El Cortez Hotel

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. Today, the El Cortez operates as a residency hotel, with a variety of commercial businesses on the ground floor.

Images

Looking northeast from Chestnut Street (now Arlington)

Looking northeast from Chestnut Street (now Arlington)

This photograph shows the El Cortez Hotel prior to its 1940 expansion. After construction, the coffee shop which can be seen in the picture was moved to the back of the building. To the rear of the building (next to the automotive garage) occluded from view was a small house once owned by Abe Zetooney. Image courtesy of Special Collections, University of Nevada, Reno Libraries View File Details Page

Reno's newest and most modern hotel

Reno's newest and most modern hotel

This advertisement from the 1932 R.L. Polk & Co. City Directory touts some of the new hotel's modern amenities, including radio loudspeakers in each room. View File Details Page

Looking east from Second Street

Looking east from Second Street

The hotel's massive neon sign is clearly visible on the top of the building. Sixteen feet high and 48 feet long, the sign was manufactured and installed by QRS Neon Corp. and the Young Electric Sign Company. Image courtesy of Special Collections, University of Nevada, Reno Libraries View File Details Page

A new addition

A new addition

On December 14, 1940, the Reno Evening Gazette offered readers a progress report on the El Cortez expansion, which doubled the size of the building. Image courtesy of the Nevada Historical Society View File Details Page

After the expansion of the El Cortez

After the expansion of the El Cortez

The expansion of the El Cortez was completed in 1941. In this photograph, signs for the beauty shop, coffee shop, and Trocadero can clearly be seen on the front of the building. This photograph exemplifies the geometric brickwork and decorative terracotta inserts common of Art Deco architecture. Image courtesy of Special Collections, University of Nevada, Reno Libraries View File Details Page

Art Deco design

Art Deco design

The El Cortez Hotel is one of only three remaining major Art Deco buildings in Reno. Notable details include the extensive foliated motif sculptural decoration in terra cotta on the building's base and parapet. Image courtesy of Nevada Historical Society View File Details Page

The Trocadero Room

The Trocadero Room

Known commonly as the "Troc," the Trocadero room in its heyday in the 1950s provided guests with extravagant cocktails, elaborate dinners, and live entertainment. "Floating" wall and ceiling panels along with indirect fluorescent lighting gave the lounge a fairy tale-like ambiance. Opposite the bar, roulette wheels and slot machines can be seen. Image courtesy of Nevada Historical Society View File Details Page

The swanky Troc

The swanky Troc

The black tie opening of the Trocadero Room appeared in national newsreels, orchestrated by local advertising whiz Thomas C. Wilson, who later recalled, “We hit everything in the country with it. And it did more for Reno's image than, I think, anything else that we managed to get on at that time.” Image courtesy of Mella Harmon View File Details Page

El Cortez bar

El Cortez bar

George Carr (facing camera), February 1944. In the bar of the El Cortez. Image courtesy of Neal Cobb View File Details Page

Table games in the El Cortez

Table games in the El Cortez

Gaming action at the El Cortez in 1944. In the center in the dark suit is longtime gaming man Bill Williams. The hotel eliminated its table games after 1948. Image courtesy of Neal Cobb View File Details Page

Reno's tallest building

Reno's tallest building

In this photograph taken from the First Methodist Church on First Street sometime in the the 1940s, the El Cortez can clearly be seen towering above the other buildings in this portion of downtown. Image courtesy of Special Collections, University of Nevada, Reno Libraries View File Details Page

No longer the tallest building in Reno

No longer the tallest building in Reno

Prior to the opening of the Mapes Hotel in 1947, the El Cortez was the tallest building in Reno. This postcard dated 1970 shows the juxtaposition of Reno's older hotel buildings with the modern hotel casinos, which dominated the downtown landscape beginning in the late 1960s. It is hard to miss Harrah's 24-story tower in the background. Image courtesy of Special Collections, University of Nevada, Reno Libraries View File Details Page

Bill Fong's Dining Room

Bill Fong's Dining Room

Pictured in 1984, Bill Fong's Dining Room occupied the ground floor of the El Cortez Hotel. Photo by Ana Beth Koval View File Details Page

The El Cortez in the 21st century

The El Cortez in the 21st century

The El Cortez Hotel, seen in 2004, makes a striking architectural statement today. Photo by Max Chapman View File Details Page

Street Address:

239 West 2nd Street, Reno, NV [map]

Cite this Page:

“El Cortez Hotel,” Reno Historical, accessed March 29, 2017, http://renohistorical.org/items/show/5.
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