History of the Las Vegas Dunes Hotel

History of the Las Vegas Dunes Hotel

Las Vegas Dunes hotel, before its implosion

The Dunes was an iconic Las Vegas Hotel whose name even today is still remembered along the strip. It’s long gone now, of course – imploded in two stages to make way for The Bellagio in 1993 and 1994. This being Vegas, though, it’s demise was as spectacular as the old hotel’s reputation merited. The following post, therefore, provides a brief history of the Las Vegas Dunes hotel.

A brief history of the Las Vegas Dunes

Las Vegas Dunes Hotel aerial photo
Image courtesy of Nevada State Museum and Historical Society – 700 Twin Lakes Drive, Las Vegas, Nevada 89107. 702.486.5205

The Dunes hotel was one of the early hotels on the Las Vegas strip, opening its doors in 1955. Together with the Sand and Desert Inn hotels, it was known as one of the three Kings of Las Vegas.

Back then, the Dunes was at the southernmost tip of the strip, and due to its remote location, it struggled to make money.

Today, of course, The Bellagio, which stands proudly where the Dunes used to be, is located in the middle of the strip, with New York New York, MGM Grand, Excalibur, Luxor and Mandalay Bay all much further south. But in 1955, Las Vegas was a very different town, and the strip was much smaller. Even the hotels were smaller, with the Dunes having only 200 rooms when it was first opened.

The Dunes and the Mob

Early photo of the Las Vegas Dunes hotel
Photography by Erik Wunstell © April, 1977-2006

The Dunes achieved its legendary status thanks in part to decades of mob rule. Both the Mafia and money from the Teamsters’ pension fund helped to build the hotel, and it was owned for many years by Morris Shenker, who was allegedly associated with the St. Louis Mafia.

In addition to its mob links, the Dunes was also made famous by recruiting star performers such as Frank Sinatra to sing at the hotel, in an effort to lure the paying punters in. Still struggling, though, even with the might of Frank and co, it opened Las Vegas’s first topless show called Minsky’s Follies in 1957, which drew in an audience of 16,000, which, at the time, was a record for a single week’s attendance. The Dunes was saved, and lived for another 36 years.

The Dunes expands

Las Vegas Dunes hotel, before its implosion
© 2001-2002 University of Nevada, Las Vegas

Flushed with the success of its topless show, the Dunes had (some) cash in the bank, and added a golf course and a new exhibitor and convention center in 1959. A new tower called the Diamond of the Dunes was also added in 1961, bringing the total number of rooms to 450.

In 1964, the Dunes led the way in lighting up the Las Vegas skyline with the addition of 180 foot neon sign. Shaped like a giant onion, it apparently evoked images from A Thousand and One Nights , and had “electric lava” erupting through the sky every minute. Mmmm, classy!

Las Vegas Dunes hotel sign
Photo by Erik Lauritzen, NHS Photo Collection

Unfortunately, it was also expensive, costing $47,000 a year to operate, but the Dunes didn’t care – it was making money, and needed to tell the world (well, the Las Vegas strip, anyway!) where it was. Thus, the trend for ever bigger, ever more attention-seeking hotels and signages was born, which has ultimately led to the amazing hotels that currently grace the Strip. Las Vegas really is survival of the fittest, with onyl the most attention-grabbing hotels surviving, and the Dunes was the first to do this in style.

In 1979, a new 17-storey tower was built to bring the total number of rooms to 1,300. These rooms were lavish, and featured the most luxurious resort rooms in Las Vegas.

The final years

Las Vegas hotel implosion
Photos by John Gurzinski, Las Vegas ReviewJournal

By 1987, though, things were starting to go wrong again. The Dunes was bought by Japanese investor Masao Nangaku for $155 million, but it was showing its age, and he couldn’t make any money out of it. So he sold it in 1992 to Steve Wynn for just $75 million, who had no intentions of turning it round. Instead, he wanted to blow the thing up and replace it with a much, much grander hotel and casino – The Bellagio.

And so it was that on October 20th 1993, the first of the two Dunes towers was imploded in dramatic style, with one of the pirate ships from Treasure Island firing its cannon just before the implosion, in a mock attack on the Dunes.

It was also a hugely symbolic act, as it represented the overthrowing of the Mafia’s influence on Vegas, and the beginning of a new era, in which huge new mega resorts began to dominate the Las Vegas skyline.

The Bellagio was built in its place, providing a spectacular fountain show, the likes of which the Dunes could never compete with. Another Las Vegas legend passed into history, while a new one was built in its place.

[Source: Wikipedia, A2ZLasVegas, LegendsOfAmerica]

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