Late in 1930, Nevada’s legislators pondered boosting the state’s lucrative divorce trade even further by shortening the residency requirement from three months to six short weeks. In anticipation of their success, local real estate investor Abe Zetooney commissioned the construction of the El Cortez Hotel to cater to the expected influx of temporary residents.
A native of Syria, Zetooney had arrived in Reno shortly after World War I, and for many years ran the Silk & Linen shop on East Second Street. For his new hotel, he hired father and son architects George and Lehman A. “Monk” Ferris. George already had designed a number of important Nevada buildings, including the Governor’s Mansion in Carson City, while Monk had a number of buildings to his own credit. He was also one of the first architects in Nevada to specialize in steel frame construction, which he employed on the El Cortez.
At six stories high with a full basement, the 60-room Art Deco style hotel became Reno’s tallest building upon its opening in March of 1931, just in time for passage of the new divorce law. Zetooney leased the management of the hotel to the Bulasky brothers, Joseph, Solomon, and Louis.
Modern and luxurious touches, including a radio in each room, set the hotel apart. An upscale coffee shop and barber/beauty shop occupied the ground floor, along with a lobby furnished “in the Spanish style.” Tiled stairs from the lobby led to a women’s lounge and card room on the mezzanine, where an elegant dining room opened that September.
The hotel gained its first gaming license in 1934. Between 1940 and 1941, a six-story tower designed by Monk Ferris was added, nearly doubling the number of rooms. The expansion included the Trocadero Room, a cocktail lounge and dinner and night club decorated in an elegant Art Moderne theme. The new addition, which cost $250,000 to complete, opened with a black-tie affair the evening of May 14, 1941.
In its heyday, the El Cortez offered unsurpassed entertainment. The Trocadero was licensed for roulette, 21, and craps, and featured major performers such as Sophie Tucker, the Andrew Sisters, and Victor Borge. In 1964 the Pincolini family bought the hotel. By 1966, however, the hotel had lost its luster and had to close its doors. In 1972, Bill Fong, formerly of the New China Club, opened a Chinese restaurant in the property, which he ran until his death in 1982. The building was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1984 and the Reno Register of Historic Places in 2000. Today, the El Cortez operates as a residency hotel, with a variety of commercial businesses on the ground floor.