The Westside: Talking preservation with Courtney Mooney

The exterior of the Pilgrim Church of Christ on D Street and Harrison Avenue, in the Historic Westside in Las Vegas, Nev. on Feb. 1, 2016.
Photo: Mikayla Whitmore

The Historic Westside is rich in history, with buildings driving the narrative. We talked with Courtney Mooney, urban design coordinator and historic preservation officer for the City of Las Vegas, about the area’s importance.

Why is this area so valued in terms of preservation? The Historic Westside contains some of the oldest buildings in Las Vegas, ranging in styles from vernacular to popular 1920s and 1930s styles like bungalow and mission revival. There are a fair amount of mid-century-style buildings as well, including the Berkley Square Historic District built in 1954 and designed by Paul R. Williams of La Concha fame.

What distinguishes the area from other parts of Las Vegas? The vernacular architecture is one feature that sets this area apart as there is not a lot of it left in the city.

Could you explain vernacular architecture? Vernacular architecture tells us what materials were available to local builders and possibly how those materials arrived in Vegas. It can also give us insight on the level of craftsmanship available, as well as social traditions in housing types and neighborhood development, etc. They are basically time capsules of local culture, economics and demographics. Another important difference is the Westside community is begging to preserve what it has left. I spend more time in West Las Vegas than any other area of town. There is such a rich history there, and the residents I work with are so proud of it. It’s refreshing and I’m honored to be a part of it.

What other projects in the area would you like to see? There needs to be a comprehensive historic survey and inventory completed for the entire Historic Westside. A survey and inventory was completed in 2003, and it desperately needs to be updated and expanded. Once this is complete the community will have the foundation to create a preservation plan for the entire area. I’m positive there are many hidden gems in the Historic Westside that have yet to be discovered and are worthy of preservation.

What could happen there that would really gather Valley-wide interest? The Historic Westside is prime for redevelopment on so many levels. It’s a stone’s throw from Downtown Las Vegas and has great bones in terms of urban form. The grid pattern of streets and manageable block and lot sizes makes walking, biking and access to public transportation comfortable. The high vacancy rate is a blank canvas for developers. It is literally a New Urbanist’s dream. Think town homes, mixed-use with ground-floor retail/office and residential above, specialty education like STEM schools that would bring families to the area. ... It has a lot of potential to be great, and it is so important that we connect the Historic Westside to what’s happening in Downtown Las Vegas physically and economically. Toward that end, the city of Las Vegas is in the final stages of working with the UNLV Downtown Design Center on an economic development plan that bases much of the strategy on preservation of culturally important buildings, building types and urban form.

What are we losing by not supporting more efforts in this area? The area bounded by what is now West Bonanza Road, H Street, West Washington Avenue and the railroad tracks, was our city’s first urban development. It beat the east side of the tracks by a few months. Through a series of unfortunate events and eventually de facto segregation, the area was effectively cut off from the emerging development on the east side and left to languish for many years. Because of this, people forget how important the area is to our collective history. I was giving a lecture at UNLV and discussing the history of certain buildings in Las Vegas, and it suddenly occurred to me that almost every building in my presentation located east of the tracks was linked to the history of the Westside and vice versa. Yes, our history is the mob and atomic bombs and gambling and WWII, but segregation is woven throughout all of these narratives, and the Historic Westside is full of bricks-and-mortar symbols of survival.

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