“Fabulous Downtown” – Local urban historian Brian “Paco” Alvarez marks milestones in downtown Las Vegas

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Brian "Paco" Alvarez tells the story of the Emergency Arts building from 60 years ago to the present day

Paco’s special exhibition celebrating anniversaries of institutions downtown runs through April at Emergency Arts on Fremont Street.

Want to gain a better understanding of the history of downtown Las Vegas? Folks such as Brian “Paco” Alvarez are an aid to your quest. Dubbed an urban historian years ago, the native Las Vegan is fascinated by downtown businesses, neighborhoods and the history of the city as a whole. Although he admits that no city is perfect, he loves Vegas for “everything it is and everything it isn’t.” He has studied its history so he can pass along his knowledge to the rest of us.

While working on a research project, the cultural blogger, artist and curator of the Las Vegas News Bureau photo archives, recently came across a gem – a photograph of what’s now the Emergency Arts building downtown when it opened to great fanfare as JC Penney on April 3, 1952.

The Emergency Arts building, which has become a center for creativity, innovation and community downtown, is 60 years old this month. The Beat Coffeehouse inside the building is now two. Plus, the news bureau where Paco works and gathers information on historical buildings such as this is 65. You know what that meant – time for a celebration!

Q: Talk about the past and present of the Emergency Arts building at 60…

Paco: The land that the building sits on was once a house and a gas station, at one time this was the end of town.

JC Penney opened on Fremont Street in 1952 to great fanfare

However, in 1949/50 JC Penney on Fremont Street needed to be expanded due to a population influx created by jobs at the Atomic Proving Grounds (Nevada Test Site).  Interestingly enough, the store could not open as planned in 1950 because construction workers were being pulled to work at the test site. It finally opened on April 3, 1952 – just in time for Easter. Newspaper clippings talk about how this was a larger, more modern store and the first one with an elevator.

By 1968, JC Penney would move again to the new Boulevard Mall, which marked the beginning of Fremont Street’s retail and commercial decline. The old JC Penney building would eventually become a medical center and remain as such until it closed in the mid-2000’s.

In 2010, husband and wife team, Michael and Jennifer Cornthwaite, turned it into what it is today – the Emergency Arts Building and The Beat Coffeehouse. The front counter of the coffee shop is the former reception area of the medical center, and the lab rooms have been turned into galleries, offices and studios.

Nothing like this has ever been developed in Las Vegas. Cafes are imperative for the development of culture. It’s where ideas are born and people meet.

Local urban historian Brian “Paco” Alvarez curated the exhibition

At night it turns into a bar. It’s just a cool place, and it’s the first time I said wow, Las Vegas has finally come of age! It has finally become hip to be downtown.

Q: How is the 60th anniversary being marked?

Paco: To mark the occasion, I reached into the archives of the Las Vegas News Bureau and put together a photography exhibition called “Fabulous Downtown.”

There are numerous photos and stories behind buildings such as Modern Cleaners, Fifth Street School and of course opening day of JC Penney 60 years ago. The photos are fun to look at and it’s great to see downtown Las Vegas as a small town. This is Las Vegas culture at its best!

Fabulous Downtown:

Through April at Emergency Arts located at 520 Fremont Street
M-F: 7 a.m. – 12 a.m.
Sat: 9 a.m. – 12 a.m.
Sun: 9 a.m. – 5 p.m.


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