2021 Workshop

The Moulin Rouge Stands Empty

Two views of the Moulin Rouge, 1955. [Left: Jay Florian Mitchell, courtesy Nevada State Museum – Las Vegas; right: Don English, courtesy Las Vegas News Bureau]

On March 26, 1960, James McMillan, president of the Las Vegas NAACP and the first Black dentist in Las Vegas, assembled tables and chairs in the then-defunct Moulin Rouge Casino. Black activists were demanding that the Las Vegas Strip be desegregated, and were threatening to march. The former casino — usually locked and empty — was the setting for a pivotal meeting where McMillan and other members of the NAACP reached an agreement with Governor Grant Sawyer that averted the threatened demonstration.

The Moulin Rouge was Vegas’s first desegregated casino, and the largely Black population of the Westside claimed it as their own.

The meeting’s location symbolized the changes that activists wanted to see in Las Vegas.  The Moulin Rouge was Vegas’s first desegregated casino. It opened in the Westside neighborhood in May of 1955 to great success. It was the only casino where Blacks could gamble or work front-of-house, and the daily 2:30 am show consistently booked star performers like Nat King Cole and Frank Sinatra. The casino attracted both Black and White patrons, which proved to Vegas casino owners the financial legitimacy of desegregation, and it also created a community space for the Westside.

Designed by Zick and Sharp, a prolific firm responsible for some of Vegas’s most eccentric casinos, the Rouge’s look was less unusual than its site. While other casinos in Las Vegas compete with their neighbors for the flashiest sign or most dramatic façade, the Rouge’s backdrop, to this day, remains empty desert and open sky. Aside from the top of the Stratosphere casino’s tower peeking out over nearby buildings, there is no other sign of the downtown Vegas Strip. The Rouge embraced its anomalous location, and became part of the neighborhood. Indeed, although the Rouge was owned by White investors and designed by White architects, the largely Black population of the Westside claimed it as their own. McMillan said he chose the empty Rouge as a meeting place because it was more “neutral” than anywhere else in the city.1R. T. King, Gary Elliott, and James B. McMillan, “Fighting Back: A Life in the Struggle for Civil Rights,” in Fighting Back: A Life in the Struggle for Civil Rights (Reno, NV: Univ. of Nevada Oral History Program, 1997), 95-98. Unfortunately, by the time of the NAACP gathering, the Rouge’s short-lived success was already in the past. The casino went bankrupt within a year of its opening, allegedly due to investor embezzlement. The building then stood empty for nearly five decades. In 2003, the casino was destroyed by arson and subsequently demolished. All that remains today is an empty lot.

Although I attended high school a mere eight blocks from the site of the Moulin Rouge, I can’t remember ever walking past it. On a map, the casino appears to be centrally located, but Las Vegas is designed in such a way that the Westside is isolated from downtown by highways. This isn’t by accident. During the mayorship of Ernie Cragin in the 1930s, Las Vegas was segregated, with White patrons separated from Black performers and service workers. Black residents who lived east of the train tracks were often denied renewal on their leases, and forced to move to the Westside. In order to travel from Westside to the Strip, where most residents worked, commuters had to cross a major road, train tracks, and a highway, and then traverse a Paiute Indian reservation. The Moulin Rouge might have economically anchored the Westside, by offering employment and leisure close to home, but its bankruptcy did the opposite, precipitating the neighborhood’s decline. As one of the Rouge’s dancers, Anna Bailey, remembers, “when they killed the Moulin Rouge, they killed the Westside.”2Ex-dancers, Dealer Remember Heyday of Moulin Rouge in Las Vegas,” Las Vegas-Review-Journal online video, 2:40, February 23, 2019.

Vacant lot beside Las Vegas highway; mountains and houses in the distance.
Site of the former Moulin Rouge, July 2021. [Zane Mechem]

There’s something peculiar about the site today. Besides broken concrete and painted lines that scar the asphalt, suggestions of the casino’s footprint are revealed, but just barely, in shifts in the color of the gravel. From fire and demolition, time and wind, the site’s topography has changed. Certain parts of the ground are mysteriously recessed, and patches of asphalt have given way to plants. It feels like a place forgotten.

It feels like a place forgotten. Still, as long as the site is empty, recognition and advocacy remain possible.

In recent years, the City of Las Vegas has proposed several new building projects in the immediate vicinity of the former Rouge as part of a larger masterplan. The Westside community remains skeptical. At public hearings, community members seem gratified at the prospect of government investment, but also wary. 3Gene Collin, statement in an online Westside community discussion, September 15th, 2020. The discussion centered on “Hundred Plan in Action: Aligning the Implementation Strategy for the Historic Westside,” a proposal produced by the City of Las Vegas and Gensler Architects  July 15, 2020. None of the City’s plans involve the specific site of the Rouge, which was acquired in December 2020 by the private equity investment firm BBC Capital, who is rumored to be working on developing a resort-casino. During public hearings about the future of the Westside, I heard very little mention of the former Moulin Rouge. Perhaps it’s become hard for residents to remember what the site represented in 1955. Were its past to become more recognizable, perhaps its future would too.

I find it difficult to be optimistic; the current trend of developer-driven planning in Vegas gives a sense of inevitability. Still, as long as the site is empty, recognition and advocacy remain possible. Demolished casinos on the Strip are often rebuilt with new names and signs, but the redlined history of the Moulin Rouge issues a different demand. The Rouge tells a story of Las Vegas apart from the glitz and glamour, a story about the city’s values and history. As it turns out, some of the most important sites in Las Vegas don’t have the biggest signs — or any signs at all.

Notes

  1. R. T. King, Gary Elliott, and James B. McMillan, “Fighting Back: A Life in the Struggle for Civil Rights,” in Fighting Back: A Life in the Struggle for Civil Rights (Reno, NV: Univ. of Nevada Oral History Program, 1997), 95-98.
  2. Ex-dancers, Dealer Remember Heyday of Moulin Rouge in Las Vegas,” Las Vegas-Review-Journal online video, 2:40, February 23, 2019.
  3. Gene Collin, statement in an online Westside community discussion, September 15th, 2020. The discussion centered on “Hundred Plan in Action: Aligning the Implementation Strategy for the Historic Westside,” a proposal produced by the City of Las Vegas and Gensler Architects  July 15, 2020.

About the Author

Zane Mechem

Zane Mechem is a fifth year B.Arch student and Teaching Assistant at the Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc). A native of Las Vegas, Mechem is currently interning at FreelandBuck and in the past has designed for MOS Architects and HDA-X. He also developed interactive new media for the SCI-Arc 2020 Spring Show; worked as teaching assistant at SCI-Arc’s Pop-Arc and DID programs for high school students; and has published essays in the student journals Off Topic and Underscore. Mechem’s interests include questioning the architectural canon and reappraising ordinary urban form. In 2020, Mechem was an AIA Jean Roth Driskel Scholar nominee.