Two Way Hard Three | Las Vegas Casino & Design Blog

January 4, 2012

The Las Vegas Hilton: Looking Back

Posted by daveschwartz

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.
International construction (1968)

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.

International floor plan, 1969

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.

Las Vegas Hilton Sky Villa

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.


Read archived comments (17 so far)
January 4, 2012 6:12 PM Posted by Jeff in OKC

As an unabashed lover of the property currently know as LVH, I can't help but wonder what might have happened if, as told in the book "Double Or Nothing" by Tom Beritling, Tim Poster and Breitling had bought the Hilton, instead of the Golden Nugget? "TnT" might well enough have had the money & moxie to keep the Hilton strong and relevant through the downturn and recovery.

January 4, 2012 6:31 PM Posted by hail2skins

Dave, thanks for the historical tour du force on the property. Stayed there in mid-1996 when it was still regarded as one of the top places in town. Remember walking from there to the brand new Monte Carlo one night.

January 4, 2012 8:46 PM Posted by BigHoss

I sure hope they find a way to revive the old dame. I stayed at the Hilton on two nights during my first trip to Las Vegas back in the early 90s. I was in my mid-20s and was just overwhelmed with the seeming opulence of the place. I marveled at the Elvis memorabilia hanging in the lobby, all fringy and eagle-embroidered. I sat amazed in front of the massive screens in the sports book. I stared up at the towers from the chaise lounge by the pool and felt the hug of the architecture without really knowing what it was. It was unlike any other place I'd ever been. I guess that chapter's been closed for a while but it's still kind of sad to see the International lose another step.

January 4, 2012 11:50 PM Posted by Joe

Amazing tribute to the LV Hilton or LVH or whatever its called :)

I believe if they change their game plan and actually put some money into the old dame, she could still aim for the higher end clientele and succeed if they do it right. Just do a major facelift a la MGM's 'grand renovation', get some entertainment worth going off the strip to see and thats it.....They could possibly compete with MGM and maybe even Wynncore and Bellagio.

Why? The Las Vegas Hilton (LVH) has always had a luxury flair to it along with Bally's (original MGM Grand) even in its lower condition because, that mainly what they were built for- extreme luxury and when Kerkorian built those places, he built them like palaces. Sort of what we think of Wynn and Bellagio today. Even the size of the standard rooms at both LVH and Bally's are still pretty large for todays fact, they're larger than the Mirage's which is pretty impressive.

To summarize all of this, the point is that the LV Hilton/LVS along with Bally's still have good 'bones' and that they have the potential to become great properties.

Also, I have a question: Is the LVH overall a better property than Bally's or is it the other way around?

Thank You.

January 5, 2012 5:01 AM Posted by detroit1051

Thanks for the detailed history. Although it was my favorite property in my early days of Vegas, I didn't know the history of how Kerkorian lost it to Hilton in 1970. In the '80s, pre-The Mirage, I remember flying to LAS and arguing with a seatmate over which was the best property in Las Vegas, Caesars Palace or The Hilton. Looking back, that exchange really shows how much has changed in 25 years.

I always rented a car, and The Hilton was convenient. Rather than park in the front surface lots, I could always find a convenient space in back by the Sportsbook where the statue of Man O' War is.

I won't repeat my previous comments, but The Hilton had some excellent restaurants including LeMontrachet and Andiamo (which I believe was the first Vegas restaurant with an open, show kitchen.)

Starlight Express was an innocuous show which left absolutely no impression on me, but it must have been moderately successful to run for four years.

Hail2skins, maybe we were there at the same time. I was at The Hilton when Monte Carlo opened.

January 5, 2012 6:38 AM Posted by detroit1051

Dr. Dave, one question: Would Las Vegas be much different today had Arthur Goldberg not died in 2000?

January 5, 2012 7:41 AM Posted by Dan Short

Very good summary, Dave. We have always had a soft spot for the LVH (which of course to me is the Las Vegas Hilton) as our first visit 7 years ago was to the HGVC at the Hilton (what is to become of that - HGVC at the LVH - Huh?).

