From Franklin Motel to Fergusons Downtown: A Family Legacy Is Preserved

The 70-year-old landmark on East Fremont Street has been reclaimed and restored as new residents move in. Descendants of the motel’s original owner and community members who have adopted the motel as their own tell its story.

For years, the Fergusons Motel sat vacant on a neglected stretch of East Fremont Street. Now, as new residents move in, the 70-year-old landmark has been reclaimed and restored to a condition not seen since it opened as the Franklin Motel in post–World War II Las Vegas. As this new era of Downtown living begins, descendants of the motel’s original owner, Las Vegas historian Al Franklin, as well as the community members who—through the Downtown Project—have adopted the motel as their own, are telling its story.

Theda Cox, Al Franklin’s Daughter

“My dad came out here in 1931, he and his brother lived in this humble little house. They were working on a dam in Missouri. It was a terrible time. Everybody was so poor. So they took their money and bought this little car and headed out West.”

George Cox, Al Franklin’s Son-in-Law

“There were 10,000 men looking for work in Las Vegas. They were living in cars, cardboard boxes—some of them couldn’t afford an apartment. And in this 10×10 hiring shack, there were two men interviewing prospective workers for the Hoover Dam. And a guy comes out the back door, and he’d been excused, and he mumbled underneath his breath, ‘If I’d have been a high scaler, I could have gotten a job today.’

“[Al] quickly—he was a man of action—went into the back door. The two guys in there tried to throw him out, but he had this Southern accent, and he said, ‘Wait a minute, I need a job,’ and he told them, ‘I’m a high scaler.’ Well, he wasn’t a high scaler; he’d been a carpenter. Fortunately … he learned the ropes and continued that for six months until he got a job as a carpenter.”

Theda Cox

“The dam was dedicated in 1935, and people who came here, they sort of liked it, and some of them thought, ‘Well, I’d like to live here.’”

Dennis McBride, Nevada State Museum Director

“At the end of World War II, the country had been through 10 years of Depression, and five years of war. During the war there were shortages of everything. At the end of the war everything just busted wide open. Suddenly everybody had jobs, the war industry was retooling into a consumer industry. People could buy cars, and for 15 years [they’d] been cooped up in the house and couldn’t do anything. Suddenly the entire country was on the road.”

Franklin Motel circa 1950 | Photo courtesy of the Las Vegas News Bureau

George Cox

“When the war was over, Dad had built several apartments, small places in Boulder City, and he was renting them. Then he was in one of his apartments painting, and he put newspapers on the floor and he was getting ready to paint, and he looked down at the newspaper and there was an ad for a piece of property on Fremont Street. He saw that and told his wife, ‘I’m going to buy that piece of property,’ which ended up being the property where the Franklin Motel, later the Fergusons Motel, was built.”

Dennis McBride

“Al Franklin was very savvy and he saved his money. He and his brother John Thomas ‘J.T.’ Franklin. At one point the two of them owned and built eight motels up and down Fremont Street. I think they broke ground on the Franklin in August 1945, right at the very end of the Second World War. Fremont Street had not been developed that far east quite yet. … So they built and built. They added to that as well. It was at one time the largest motel. I think it opened with 32 units.”

George Cox

“Theda and her sister, and Mom and Dad, they moved into the [Franklin] to manage and run it, and they lived in one of the rooms there.”

Theda Cox

“Uncle Thomas would sleep in the little back room of the office, and then Mother and Daddy would sleep in the bed that came down … [and] Linda and I each had a little pad.”

George Cox

“Originally, they built the furniture that went to the rooms. The dressers, nightstands and stuff. And I think when they first furnished the rooms, after the Second World War, it was very popular to get something called the Chenille bedspread. It reminds me of a peacock-tail design. They were really flamboyant.”

Dennis McBride      

“They would have had television in the later ’50s and early ’60s. Some [motels] had swimming pools.”

George Cox

“When the motel was built, there was so much need for rooms, and at that time, cars didn’t have air-conditioning in them.”

Dennis McBride

“These motels and auto courts were built specifically to manage people who were traveling all over the country in their cars, going on vacations. They didn’t necessarily want to stay in hotels. They wanted to pull in their car.”

