As Downtown renovation rages on, what will become of old Vegas’ soul?

From the newly branded D (rendering above) to the revamps of the Golden Nugget and the Plaza, the face of Fremont is changing.

There was a show on TLC called Overhaulin’, on which expert mechanics would “steal” classic cars from their owners, completely transform them, then unveil the chrome candy to the stunned marks while cameras rolled. They always came off thrilled, but there was something else in a few of their faces, a pinched regret. The overhauled cars were perfect, but in exchange for that perfection they lost patina—the dents and quirks and memories. The guy who loved to tear down roads in his ’67 Mustang Fastback was suddenly afraid to breathe on it. But it sure was pretty.

Looking at images of Downtown’s old Fitzgeralds Casino and its overhaul-in-progress, the D Las Vegas, I can’t help feeling a twinge. The new website is all leather pants and intrigue and cocktails as effervescent as the models cradling them. The rooms glow with white light and white linens, and the casino is populated with revelers who look like the Overhaulin’ crew buffed and painted them for the big reveal. It’s gorgeous, but it’s not the Fitz, and that’s the idea.

“The new name is accompanied by extensive renovations that will deliver the fresh, energetic attitude and fun atmosphere synonymous with downtown Las Vegas,” reads a press release about the $15 million “dramatic transformation,” to be completed this fall. But put that up against this Google review of the Fitz posted by RobertG last October: “Cheapest drinks of any casino we visited, had a real old-school flair to it (as you’d expect from a Fremont casino).”

Inside the Plaza—after renovation.

Inside the Plaza—after renovation.

What should we expect from a Fremont casino? Does the answer change when you ask tourists versus locals? Is it fair for any of us to demand that old Vegas cling to its delightful tackiness, especially when renovation brings new jobs and energy and opportunities, along with the consuming swank? The Fitz is just the latest domino to fall, and the owners have every right to want iPod docks, flat screens and a sexy “world”—with a few throwbacks that regulars love. Downtown is like a casserole of old and new, a bizarre mix of flavors that somehow works. But if the renovation trend continues, can it stay that way?

The Golden Nugget started the trend in 2005, and its more than $300 million in upgrades (sharks!) have met with public praise and dollars. The Plaza got huge press last year for its $35 million face-lift, and the gutted Lady Luck will reopen as the Downtown Grand in 2013. The El Cortez has been quietly, cleverly renovating for several years while retaining its vintage essence, and celebrated local design firm Yates-Silverman has been involved.

Margot Silverman-Schumacher, VP of the firm and daughter of its founder, has done interior design for hospitality and gaming for almost 30 years. She has facilitated a lot of change, but she says the soul of old Vegas is vital.

“The bones are beautiful. There’s a lot to be said that we’re still standing. Let’s make sure we can incorporate into our designs some things that are familiar,” she says. “That doesn’t mean it can’t be cleaner or have some new textures. ... It’s nice to have fresh ideas and fresh talent, as long as they can recognize where they are.”

The D’s owners, Derek and Greg Stevens, are also part-owners of Downtown’s Golden Gate, which is undergoing its own major renovation. Both projects feature nods to the patina of the past, but the focus is on the brightness of the future. “We’re part of this whole resurgence,” Derek Stevens told the Associated Press, referring to the area’s unfolding renaissance.

The Golden Nugget spent more than $300 million on its renovation, and its shark tank was one of the upgrades.

Being Downtown, you feel the spark, but it comes from everywhere. Queen rocks the Fremont Street Experience canopy, and hundreds of wanderers stare and sing and feel strangely connected. Mermaid’s mermaids work the crowd, along with street performers enough to conquer a small nation. Old-timers slurp shrimp cocktail after a night on the cheap slots. And right there with them, youngsters drink absinthe at DCR and pick through vinyl at the Beat. They consume creativity at Emergency Arts and catch bands at Bar+Bistro. Food trucks sling inspired fusion. Basically, it’s an old Mustang with a souped-up engine and some serious chrome, but the interior is original.

I don’t begrudge any Downtown business the chance to soup up, especially when most are trying to honor what Silverman-Schumacher calls “sacred.” “People believe in Downtown, and there’s something for everybody. And that’s what we talk about when we sit down and decide, how are we going to update this without losing all of this fabulous history and familiarity and culture, because it is a culture,” she says. “We’re proud of it, and we want to make sure we keep some of those things that made us so proud, things that you would try here and not try anywhere else.”


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