Places with a past

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By Birdie Jaworski

A stately stone building sits sentry at the Bridge Street entrance to the Las Vegas Plaza, its expertly renovated rough-hewn exterior a study in late 19th Century architecture. Now the administrative home of the West Las Vegas School District, the two-story building looks elegant, composed, serene. It wasn’t always so self-possessed, however. Like many historic buildings in Las Vegas, this property holds colorful secrets.

“The West Las Vegas Schools administration building used to be the First National Bank,” says Maggie Nelson of the Las Vegas Citizen’s Committee for Historic Preservation. “But the bank moved, and the building was turned into a pool hall and taxi dispatch. It was still a revenue-generating place,” Nelson said. “We have so much fun and strange history here.”

The pool hall created chaos, created instant winners and losers in a world gone mad from depression, from brewing war. It attracted guests from miles away with its illicit activities.

One guest, a handsome man of 5’ 9” with a chiseled jaw, needed a ride from the pool hall to the airport. Las Vegas resident Leo Montoya, now of Leo’s Glass, once ferried one of the pool hall’s taxis. He took the call, and picked up the mysterious out-of-towner.

“The weather was terrible, so I had to drop him off at the Plaza Hotel,” Montoya reminisces. “I picked him up the next morning to take him to the airport, and I had to keep looking at him. ‘You look just like Gene Autry,’ I said. He said, ‘No, I don’t.’ Well, then I said to him, ‘You sound just like Gene Autry.’ He said, ‘No, I don’t.’ I had to stop the taxi. ‘You are Gene Autry!’ I told him. And it was!”

Las Vegas still lives and breathes history. This Saturday, community members and visitors can take a walk back in time during the Places of the Past Historic Homes and Buildings Tour. Beginning at 10 a.m., participants are invited to gather at the CCHP office at 116 Bridge St. where they will receive a map and instructions.

“We have 10 properties open during the tour,” explains Nelson. “All of these are open-doored. You may go at your own pace. We have volunteers at each site who tell about the history of the place and answer any questions you may have. We’re in our 19th year. This is always a popular event. It brings in a lot of people from around the state and Colorado and Texas.”

The tour includes such properties as the Montezuma Castle, whose incredible history spans the coming of the railroad, the home of a Jesuit monastery, a Baptist college headquarters, YMCA, and now the United World College. Visitors will also get to walk inside the old First National Bank were Gene Autry shot pool, tour the beautifully restored J.E. Hurley House with its bootleg liquor back room on Sixth Street, and explore the old Southern Methodist Church at Sixth and Columbia, now an engineering firm. Other tour-stops include Victorian cottages, restored adobe homes, and gorgeous commercial buildings that display Las Vegas’ best.

“From a simple historic places tour, the annual event has grown into a week-long Heritage Week celebration,” says Nelson. “The highlight of the tour for out of towners is always the castle. Everyone wants to see it. Of course, it never was a “castle,” but it is actually a Queen Anne-style building, the third hotel in Montezuma, the first two consumed by fire. There were so many fires back then — people used kerosene, everything was shellacked, the firefighting wasn’t as accurate as it is today, there was a lot of smoking, and open fireplaces.”

Tour participants can purchase tour tickets at the CCHP or the Plaza Hotel. Tickets cost $20, and allow one to step inside and tour each of the properties on the map with the help of the educated docents.

“This is a great opportunity to learn more about Las Vegas, and to see the inside of some of our most historic buildings,” says Nelson. “It transports you to another era.”

The Places of the Past History Homes and Buildings Tour, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 2.

Tickets are $20 and available at the CCHP and the Plaza Hotel. For more information, call the CCHP at 425-8803.