Yesterday was a momentous day in Las Vegas casino history. There was no closing of the doors (or taping-up of notes) or implosion, but one of the real stalwarts left the building. The Las Vegas Hilton is no more. Yes, the building is still there, along with the employees, and you can still book a room (for now, at least) and roll dice, but the name has been removed in place of the oh-so-exciting "LVH--The Las Vegas Hotel and Casino." After the jump, I'll recap the history of the property, hitting the high notes and a few low ones.
The Hilton started life as the International, Kirk Kerkorian's answer to the question, "Does Las Vegas need a really big hotel?" In 1967, Kerkorian was leasing the land below Caesars Palace to Jay Sarno. He figured that he could do a better job than Jay (and Nate Jacobson) of running a casino hotel so he decided to build a big one--the biggest in the world.
He bought a plot of land that had been the site of the ill-fated Las Vegas racetrack (betting on the ponies in Vegas=win; watching them run outside=fail), hired Martin Stern, Jr as architect, and started building.
First he bought the Flamingo to train the staff he'd need to run the 1,500-room hotel, which he'd call the International. By July 1969, when the International was ready to open, he had a top-notch staff.
Interestingly, Kerkorian planned from the start to open the hotel with 1,500 rooms and then expand to 3,000 rooms in phases, as business warranted it. I call this interesting because it's the exact opposite of the approach taken with CityCenter. I'll reserve editorial comment on that for now, but you can probably connect the dots.
This plan was ground-breaking. Kirk Kerkorian had asked Stern to build the world's largest casino hotel. With a roughly square parcel, Stern deduced that the best way to give each room a pleasant view and to take advantage of available land was a y-shaped building. This proved to be the dominant shape for the next wave of Las Vegas Strip casino hotels in the 1990s, as first the Mirage, then Treasure Island, the Venetian, Mandalay Bay, and the Bellagio all followed Stern's basic design. Other projects like Harrah's and the MGM Grand (1993) were essentially the tri-form augmented by a fourth tower, giving the building a cross or x shape. It is no exaggeration to say that, with the International, Stern set the pattern for Las Vegas Strip casino development for decades.
The International opened July 2, 1969, with 1,568 rooms, 30,000 square feet of casino space (making it the biggest casino in the world to date), four entertainment venues, and Barbra Streisand singing in the Showroom.
Other attractions included the "Youth Hotel," which was a day care center "operated on a summer camp concept," and a rooftop deck that included the pool, an Astroturf lawn, a lagoon, and a picnic area. In 1994, the Hilton still advertised the Youth Hotel, which had moved to the North Tower, and allowed parents to book their children into an overnight dormitory.
Since its opening, the building has had two major expansions: The East Tower (1975) and North Tower (1978) extended the y-shaped tower. Other expansions included the addition to the Sports and Race Superbook area (1986) and the Space Quest Casino/Star Trek Experience (1997-1998.
Originally, all parking was done on surface lots, something common in Las Vegas at the time. As the resort grew in size, its owners added garages near the sportsbook (1988) and north of the North Tower (1997).
A completely separate structure, the 16-story Grand Vacations timeshare, opened on the north edge of the property in 1999.
The International/Hilton, being so much larger than other Las Vegas hotels and located off the Strip, counted on entertainment to fill its rooms. Streisand opened the International with an exclusive black-tie performance on July 2, 1969, and stayed through July 30th.
The Showroom's next denizen is probably its most acclaimed. Elvis began his first four-week engagement at the International/Hilton on July 31. Over the next two decades, the Showroom hosted performers as diverse as Bill Cosby, Tom Jones, Glen Campbell, Ann-Margaret, the Muppets, Redd Foxx, Liberace, Tony Bennett, Bobby Darin (who made his last live appearance at the Hilton on August 5, 1973), Johnny Cash, Paul Anka, Engelbert Humperdinck, and Tony Orlando.
In September 1982, the production show Bal du Moulin Rouge began an extended run in the showroom, alternating with headliner Engelbert Humperdinck. In 1985, the Showroom moved back to more typical headliner shows, and stars like Vic Damone, Jeffrey Osborne, Rodney Dangerfield, and Wayne Newton played the Showroom for the rest of the decade.
