Historic Las Vegas casino destroyed by fire

LAS VEGAS -- Federal agents will investigate a fire that destroyed the historic Moulin Rouge casino -- the first integrated gambling spot in Las Vegas that once played host to the likes of Sammy Davis Jr. and Nat "King" Cole.

Fire officials estimated Thursday's blaze did more than $1 million in damage to the sprawling but rundown site about a mile northwest of the downtown casino district.

"This is a sad day," said Dale Scott, chief executive of the Moulin Rouge Development Corp., which was renovating the property and planned to reopen the casino in 2005 -- the 50th anniversary of its brief life.

"We had plans to capture that history and restore it," Scott said. "This is a big loss for Nevada and for the African-American culture."

The three-alarm fire reduced the relic of Las Vegas racial history to rubble and injured two residents and a fire captain.

Because of the amount of damage and the building's historical value, agents with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms National Response Team will assist local investigators.

Federal agents should begin scouring the debris this week, looking for clues into what sparked the blaze, Las Vegas ATF agent Keith Heinzerling said at an evening news conference in front of the burned-out casino.

Las Vegas Fire & Rescue Chief David L. Washington declined to label the fire suspicious and did not speculate on what caused it.

The Moulin Rouge shined when it opened with The Platters on May 24, 1955. Frank Sinatra and Harry Belafonte were among the headliners to play its Club Rouge showroom.

Dick Taylor, who once managed the Frontier and Hacienda hotel-casinos, said that in the 1950s, no other Strip hotels in the city would accept black guests. Even black entertainers had to find other places to stay.

"It was cruel, but that was the way it was," he said.

Though popular, the Moulin Rouge's run was brief, closing in October 1955.

"There's two schools of thought," said Taylor, who leased the property from bankruptcy court in 1955 and 1956 and booked guests there on holiday weekends, when rooms were scarce elsewhere in town.

"One theory is that insiders stole it blind," Taylor said. "The second is that it was at the wrong place at the wrong time."

"It was too close to a ghetto area with a lot of old homes," Taylor said.

In 1960, city and gambling leaders returned to the Moulin Rouge for a meeting in which they agreed to desegregate the Las Vegas Strip.

The casino was a Las Vegas landmark and was listed in 1992 on the National Register of Historic Places. But it deteriorated under a string of owners and renovation plans.

This month, it was listed among 11 Nevada historical places in danger of being lost to development and other pressures.

Property owner Bart Maybie vowed to rebuild.

"We were planning on putting a second story on before," he said. "Now, we'll just build a whole new casino," he said.

Maybie, of Las Vegas, said the casino was insured for full value, which he put at $3 million. It sits on 15 acres, including the 111-unit Moulin Rouge apartments, which are separate from the casino and once were hotel rooms.

The first firefighters found heavy flames on the roof of the two-story building at 1:18 a.m. Three alarms brought 75 firefighters, Las Vegas fire spokesman Tim Szymanski said, but flames that shot 40 feet into the pre-dawn sky prevented them from getting inside the casino.

Ninety-nine residents were evacuated from the apartments.

One was treated at University Medical Center in Las Vegas for smoke inhalation. A pregnant woman was treated for stomach pains. The fire captain was treated for heat exhaustion. All were released, hospital spokeswoman Cheryl Persinger said.

Moulin Rouge apartments resident Martin Gutierrez, 51, said he awoke to see smoke coming out of a vent from the casino kitchen.

"I grabbed the phone and called 911," he said. "My roommate saw the flames go whoosh."

Gutierrez, an electrician at the complex, said he was puzzled how a fire could start in the casino, where rolls of carpeting, furniture and chandeliers were warehoused.

Szymanski said fire investigators were waiting for embers to cool before entering the crumbled 30,000-square-foot casino. The building also had offices on the second floor, and an attached storefront church and appliance shop.

About 70 evacuated residents were bused to a nearby senior center. Some complained about locked back gates forcing a long walk to a single front exit.

Scott acknowledged that gates were locked in recent months to stem crime in the low-rent complex, and said the exit plan had been approved by fire officials.


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