George Cox

“So people would come and stay in the afternoon until the middle of the night, and leave so they could, in the summertime, so they could avoid the desert heat. [Dad] could turn around, make up that room again and re-rent it. Dad told me from the very day they opened that motel up, it was filled up for years and years, it was 100 percent filled up.”

Dennis McBride

“That was the beginning of the development of East Fremont as a tourist strip. This is where you stayed when you came, and it was motor hotels, motels, because after the war everybody was driving. You went Downtown to gamble.”

George Cox

“The first time I came up here was 1957, and Fremont Street—there was a place that if the kids in high school had a car, you always came and cruised Fremont Street in your car on Saturday night, up and down. The Strip was a few properties [south] that were kind of isolated, but the real action was on Fremont Street.”

Theda Cox

“We loved it because we became friends with these people. Sometimes we would help do maid work.”

George Cox

“You would take the bank deposits.”

Theda Cox

“Do you remember when they would have those money bags? Daddy would send me down—a 10-and-a-half-year-old kid going down there with an obvious bank deposit. Twirling it.”

George Cox

“It would have been a $300, $400 deposit.”

Theda Cox

“Eight dollars for a king. Were they kings or just double beds?”

George Cox

“Doubles and queens.”

Theda Cox

“Eight dollars and then, no, $6.”

Dennis McBride

“As a rule, [motels] could run $7 or $8 a night, as much as $10. But there was a period in the ’50s, late ’50s, there was a glut and the economy crashed, and there were motel rooms all over town selling or renting out for $2, $3 and $5.

“That golden age, I suppose, really didn’t last very long. I would say the late ’40s into the ’50s. By the ’60s they really were starting to get kind of run-down because the Strip itself had started to develop.”

The Franklin family lived in the hotel until 1947, when Al Franklin moved them into a house while he continued to expand his businesses on Fremont Street.

Theda Cox

“In 1953, Mother wanted to move back [to Boulder City]. So my sister and mother and I moved back and Daddy would just drive in [to Las Vegas] every day and spend the day there and drive back to Boulder City at night.”

Lori Merrel, Al Franklin’s Granddaughter

“My grandpa, once he built something, he was kind of on to the next thing. But he became very, very successful and was able to be one of the founders of Best Western.”

George Cox            

“He [was] such an unusual person. Some people said, ‘Oh, you can’t do it this way,’ and he would find a way to make it work. He could almost see into the future. It was just wonderful to be with him.”

The Franklin Motel was sold in 1960, according to Dennis McBride, to a family from Southern California. The motel was renamed Fergusons, and a new sign was installed. As new ownership took hold, Downtown Las Vegas began a decades-long decline, with tourists flocking to glitzy new Strip resorts, leaving older Fremont Street motels—such as the Fergusons and many others—neglected.    

Dennis McBride

“By the mid-’60s … Caesars Palace had opened, which was huge and unusual and new, and you had—shortly after that, in 1975—the MGM. So Downtown began to decline, not just the motels, but Fremont Street itself. By the 1970s, I was working as a change boy at the old Lady Luck, which is now the Downtown Grand, and the Lady Luck was just a converted L-shaped strip mall, and it was the asshole of the city. It was filthy and it was just a dive, an absolute dive, but that was not unusual for a lot of places, the clubs up and down Fremont Street. Even places like the Mint and the Horseshoe and the El Cortez had lost most of their glitter and glamour, and people did not want to stay Downtown in the motels like the Fergusons.”

Fergusons Motel neon circa 1980s

Theda Cox

“It had gotten pretty seedy, don’t you think, honey?”

George Cox

“Early ’70s. It was starting to turn at that point.”

Dennis McBride

“Especially after 1973 [oil crisis], and the price of oil and gas went through the roof, and then the whole mobile culture that defined the United States in that very specific period, 1945 to ’73, ended.

“By the 1990s there were all these little shops up and down Fremont Street that sold loot souvenirs, and there were X-rated movie theaters down there.”