In September 1993, Starlight Express opened in the Showroom. This production show required the Hilton to completely close its Showroom and essentially rebuild it at a cost of $12 million. The room used thousands of lights and 44 miles of fiber optic cables to create its unique lighting effects. Starlight Express closed in late 1997, after which the Showroom reverted to its earlier headliner policy, which it continues today.
Barry Manilow headlined the Showroom from 2005 to 2009, its last long-term resident headliner of consequence. As of today, the new LVH website doesn't have a word about entertainment, anywhere on the site.
The International was a success, thanks to its hard-working employees and the boost that Elvis gave it, but Kerkorian, caught on the short end of a 1970 market contraction, was forced to sell the property. This happened in stages.
On June 16, 1970, Hilton Hotels Corporation bought 37.5% of the in International Leisure Corporation, which ran the International and the Flamingo; Hilton would manage rooms and food and beverage, while ILC would continue to operate the casino. On September 29, Hilton acquired an additional 44 percent of ILC, giving it de facto control over the company.
In March, 1971, the acquisition was complete. The International became "Las Vegas Hilton (The International Hotel)," and the Flamingo became the Flamingo Hilton. International Leisure was, by the end of the year, merged into Hilton Hotels.
On February 10, 1981, a fire in the hotel cost $10 million in damage and claimed 8 lives. Busboy Philip Cline was eventually convicted of setting the blaze (January 15, 1982). This was the second major fire at a Las Vegas hotel in three months (the deadly MGM Grand fire in November had killed 87).
The hotel made the headlines again in 1991, when the Tailhook Association's meeting at the Hilton became national news after allegations of rampant sexual harassment became public.
Still, the Hilton kept moving forward. On November 19, 1992, Governor Bob Miller honors Hilton Hotel Corp with "Hilton Day," a statewide holiday commemorating Hilton's 1970 purchase of the International. At the time, Hilton was Nevada's number one hotel casino operator, with five properties: The flagship Las Vegas Hilton, the Reno Hilton (formerly Bally's Reno), the Flamingo Hilton Las Vegas, the Flamingo Hilton Laughlin, and the Flamingo Hilton Reno. Together, the properties had 11,300 hotel rooms (the most of any company) and employed 13,700 people, making Hilton the state's largest corporate employer.
The casino, which had pioneered high-end junkets in the 1970s, remained an active contestant in the high roller market into the 1990s. In 1995, the Hilton opened three top-floor Sky Villas, which cost $30 million to build and were the forefather of today's ubiquitous butler-service high-end suites. In that same year, the casino announced a partnership with Viacom that would develop an entertainment attraction that ultimately became Star Trek: The Experience, which opened in January 1998. Featuring an amusement ride, themed restaurant and lounge, and casino area, the project cost $75 million and spread over 40,000 square feet of the Hilton's North Tower.
The Hilton got a new owner--of sorts, in December 1998, when Hilton Hotels Corporation spun off its gaming division (which had already acquired the Bally's casinos), which merged with the Mississippi operations of Grand Casinos Incorporated as Park Place Entertainment Corporation.
Two years later, Park Place agreed to developer Ed Roski (who now owns the Sivlerton), but that agreement later unraveled. In December 2003, the company announced plans to sell the Las Vegas Hilton to Colony Resorts LVH Acquisitions LLC for about $280 million. This deal did go through, and in 2004 the casino got new owners.
Colony invested about $70 million in a capital improvement program, including renovating the rooms, improving access to the casino, investing in state-of-the-art slot machines and remodeling bars, restaurants and the showrooms. With the opening of the Las Vegas Monorail on July 15, 2004, the future seemed to be looking up.
But then the recession came, and with it a drop in the business travel that was, by this time, the Hilton's bread and butter. Star Trek: The Experience closed in 2008, depriving the casino of a landmark attraction just before interest in the science fiction franchise was revitalized by the 2009 Star Trek movie.
Since then, the property's performance has lagged, and as of January 1, 2012, the licensing agreement with the Hilton expired.
The new name, "LVH," is less than inspiring, and a curious choice, to say the least. And, though few are going to point this out, losing the Hilton name means more than dropping out of HHonors and changing the signs--it's a reminder that the glory days of the property are long gone. Whether that means more gloom ahead or inspires the LVH (or whoever ends up in control of it) to better things remains to be seen.