The El Cortez, a hotel and casino is a relatively small downtown Las Vegas gaming venue a block from the Fremont Street Experience and Las Vegas Boulevard. The official marketing slogan has been "Where locals come to play" since the El Cortez has traditionally attracted Las Vegas residents weary of large casinos geared towards tourists. Slots, table games and a race and sports book occupy one floor of the main pavilion. It is one of the oldest casino-hotel properties in Las Vegas having continuously operated at the same Fremont Street location since 1941. Primarily Spanish Colonial Revival in style, it reflects a 1952 remodel when the facade was modernized. On February 22, 2013, the structure was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Marion Hicks and J.C. Grayson built the El Cortez, downtown Las Vegas' first major resort, in 1941 for $245,000. The location at 6th Street and Fremont was originally considered too far from downtown, but it quickly became so profitable, Bugsy Siegel, Meyer Lansky, Gus Greenbaum and Moe Sedway bought the property in 1945 from J. Kel Houssels for $600,000. John Kell (J. Kell) Houssels, Sr. (1895–1979) had originally opened the 59-room hotel and casino before the sale to the major organized crime figures. Houssels purchased the hotel back from Siegel's group in 1946 for $766,000. In 1963, the Pavilion Rooms were added after the hotel was purchased by Jackie Gaughan. Another 15-story tower addition was completed in 1980. The 64-room Cabana Suites were completed in the former Ogden House in 2009 bringing the total room count to its current 364. Gaughan, a casino owner and operator since the early 1950s, lives in the El Cortez tower penthouse and is known to be on the casino floor almost daily. The property is one of the few casinos to have never changed its exterior facade in Las Vegas, retaining the same signage and ranch themed architecture for over seventy years.
Jackie Gaughan's son Michael Gaughan owns the sports and race book in the current casino under the name South Point Race and Sports Book, which is run in other downtown casinos as well. Like most Las Vegas casinos, the El Cortez has undergone several renovations with the latest major remodeling completed in 2006. New carpet, marble flooring, gaming machines, refurbished guest rooms and an upgraded kitchen for the restaurant were added. Although only a block away from the Fremont Street Experience, the hotel is part of the newly created Fremont East section of downtown. It has also created a main entrance off Las Vegas Boulevard (5th Street) by opening a block long pedestrian walkway from the boulevard to the hotel's main entrance on 6th Street. The El Cortez is also well known in the casino industry as the most prominent "break-in house" for new table game dealers to get experience before moving onto bigger properties. In 2008 longtime owner Jackie Gaughan sold the hotel just before his 88th birthday. The buyers include his son, his nephew, and his business partner of many decades. Jackie will continue to live in the casino and greet customers and play poker. Recently the coffee shop has been extensively renovated and renamed Cafe Cortez. The fine-dining restaurant has been renamed The Flame. The separate hotel in the back, the 100-room Ogden House, has been completely renovated into the 64 suite Cabana Suites.
In 2009 Jackie Gaughan sold the El Cortez and its properties to Kenny Epstein. Jackie still lives in the hotel and happily plays poker downstairs in the poker room.