We double booked into the hotel in November and reveled in how bad the room was compared to the strip casinos.

The casino has become somewhat sparse but still has a good selection of machines.

We saw Barry there in 2006 and have been to the Super Bowl party the last two years.

We love the LVH and hope it lasts.

Dan and Maureen Short

January 5, 2012 9:26 AM Posted by parchedearth

Excellent retrospective. Sadly, I foresee the LVCC, LVH, and monorail all going downhill together. If the LVH isn't bought and rennovated soon, Vegas will suffer as conventions start booking in other cities. They need to clear the debt in bankruptcy and inject at least $250M into the rooms, restaurants, and entertainment. We are at least a year from seeing that happen.

January 5, 2012 10:12 AM Posted by Dave

@ detroit1051:

I don't think that you would have seen Harrah's acquire (Park Place) Caesars Entertainment. It's possible that they may have bought Mandalay instead of MGM, which would mean, at the very least, no CityCenter.

But let's say everything else goes as it did. You'd have Caesars Entertainment with the Caesars, the Hilton, Paris, Bally's, and the Flamingo; MGM with its current portfolio; Harrah's with Harrah's and the Rio. Would they buy the IP and Barbary Coast? Almost definitely not for the latter, and probably not for the former. In 2005 the company probably would have built something new or acquired another casino on the Strip--Planet Hollywood is a good possibility.

It would really have shaken up things, that's for sure.

January 5, 2012 10:45 AM Posted by girlygirl

The best thing about the LVH is that it makes using the monorail convenient (for the most part).

January 5, 2012 7:19 PM Posted by socalduck

Interesting info, thanks Dr. Dave. You left out one thing, though: it's starring role as the Whyte House (and Blofeld's secret Vegas lair) in Diamonds are Forever.

I know many HHonors junkies are mourning the de-flagging of the Hilton. It was a popular stop for points junkies looking for an affordable spot to book some nights to re-qualify for elite status.

January 5, 2012 7:53 PM Posted by jonas jones

SOMEONE will revive the dame, I'm certain, as someone who is there three times a year for large conventions. They can price rooms above the strip during small conventions and exhibitors drink and eat the place dry. All of this for old rooms and bad food. As the economy picks up the LVCC will be more intregal than ever, boosting the LVH. Its the oldest off-strip hotel with the best odds of flourishing. Someone with a long term perspective could make the place sparkle and make a bundle in the process.

January 6, 2012 8:55 AM Posted by Dan Short

.The HGVC at the Hilton is now called Hilton Grand Vacation Club Las Vegas, but still refers to its proximity to the Las Vegas hilton in the text.

January 7, 2012 4:32 PM Posted by Jason

This order just placed with YESCO...

20 foot tall neon letters:
1 each:
A, B, I, L
2 each:

America's Best Value Inn Las Vegas...what? It could happen!

January 8, 2012 7:41 PM Posted by Chris Hall

I was at the opening of Starlight Express. It was probably my 2nd time in The Hilton...but what I remember most about that nite was thinking..."this might be the nicest hotel in the world". Of course, I was staying at The Sands...which, by that time had really gone down comparison, The Hilton really looked like a palace. I still have a major soft spot for the property and almost always visit when I'm in town. I really do hope that one day, it gets the refit that it deserves...but, I would imagine we're several years away from that. Thanks for the retrospect Doc Dave...your hard work is appreciated.

January 10, 2012 12:23 PM Posted by otel

i think stayed at the Hilton on two nights during my first trip to Las Vegas back in the early 90s.Looking back, that exchange really shows how much has changed in 25 years.I was at The Hilton when Monte Carlo opened.

February 23, 2012 6:12 PM Posted by Romaman

Looking at the old property map of the then International hotel and comparing it to the current LVH map, it seems that the Benihana restaurant use to be a showroom which might explain why it's so huge inside.

Anyone else notice this?