The Desert Inn Las Vegas Howard Hughes, When Howard Hughes arrived in Las Vegas in November 1967, many of the hotels were preparing their suites for the high rollers that would come stay for New Year’s Eve. Bob Maheu recalls that he was finally able to get Hughes into one of the Desert Inn suites, but the aviator was not considered an important high rolling client and after about 10 days, the hotel was requesting that Hughes vacate the suite.
Howard Hughes was one of the brightest figures in Las Vegas’ neon history. But he came to Las Vegas under the cover of darkness during Thanksgiving weekend in 1966. Hughes rode in on a fortune. His father had invented an oil well drill bit that could penetrate hard rock, leaving his son one of the richest people in the world.
Howard Robard Hughes Jr. arrived on that dark night for a private holiday, never intending to buy a hotel, according to longtime Hughes confidante, “alter ego” and public liaison Robert A. Maheu. But for the next four years Hughes would wield his fantastic wealth to change and modernize the Las Vegas Strip.
Hughes had visited Las Vegas during World War II, staying at the Desert Inn, El Rancho Vegas and the Flamingo. In the early 1950s he acquired about 40 square miles near Las Vegas from the BLM, trading 73,000 acres of desert land in five Northern Nevada counties for the federal parcel. It was known as “Husite” before being transformed into today’s Summerlin master-planned community.
When Hughes finished buying the land, his Nevada holdings were worth an estimated $300 million. His empire included Harold’s Club in Reno, nearly every vacant lot on the Las Vegas Strip, an airline, several Nevada ranches and about 2,000 mining claims.
Hughes’ 1966 stay in Las Vegas wasn’t his first: In 1953 the 47-year-old tycoon leased a small, five-room cottage near the Desert Inn, calling it the “Green House” for its exterior color, which stood out against the brown desert. He lived in the Green House for nearly a year, ordered it to be kept exactly as it was when he left it, despite never returning there.
A dozen years later, on that night in 1966, Hughes’ two-car private train arrived in Las Vegas. His aides whisked him to the Desert Inn penthouse. As the story goes, Moe Dalitz, the DI’s general manager, asked Hughes to vacate the penthouse because it was needed for the expected influx of New Year’s Eve guests. Instead, Hughes bought the hotel.
Community officials bent the rules to accommodate their new resident, hoping he would be a great benefactor. Despite Hughes’ refusal to be photographed, fingerprinted or fill out financial disclosure papers, the tycoon got a license to operate the Desert Inn from the Nevada Gaming Commission in 1967.
Having overstayed his welcome, Howard Hughes was almost physically kicked out of the Desert Inn when Bob Maheu jokingly suggested to his boss that he buy the hotel in which he had taken up residence over the past four months. Hughes agreed and so began the billionaire recluse’s foray into Las Vegas real estate.
After buying the Desert Inn for $13 million, Hughes went on a roll. He bought the Sands for $14.6 million, the Frontier for $23 million and the unfinished Landmark, which had stood empty for eight years, for $17 million. His other on- and off-Strip properties included the Desert Inn Country Club’s residential lots, the North Las Vegas Airport and all the land surrounding McCarran International Airport and several casinos that operated under the umbrella Summa Corp.
Before Hughes bought the Frontier in December 1967 he (or someone claiming to be the billionaire) called Gov. Paul Laxalt to assure the state he would continue his good deeds. Hughes’ handwritten offer said he would establish a medical school at UNLV and promised $200,000 to $300,000 a year for 20 years. However, he never funded Nevada’s medical school, which was established after the billionaire left Nevada.
At times, Hughes was a study in contradiction. Although he had clearance to view top-secret government information because of multimillion-dollar defense contracts with Hughes Tool Co., he did not agree with all government policies. Most notable was his opposition to nuclear weapons explosions at the Nevada Test Site, 65 miles northwest of Las Vegas.
While living at the Desert Inn, Hughes tried to stop the explosions at the Test Site, but never persuaded the government to halt them. Hughes was concerned tourists would become frightened of the atomic blasts and stop coming to Las Vegas. He also feared the rumbles felt in the valley from the tests might damage his numerous properties.