Celebrating Preservation Month!
Today's Preservation Spotlight shines on Courtney Mooney, the Preservation Officer for the City of Las Vegas. May is Preservation Month and this year we are talking to some of the preservationists, archivists and historians whose work towards saving our history isn't always acknowledged.
We've worked with Courtney on a number of projects related to our Classic Las Vegas preservation project, so we were very happy when she agreed to be interviewed.
CLVBlog: How did you become interested in preserving Southern Nevada history?
Mooney: As a native Nevadan, our state’s history holds a special place in my heart. That being said, I’m addicted to all history, including archaeology and natural history, because it explains everything about who we are as individuals and as a community, why we are here at this very moment, and how we can create our own legacies.
I became interested in preserving Southern Nevada history mostly by necessity as I found a great home and job in Las Vegas as the city’s historic preservation officer. After 13 years working in this field I have found that the most fascinating thing about Southern Nevada history is the people that created it. Without the people we wouldn’t have the great buildings and sites that make up the community we cherish. I am also constantly inspired by the very passionate people that work to preserve our history every day, either professionally or as volunteers, through teaching, blogging, contributing financially, hosting events, or sharing their family histories through interviews and donating personal items. All of this keeps history alive for each new generation to explore.
CLVBlog: What is the most interesting historical fact you have found and why?
Mooney: I think “facts” in history are as rare as historians agreeing on them, which is what makes history such a dynamic and fascinating topic. Going with this theme, I’ll choose an event (or non-event as is yet to be determined) that is hotly contested between our most learned and revered historians. It concerns the first European to traverse the Las Vegas Valley. A Mexican named Rafael Rivera is often credited with having accomplished this feat while traveling as a scout with a trading expedition along the Old Spanish Trail in 1829. The expedition, led by Antonio Armijo, camped along the Virgin River northeast of Las Vegas while Rivera left with a group of scouts to explore. The group returned on December 31 and Rivera returned on January 7. There is no known written account of the scouts’ or Rivera’s travels while separated from the main group. The only written account of the expedition comes from Armijo’s diary, which gives no mention of Rivera’s route during those 13 days. Many historians do not debate that he may have entered the valley, they simply state that there is not enough proof to credit him with being the first European to do so. This is a great example of how easy it is to interpret or mold history to fit our agenda despite a lack of evidence, and also a great story in and of itself.
CLVBlog: Talk a bit about the City's dedication to preserving Las Vegas history.
Mooney: The city of Las Vegas has really stepped up to the plate in recent years to support historic preservation by adopting new historic preservation policies, and initiating and adopting code changes that strengthen and clarify the historic designation ordinance. Beyond that, we’ve invested millions of dollars into bricks and mortar preservation of city-owned historic buildings through general funds and the administration of grant funds and historic tax credits. We pursue grant funding for our annual historic resource surveys which help us reach out to property owners about potential historic designation. We’ve also invested a significant amount of resources into education and outreach through social media, websites, brochures, tours, events and lectures.
Personally, I have seen the attitude about historic preservation at the city blossom into active engagement on all levels. Other city departments have started approaching the Planning Department with preservation project ideas because they see the long-term economic value in it. And our elected officials are educated about historic preservation as a valuable economic development tool, as evidenced by the Mob Museum, the Neon Museum and the restored neon in the Scenic Byway.
The city took a serious hit during the recession with the loss of staff and reduction in department budgets. To make matters worse, historic preservation grant funding is disappearing every day. We can’t save every building but we work closely on recommendations from our Historic Preservation Commission to prioritize funding and staff resources so we can make a dent.
CLVBlog: What's the future of preservation of this history in Las Vegas?
Mooney: We really need to be more holistic about historic preservation. Individual historic gems and neighborhoods are contributors to an overall economic development, smart growth and sustainability strategy. Our historic neighborhoods are inherently sustainable. They are walkable, shady, close to transportation and services, and have existing infrastructure. The greenest building is the one that is already built. Fun Fact: If a building were demolished and partially salvaged and replaced with a new energy efficient building, it would take 65 years to recover the embodied energy that was lost during that process. Beyond sustainability, rehabilitated historic buildings provide a unique and authentic character to neighborhoods that promote community pride and investment. They also typically provide affordable options for commercial and residential development. The future of preservation in Las Vegas will depend on our ability as a community to embrace these concepts.
CLV Blog: What's the biggest obstacle to overcome in preserving Las Vegas history and why.
Mooney: In my experience, the biggest challenge to historic preservation is the relatively young age of our city compared to cities in the Midwest and east coast. Historical context is unique to every city and cannot be evaluated by the same criteria. We have what we have for very specific reasons, and for very different reasons than New York City or Memphis, Tennessee, for example. A great many of the historic neighborhoods in Las Vegas were constructed to satisfy a tremendous housing shortage during World War II. This was a very significant event in global history, but because it occurred within the lifetimes of the people living in the homes it is often dismissed as a legitimate reason for preservation. To add to the challenge, many WWII and post-WWII buildings were constructed using experimental systems, or built out of materials that weren’t meant to last. Education about the contribution of these often maligned styles to local history is key to their preservation.
CLVBlog: Why is history and preservation work important to Las Vegas residents?
Mooney: Preserving our history is important to the long-term sustainability of Las Vegas as a unique place to live, work and recreate. It is my belief that the historical urban backdrop of our downtown played a large role in the recent small business and major commercial investment there. Adjacent property owners have already seen and felt the impact of higher property values.
Beyond economic development, historic preservation and archaeology are tangible connections to the diverse people and cultures that lived, worked and played here before us. Everyone can relate to history! It is the great connector of people of all ages and backgrounds. Historic buildings provide a sense of security and stability to neighborhoods that inspires a sense of ownership in residents. This translates into stronger communities which is a good thing.
For more information on the City's preservation efforts you can visit their website: