Mob Museum building has intriguing history
Historian/journalist/author Geoff Schumacher is Las Vegas’ (law-abiding) mob expert, whose encyclopedic knowledge lends an authoritative stamp to the Mob Museum’s fascinating exhibits, artifacts and public programs. A respected ex-journalist around town as an editor/writer at the former Las Vegas CityLife and Las Vegas Mercury, as well as the Las Vegas Sun and Las Vegas Review-Journal, Schumacher also authored two books — Sun, Sin & Suburbia: A History of Modern Las Vegas and Howard Hughes: Power, Paranoia & Palace Intrigue. He also was editor of Nevada: 150 Years in the Silver State, the official book commemorating the state’s sesquicentennial. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
When The Mob Museum opened on Feb. 14, 2012, it represented a downtown redevelopment triumph for then-Las Vegas Mayor Oscar B. Goodman. (Editor’s note: Goodman is now a host committee chairman for the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, which operates Las Vegas Newswire.)
During Goodman’s three terms as mayor, revitalizing downtown was the city’s primary focus, and his administration chalked up a number of successes. These ranged from The Smith Center for the Performing Arts and several other developments on the former railroad yards west of Interstate 15, to the transformation of Fremont Street east of Las Vegas Boulevard into a vibrant dining and entertainment district.
The Mob Museum was a redevelopment success story not only for the jobs and revenue it generated — last year, it drew more than 350,000 visitors — but for the preservation and repurposing of one of the community’s most historic buildings. The museum is housed in the city’s first federal building, opened in 1933. For the next 30 years, all federal legal matters were hashed out in the second-floor courtroom. Every federal agency that has established a Las Vegas office got its start somewhere in the building at 300 Stewart Ave. This includes the generals dispatched to Las Vegas in 1941 to lay the groundwork for Nellis Air Force Base. The first floor served as the main downtown post office well into the 21st century.
The decision to create a museum focused on organized crime and law enforcement proved to be incredibly popular with tourists and locals alike. But it also was an appropriate theme for the federal building. Most relevantly, the building was the setting for a 1950 investigative hearing by a U.S. Senate committee seeking to expose the misdeeds of criminal syndicates across America. On Nov. 15, 1950, Tennessee Sen. Estes Kefauver, who chaired the committee, quizzed local politicians and casino operators about organized crime’s role in Nevada’s gambling industry.
The building’s history offers other links and parallels with the museum’s theme as well. Here’s one of them:
In March 1929, a construction engineer named John Lammers traveled to Las Vegas to investigate the suitability of a five-acre tract the city of Las Vegas was offering to give the federal government for a courthouse and post office. In Lammers’ opinion, the land on Stewart Avenue was “in the most undesirable part of the city, as the public would be forced to pass a negro section and a sporting district.” Although city officials told Lammers these areas could be “cleared up,” he was skeptical this would happen because it would “cost them many millions of dollars.” Lammers recommended the federal government reject the offered parcel.
A few months later, another engineer, W.A. Newman, was dispatched to Las Vegas to conduct a more thorough study of the site options. After looking at a dozen alternative locations, he concluded that the Stewart Avenue site was the best. The other lots were either too small or too expensive. Newman said construction of a new federal building in that location “would also be a good excuse to immediately remove the present nightlife and segregated district … to a point outside the city limits.”
Although a majority of Las Vegans attending public meetings that summer supported the Stewart Avenue site, a few local business people urged the government to consider other parcels. W.G. Morse, secretary of the Las Vegas Taxpayers Association, wrote a letter recommending another parcel and criticizing the Stewart Avenue location. He cited the same “objectionable features” as Lammers: the nearby red-light district and the adjacent African-American neighborhood. “The red-light district … is a scab upon our fair city,” Morse wrote. “We may run out the prostitute but the underworld element will always occupy the buildings.” Laying it on thick, Morse urged federal officials to select a location “where our wives and children could go without fear.”
In the end, Newman trumped Lammers: The new federal building would be constructed on Stewart at Third Street. However, the expectation that the nearby “sporting district” — known as Block 16 — would be shuttered did not happen until a decade later, during World War II.
The drinking, gambling and prostitution that flourished in Block 16 are memorialized in a Mob Museum exhibit on early Las Vegas. The Tough Little Town exhibit’s design was inspired by the Arizona Club, the biggest and most famous of the Block 16 saloons.
As for the African-American neighborhood south of the federal building, Block 17, the concerns expressed by Lammers and Morse clearly were more a product of racist attitudes than strong evidence that the area was particularly seedy or dangerous. Records from the time reflect a neighborhood with many residents employed by the railroad, as well as others who worked as postmen, shoemakers and barbers. Many African-American women worked at home as laundresses. There was a church, several restaurants and other businesses. The one outlier was a gambling hall on Stewart Avenue.
Recently, the museum completed a $9.2 million renovation that created new exhibits and experiences on the first floor and converted the basement from administrative offices to a speakeasy and distillery, collectively known as The Underground. The speakeasy is an immersive exhibition space with a working bar serving mixed drinks inspired by Prohibition-era recipes. The distillery is an exhibition space with a pot still producing moonshine for guests to sample and purchase.
The Underground, too, can be seen as something of an homage to the neighborhood. The most famous speakeasy in Prohibition-era Las Vegas — Liberty’s Last Stand — was located just two blocks west of the museum at 10 Stewart Ave. It, also, was a product of the federal government. A U.S. prohibition agent opened the speakeasy in 1931 as a front to gather information about local bootleggers. A Dictaphone in the bar’s office recorded incriminating conversations with local politicians. The resulting sting operation netted 108 arrests and national news coverage.
Interestingly, many of the defendants pleaded guilty in a Carson City courtroom 400 miles away. The federal courthouse just down the street had not yet been completed.
Voices of Vegas features guest columnists from all walks of public life in Las Vegas. With columns touching on local cultural, historical, social, civic, educational and humanitarian topics, among others, they weave a tapestry of perspectives that emphasize the dynamism, depth and benefits of the Southern Nevada tourism industry.