Man built hotel, then vanished

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By The Staff

Every building has a story. The building at 529-531 Railroad Ave., the so-called Rawlins House, has a story that includes a small mystery.

Apart from its galvanized iron faade — a feature unique among Las Vegas buildings — some of its more interesting details have little to do with the building itself and more to do with the man Rawlins, whose name still appears prominently in big, stamped metal letters on the cornice.

His full name was William W. Rawlins. Born in England in 1847, he emigrated to this country in 1869, met and married a Louisiana native named Josephine (maiden name unknown), and by the 1890s, the two of them had made it to this then-bustling burg.

William (or “W. W.,” as he was commonly known) became a saloon-keeper in what was then a city full of saloons. But his saloon, The Antlers, on the southwest corner of Sixth and Douglas, was one of the finest in town, featuring club rooms and Pabst Blue Ribbon beer (so-named because international awards for its excellence came in the very form of blue ribbons) on draught, shipped direct from Milwaukee in pitch-lined wooden kegs. All this opulent dissolution in a location where, nowadays, you can buy a dinette set instead.

Rawlins used the profits from The Antlers saloon to construct and promote his Rawlins House hotel at 529-531 Railroad Avenue. Not at all intimidated by his grand and very active neighbor across the street, the Hotel Castaeda, Rawlins completed his 14-room Rawlins House “for the commercial and traveling public” in 1899. Originally, a single-story building with a basement, Rawlins added a second story and clad the front with pressed, galvanized iron, perhaps intending that the cladding would unify the appearance resulting from multi-staged construction. The two outer doorways on the ground floor are recessed — the left one being number 529 and the right, 531. Both doorways and the adjacent plate glass windows were all capped with now-crumbling stained glasswork.

Reflecting the World’s Fair Classic style, Corinthian columns flank all the street-side second-story windows. And many other period flourishes — rosettes, urns, swag and fleurs de lis — were stamped into the metal and are still quite visible to anyone caring to notice them.

All in all, it was quite a striking building when completed. And not just because of the exterior; the floor plan was thoughtful, too. In all there are three levels including the basement, in which the heating plant and storage areas were.

The ground floor consisted of, mainly, two public areas for the tenants, one big apartment for the manager and additional common storage. The second floor was the sole domain of the paying guests. There, a huge skylight provided abundant natural light and ventilation (it could be opened) for the 14 rooms, two common bathrooms, and central lounge area with settees and even telephones for all tenants. Considering the presence of indoor plumbing and telephones, it’s not surprising the building was also wired for electricity.

The Rawlins House was quite a place, in other words, an ultra-modern and very respectable businessmen’s hotel close to transportation to both the East and West coasts. Its owner would’ve been quite proud, had he not vanished from the scene shortly after the hotel was opened.

The odd thing about William W. Rawlins is not that he might have left or died; legs and time ensure that every last one of us will eventually do one, the other or both.

People come and go. What’s odd is, Rawlins apparently spent all that time, money and energy on his Rawlins House while fully intending that his wife, Josephine, would occupy the building without him.

The Las Vegas Optic itself gave evidence that Rawlins planned on handing the entire operation over to Josephine from the outset. In those days, the Optic ran a recurring section titled “Railroad Rumblings,” which reported business news, large and small, emanating from the active railroad district on the east side. In the Sept. 13, 1899, installment of “Railroad Rumblings,” the new Rawlins House was featured. Referring to the large apartment on the ground floor, it’s stated unequivocally, “Mrs. Rawlins is occupying these rooms as a residence.” Not “Mr. and Mrs. Rawlins,” but just “Mrs. Rawlins.” Just what was going on here?

W. W. Rawlins is listed (initially, anyway) as proprietor, and yet it’s clear his was an absentee form of management since he never planned on remaining in the building.

In fact, any public reference to William W. Rawlins ceased almost as soon as his Rawlins House opened for business. So not only did he leave the operation of the business to his wife; he utterly vanished.

Subsequent city directories substantiate that this puzzling situation continued into the 1910s at least. In the interim, some of Mrs. Rawlins’ relatives from Louisiana, including a daughter Pearl, joined her at the Rawlins House; and a grandson, Pearl’s son Joseph S. Rhodes, remained to operate the hotel into the 1920s.

By that time, Josephine Rawlins herself had disappeared.

The driving force behind the building, William W. Rawlins, never did resurface. He just up and left and, apparently, he had every intention of doing so.

But he wanted to be remembered in some way. Walk down the 500 block of Railroad Avenue gazing upward and toward the West, and you’ll grant his wish when you see his name in iron.

John Baldy is a licensed real estate broker and is interested in local history. His e-mail address is johnbaldy@gmail.com.

Judy Smith is an award-wining historic-preservation photographer and author with photo exhibits in the United States and abroad. She and her husband Eddy restored several historic buildings in the Midwest, were active at county and state levels of historic preservation in Ohio, as well as with the National Trust For Historic Preservation.” She may be reached at smithwest4@earthlink.net.

(Information provided by the City of Las Vegas Museum and Rough Rider Memorial Collection, Carnegie Public Library and the Donnelly Library of New Mexico Highlands University.)