Chris “Sarge” Curtis, Former Las Vegas Metro Police Officer and Downtown Project “Ambassador of Good Chill”

“In policing, we call it, like, a fishing hole. [Fremont Street] was a great fishing hole. When other area commands wanted to have their trainees learn policing, they would sometimes bring ’em Downtown to Fremont Street, to learn how to do policing. You had all the prostitutes, you had all the dope dealers, you had all of the people who were robbing people, because there was a whole bunch of people smoking crack. The big drug throughout the ’90s on Fremont was crack.”

Dennis McBride

“Nobody expects that something like that is going to happen. It happens very gradually. The tourists, the good business—the clean business, the lucrative business—moved elsewhere, but it didn’t happen at once. In retrospect you can see it now that it’s happened. We can all look back and say, ‘Oh, yeah.’ But there’s no way you could keep businesses from moving out of Downtown.”

Chris “Sarge” Curtis

“I remember specifically … talking to a girl from the window of her room [at Fergusons]. I was dealing with her on a regular basis, because she was also a prostitute.

“I remember talking to her through her window, ’cause I was trying to help her out. She was also an intravenous drug user. She showed me her arm, and she still had track marks up and down her arm. I was like, ‘You know, something’s got to change.’”

Dennis McBride

“Nobody really cared much about East Fremont Street until Tony Hsieh [Zappos CEO and Downtown Project founder], basically. There were no efforts out there to do anything.”

Chris “Sarge” Curtis

“Tony Hsieh started to innovate with business, and started to say, ‘What can we put here? What can we do here?’

“He said to me, ‘Can you create a team of people who do what you do, without arresting people?’ And that’s when I created the Ranger Program, which are the ambassadors. I retired, I came on, I took one hat off, put on another hat. … Ambassador of Good Chill.”

In December 2012, Downtown Project [Hsieh’s $350 million five-year investment plan toward the revitalization of Downtown Las Vegas] purchased the Fergusons Motel as part of an ongoing plan to revive East Fremont Street. The rear of the property has since been transformed into private residences, including 10 airstreams, five tiny houses and seven micro apartment units, with a community living room, community kitchen and a new pool. The Fremont Street–facing side of what’s now referred to as Fergusons Downtown will house individual retailers and studio spaces.

Visitors are greeted in the front by the 50-foot-tall Big Rig Jig sculpture, transplanted to Las Vegas from the Burning Man Festival.

Jen Taler, “Curator and Connector”

“I moved here in 2009 for Zappos.com. I’ve known [Tony] for seven, eight years now, and we were just talking about my next steps, and he asked if I’d be interested in taking over the Fergusons project.

“Our goal is to keep it as close to its original state as possible. With the roof, we actually are gonna be able to save 50 percent of the tiles, so when we have to redo the roof we’ll actually reuse the tiles that are currently on the building. And then on the inside, just opening it up to be more conducive to the vendors that will come in.”

Dennis McBride      

“What pleases me is that all those motels that started out as being very nice, relatively inexpensive places for people to stay with their families, in their cars as they drove around the country, were not all demolished. They’re still there. Now people look at those and think that they have a great deal of character.”

Jen Taler

“The idea is to keep it, even in its original form today. Which is a little bit run-down, but it’s a blank canvas for that tenant to come in and that creator to look at that and decide how they want to move forward.”

George Cox

“I never thought anything would ever help the Downtown area other than a good fire that would just wipe everything down there.”

Dennis McBride

“People didn’t [used to] think the way that we do now. The mind-set then was bigger, better, newer, farther away. So you just kept moving out and out to newer and newer, and what was left behind just declined and fell apart. We think very differently now, and downtowns are reviving all over the country.”

Jen Taler

“When you look at the different buildings that are available to turn around, there’s not a whole, whole lot, which you usually find in a lot of downtown areas. So we’re really fortunate that we do have the Fergusons, and it is historic, and we’re able to preserve it and showcase what has been here.”

Lori Merrel

“It’s exciting what they’re going to do for [Fergusons] because it’s been so seedy for so long, and it seems like they’re really trying to bring in—they want to do things for families.”

George Cox

“I think when we walked onto the property, it brought back a lot of memories to [Theda], when she was there as a young girl.”

Theda Cox   

“I think it’ll be wonderful for that area of town.”


Photos by Krystal Ramirez


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