides Las Vegas designers Patrick Peel and Mikel Patrik as they purchase mirrored headboards and sleek white sofas in their attempt to bring the El Cortez up to speed with Las Vegas luxury hotels.
Their shimmering gold ceiling is a design risk, but one they hope will stand out among the competition.
"Everyone else seems to be minimal in their furnishings or using a lot of color and or are very modern, something you would see over in Aria," Peel said.
A few floors below Peel and Patrik, Bryan Hamlin and Jamie Thomas of the Nevada and Colorado-based Worth Group are harboring a midcentury rec room, complete with a wet bar and Vegas relics like a painting owned by former El Cortez owner Jackie Gaughan.
"When you think retro and what Vegas was in those days, you think about lounging, about having dinner parties and people coming over," Thomas said. "We wanted it to be familiar to the clientele that has frequented the El Cortez over the last seven decades, but also something that would appeal to the new, younger crowd that is coming downtown."
Reno-based Urban Design Studio owner Tina Enard and her designers are also paying homage to Vegas history and former El Cortez mobster owners with their "Big Sleep" suite. Enard calls the wall-sized desert mural, quirky accessories and sophisticated furnishing "the perfect blend between crime and charisma."
The "Hint Suite," designed by UNLV graduates and freelance designers Charlie Mais and Nidia Settembre, falls somewhere between modern and retro with hints of vintage, hints of contemporary and hints of luxury, the designers said. They’re using textures such as velvet, snakeskin vinyl and glass to achieve the eclectic feel.
For some of the design teams, the contest represents more than a chance to put their mark on a downtown hotel. It’s the opportunity to work after a long drought in a city where new construction and renovations are few and far between.
Epstein said that was on the minds of El Cortez executives when they developed the contest.
"We wanted to give back to the community because we know from experience how the economy has changed our own community," she said.
Peel and Patrik found themselves causalities of the recession after they both lost jobs at two separate Las Vegas design firms last year. Since then, Peel started his own company, A’Peeling Designs, while Patrik is focusing on launching his career as an artist.
"I’m always trying to get out there and remind people that I’ve stayed in Las Vegas. A lot of my friends and colleagues have decided to move since there is no work here, but I want to make Las Vegas my home and where I’m going to be successful," Patrik said.
Other designers said the contest is a chance to keep creativity flowing in a slow market.
"We saw it as an opportunity to remind people that we are here," Enard said. "We’ve definitely been hit hard by the economy; everyone in the design world has. It’s a positive. That’s what design is supposed to be: fun and creative, and we needed to remember that."
Katharine Euphrat contributed to this report.