The construction of the Union Plaza Hotel-Casino, now the Plaza Hotel, was a turning point for downtown Las Vegas. It replaced the Union Pacific Railroad depot, built in 1940, and the park just east of it. It signified how downtown Las Vegas was changing and touched off a long-term redevelopment effort that continues today.
The Union Plaza opened in 1971. Its co-owners were all longtime Las Vegans: Sam Boyd, a veteran gaming executive, who ran the casino; J. Kell Houssels Jr., an attorney who followed his father into the industry; Jackie Gaughan, who owned several downtown properties; and Frank Scott, a developer whose ties to the Union Pacific Railroad enabled them to obtain the land.
The Union Plaza brought something different to downtown. First, at twenty-two stories and 504 rooms, with a 66,000-square-foot casino—twice the size of the next largest, the Las Vegas Hilton—it was by far the largest downtown hotel-casino. Second, Boyd introduced a controversial but ultimately popular innovation: women dealers, whom the City of Las Vegas had banned by ordinance for more than a decade. Third, in addition to the lounge, entertainment director Maynard Sloate offered not headliners but plays—usually with a sexy theme and prominent Hollywood names. Finally, in 1974, Las Vegas obtained its first 50,000-watt, clear-channel radio station, KDWN-AM-720, which received space in exchange for commercials and regular announcements that it broadcast "from the Union Plaza Hotel at Number One Main Street."
The hotel was highly successful. Not only did it replace the depot as the stop-off for rail travelers on Amtrak, but, with the bus station nearby and its location at the center of downtown, the Union Plaza had a built-in clientele. The second tower at the end of Carson Street added 521 rooms and convention space, making the Union Plaza the first downtown resort to emphasize the lucrative convention market. The owners replaced the swimming pool at the entrance at Main and Fremont streets with the Center Stage Restaurant. At the behest of Houssels, they also imported veteran Strip executives like hotel general manager Bob Cannon and publicist Harvey Diederich.
The owners gradually sold their interests—first Boyd, with Houssels and Scott taking more prominent executive roles. Then, in 1993, Gaughan became the main owner and changed the name to Jackie Gaughan's Plaza. In 2002, he sold his interest to Barrick Gaming, which since has ceded control to its previously silent investment partner, Tamares Group.
Meanwhile, downtown Las Vegas clearly has changed along with the Plaza's ownership and appearance. Both of the other casinos at Main and Fremont, the Golden Gate and the Las Vegas Club, continue to operate there as they did when the Plaza was under construction in 1971, but the Fremont Street Experience canopy has made their signs less visible. And behind the Plaza's two towers and over one thousand rooms is not desert, but even more development.