Fremont Street: Then and now

The evolution of Las Vegas’ main drag, from casual drive to complete spectacle

The intersection of Fremont Street and Las Vegas Boulevard, pictured today and in 1956.
Illustration: Corlene Byrd

An anything-goes strangeness has taken over Fremont Street, and it’s not even 2 p.m. on a Thursday.

Tip-hungry SpongeBob SquarePants busks next to a stuffed baby SpongeBob
 in a stroller. Showgirls fix their sequined headpieces. Relentless barkers call from their kiosks as slightly intoxicated tourists meander past under a four-block canopy that blocks out the sunlight.

But the monster centerpiece now dominating the landscape is SlotZilla, a
 120-foot-tall zip line that will launch riders from the east end of the Fremont Street Experience to a landing pad at the west end.
 It’s as if somebody looked down at the carnival one day, took a sip of their 
whiskey sour and said, “To hell with glittering spectacle. Let’s build a permanent ride.” And
 up it went, blocking the view of a streetscape that for so many decades was photographed in its entirety, a famously ostentatious visual that defined Las Vegas.

That they’ve managed to outdo what’s been overdone adds further contrast to a reality often uttered by longtime residents: “Fremont was once our Main Street.”

It’s hard to imagine ...

... sometimes, but Fremont Street, a present-day circus of wonder, was once where locals bought their groceries, saw the doctor, ate dinner, walked to school and sought legal advice.

“Downtown was where all the action took place,” says Carey Burke, a history buff and Las Vegas memorabilia collector who grew 
up here and remembers Fremont Street as his route to school.

Burke’s memories of Fremont—where the kids in town 
raced to see the mechanically animated window display at Christensen 
Jewelers—are almost photographic. He recalls the grassy park in front of Union Pacific Station where all the out-of-town train and bus riders were unloaded; the
 white picket fence around Wimpy’s burger joint and the Roman columns on 
First State Bank; Sam’s Cafe, where the high school kids would hang out; and Pop Squires’ nearby home at Fourth and Fremont.

Burke would meet a friend at the Union Pacific railroad yards, then walk to Las Vegas High School. “At the end of the day, those waiting for departing trains and buses would
 be relaxing in the shade of the park trees,” he says.

Down at Sixth and Fremont stood the department stores, whose buildings still stand today: The J.C. Penney was transformed into Emergency Arts, Sears into Backstage Bar & Billiards.

Historian Dennis McBride, who grew up in Boulder City, remembers going 
with his mom to buy school clothes at J.C. Penney and being enamored with its dark wood escalator. At Sears, he says, the elevator operator sat on a 
stool all day, asking, “What floor?”


Fremont East, pictured today and in 1960. The Sears is now Backstage Bar & Billiards. J.C. Penney is now Emergency Arts.

As a young adult in the late 1960s and the ’70s, McBride would go to movies at the Fremont Theatre, including a double feature: Zardoz and
 Soylent Green.

Mayberry it was not—it was still a tourist town built on vices, after all—but Fremont Street was 
the downtown of a small town. Quaint in ways, it catered equally to 
locals’ and tourists’ needs.

Even today, if you flipped off the switch, stopped everything and peeled away
 the patchwork of mess and splendor that now exists under the Fremont Street Canopy, you would find a different world, a different time and place where, unlike on the Strip, the past did not culminate in a series of celebrated 
implosions. It lives on as architectural remnants behind the facades.

In late December 2007 ...

... I followed Allen Sandquist, a photographer and history aficionado, into Binion’s. We climbed a small set of stairs off the casino floor and turned a corner into a portion of the building that used to be the Hotel Apache. At the end of a hallway, he opened an old window and looked outside, where we could see
 the bricks of the old Apache, built in 1932 and hidden behind Binion’s turquoise-and-white, neon-draped façade. It’s a relic of the famous Glitter Gulch, the block of Fremont Street named for its dense cluster of glowing and flashing signs.

While the Strip was busy building large resorts harking to distant cities, Fremont Street covered itself up. “The story of Fremont Street is best told through its alleyways,” says native Brian “Paco” Alvarez, who has given historic tours of the famous 
road. “You walk behind the El Portal Theatre, and you can see the old fly
space. Another way to see it is through Google Earth. You can see the hotels that make up Binion’s—the Apache, the old Boulder Club, the Mint.”


The Golden Nugget and Binion's on Fremont Street, pictured today and in 1949.

The facades, Alvarez says, were installed in the ’60s, when the city pushed to “modernize” Downtown. “The way they modernized it was to put up the metal
 facades. They called them ‘the Neon Spectaculars.’”

The street’s hometown feel was changing. The Boulevard Mall, which opened on Maryland Parkway (then the outskirts) in 1968, lured away both Sears and J.C. Penney. Downtown residents began moving outward.

Until then, says Lynn Zook, former Las Vegas resident and historian with the website Classic Las
 Vegas, “[Downtown] was where you went to do your shopping, where you went to the movies. As kids, the best thing to do when it was 110 outside was to go and stand in front of the vents in front of the casinos. If you lingered too long, the floorwalker would come along and tell you to hightail it out of there.”

