It was a majestic mid-century modern piece of architecture sitting right there on Fremont Street amid the western motif of the Golden Nugget and the western flavor of Benny Binion's Horseshoe Club.
The Mint, all pink and adorned in a necklace of chaser lights and neon, is the one hotel on Fremont Street that to this day, when Hollywood set designers want to reference that era and Las Vegas, the Mint is the go-to choice. With its pylon sign and the chaser lights rising into the night sky to light the neon star at the top of the pylon, the Mint gloried in its mid-century modern finery.
The Mint sat on the north side of Fremont Street between First and Second Street. It was owned, in part, by Milton Prell, who also owned the Sahara Hotel and the Tally Ho on the Strip. Lore has it that Prell's wife came up with the name for the new casino/hotel.
The famed signage was designed by neon sign designers extraordinare Kermit Wayne and Hermon Boernge of Young Electric Sign Company, From the beginning, iit was an eye-catcher. The white stripe of lights that raced across the front of the sign and then upward to the heavens to light the starburst at the top made the Mint one of the most photographed icons on Fremont Street. According to Alan Hess, the Yesco designers worked with the local architects, Walter Zick and Harris Sharp, on the design of the Mint. Zick and Sharp were postwar graduates of USC's School of Architecture where their classmates included Eldon Davis and Louise Armet, the primary proponents of the Goggie style architecture that was popular at the time.
Recalled Harris Sharp, "They said they wanted an unusual sign that could be seen all up and down Fremont Street." (interview with Alan Hess) so working with his partner, Walter Zick, they came up with the pylon sign with the curving tail. Boernge and Wayne took the sign design from there. The sign was one of the first to exploit the three dimensional sweep of neon on Fremont Street. Under the sign, petrified wood veneered the walls. Alan Hess described the signage as a shooting ribbon of white incandescent bulbs beginning at the bottom of the curve which followed the arc's trajectory until, eighty-two feet off the sidewalk, a sixteen-foot star burst into a neon flame." The entire facade was covered in rose neon that matched the synthetic auto enamels used on the sheet metal. (Viva Las Vegas: After Hours Architecture, Alan Hess).
In 1959, the Mint annexed its next door neighbor, the Birdcage. In its place, Zick and Sharp and Wayne and Boernge designed a corner facade that would go with the original building. The arching eyebrow with its white chaser lights quickly became a landmark on Fremont Street masterfully uniting the two buildings.
The Mint had a lounge where my folks saw Johnny Cash perform in the early 1960s for the cover charge of two drinks. They each had two beers. The total $1.00. They say Cash put on a heck of a good show and they became life-long fans.
In 1961, developer Del Webb bought the hotel from Milton Prell. In 1965, a 26 story tower was added. The Mint also had a beauty salon for its female guests. The Top o' the Mint, a lounge with a view over-looking Downtown and, back then you could see all the way to the Strip, was a favorite romantic spot for tourists as well as locals.
In the mid-1960s, the Mint sponsored the Mint 400 race that started, fittingly enough, in front of the hotel. The final race was held twenty years later. Recently, promoters have revived the race with much success.
In Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, the late Hunter S. Thompson wrote about spending the night at the Mint and Lee Marvin and Woody Strode shot at Vegas Vic one night from their hotel rooms while staying in town and filming The Professionals out at the Valley of Fire.
Along with the 1950s facade of their next door neighbor, the Horseshoe, the two hotels made a "solid block of superb 1950s popular Modernism" according to Alan Hess in his pivotal book, Viva Las Vegas: After Hours Architecture and helped Fremont Street become Glitter Gulch.
In the late-1980s, the Binion family bought the Mint and expanded the Horseshoe to the corner covering over all that iconic signage.
But behind the Horseshoe facade, there are remnants of the Mint. When the Horseshoe was rebranded Binion's and the signage changed, pieces of the old Mint (and the old Apache Hotel) could be seen before they were covered up again with the new signage.
Today, the Mint is only part of our collective memory but it is still the number one choice of production designers when they want to evoke mid-century modern Las Vegas.