As the years went on, the Strip continued to pull tourists and attention from Downtown. In 1989 the Mirage opened on Las Vegas Boulevard with 
an indoor “rain forest” and outdoor exploding “volcano,” ushering in a new
 era of casino attractions.

 Meanwhile, McBride says, Fremont Street had become marked with “gimcrack stores,
 hustlers and derelicts.”

To clean up the area and win back the
 tourists, the city of Las Vegas—working with other groups, including an association of
 Downtown casinos—proposed building a canopy with an LED screen over a four-block stretch of Fremont, turning the street into a pedestrian mall. It was one of a few ideas floated back
 then, including then-Golden Nugget owner Steve Wynn’s suggestion to create “Las Venice” by building a
 Venetian-style canal in the roadway with gondoliers shuttling tourists between the casinos.

Construction began on the $70-million, Jon Jerde-designed Fremont Street Canopy in 1994. The “celestial vault” and its computerized show wasn’t just a Vegas-themed roundup of digital imagery. Artist Haluk Akakçe was commissioned to create a piece for the canopy. Jenny Holzer’s “Truisms” would even make a special appearance one evening. But critics said the new attraction ruined the effect of the Glitter Gulch, a dense concentration of neon that contrasted against the dark night sky. Not only that, the canopy also closed off a once-loved drive through Downtown.

“Driving Fremont Street was a big thing to do on a Friday night after the
 football game,” Zook says. “It was very much American Graffiti. We’d go to movies, then cruise Fremont Street. We’d go for hamburgers, then cruise 
Fremont Street. We called it ‘doin’ the doughnut.’”

In June 1997 ...

... a couple dozen locals held a
 picnic in front of Binion’s Horseshoe. They ate sandwiches, played a little catch and did some yoga, telling a reporter (and Metro officers) that since money from redevelopment and park funds was used to pay for the canopy, Fremont Street was a public park and they were entitled to this moment.

The 90-minute protest, addressing issues of eminent domain and taxpayer 
rights, didn’t secure the right to picnic on the pedestrian mall, but it was a brief interlude that tied together the past and the present.

Thirteen years later, they would intersect a few blocks east, when Jennifer Cornthwaite (then Harrington) held an open house at the closed Fremont Medical Center—formerly J.C. Penney—in what was now the Fremont East Entertainment District. Prospective tenants checked out the exam rooms, nurses stations and an X-ray area for possible studios, offices and galleries.

The plan was to turn the building right across from the revamped El Cortez (which has had a front row seat to Fremont through the decades) into a creative, multiuse space with a coffee shop in front to 
anchor it. Cornthwaite, who had owned the Henri & Odette Gallery nearby, had been trying to establish a hub for creative types Downtown. The neighborhood already had a nightlife element with Downtown Cocktail Room, the Griffin, Don’t Tell Mama and Beauty Bar, but there wasn’t much happening during the day.

Emergency Arts, as Cornthwaite called it, would be a success, going on to win the 2010 Mayor’s Urban Design Award for best adaptive reuse. It would also become a hangout for Tony Hsieh, who moved Zappos into the old city hall last fall and whose Downtown Project is investing $350 million in neighborhood redevelopment. DTP purchased the Gold Spike hotel-casino in 2013 and converted it into a bar and clubhouse before opening the Container Park on East Fremont Street in November.

The Container Park, home to shops, galleries and restaurants all housed in faux shipping containers, and other East Fremont efforts have been celebrated and criticized, often for the same reasons—pushing out longtime residents and businesses and bringing Fremont back to what it was, a locals destination. For skeptics and champions, it’s a wait-and-see moment.

A few blocks farther east, Atomic Liquors, founded in 1952, then closed after the longtime owners died in 2010, reopened in 2013, refurbished but keeping its vintage look. The El Cortez was placed on the National Register of Historic Places last year and remains committed to serving locals.

Zook says the activity on East Fremont “hearkens back to the street’s roots. It will be interesting to see how it all melds together. But I hope we don’t lose sight of its history and what it has meant to us as a community.

“Fremont Street was Fremont Street for so long. If you look at old
 photographs from the ’40s and ’50s, you see how it looked in the ’40s was how it looked in the ’60s. It still had that small-town, we’re-all-in-this-together-feel. It had a good long run of being where everyone went.”

But Fremont Street, for better or worse, is now more of a place where anything goes. Zook says SlotZilla has ruined the sight lines for what used to be “one of the most photographed streets in the 
world.” Alvarez says it’s a betrayal.

“SlotZilla is the single biggest mistake in the history of Fremont Street,”
 he says. “I’m heartbroken that that has occurred.”

But given the nature of things here in the desert, he predicts it will be gone in 10 years, and Fremont Street will look a little more like it once did.

“The advantage Fremont Street has over the Strip is its history,” Alvarez says. “People are looking for Old Vegas. ... [The Golden Gate] hotel is more than 100 years old. That’s a big deal in a town that demolishes its buildings.”

This story has been corrected to reflect that Atomic Liquors was founded in 1952 and reopened in 2013 after a hiatus.

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