A popular myth has resurfaced since the Linq Hotel replaced the Imperial Palace on the Las Vegas Strip in 2014 – that the latter was shaped like a swastika because its builder-owner was a Nazi sympathizer.
Oh, the Nazi sympathizer part was true – though Ralph Engelstad denied it, and it was never proven by any government entity. But that’s only because the hotelier agreed to pay $1.5 million to the Nevada Gaming Control Board – then its second-highest fine ever – for “damaging Nevada’s image by glorifying Hitler and the Third Reich” in 1989. Engelstad also agreed to nine restrictions on his gaming license, to avoid a full-blown inquiry that could have resulted in its revocation.
According to a never-retracted 1988 New York Times article, Engelstad used his casino hotel to throw birthday parties for Adolf Hitler on April 20, 1986 and 1988. (They celebrated what would have been the genocidal dictator’s 97th and 99th.) The Hitler bashes were thrown in Engelstad’s “war room,” a secret Imperial Palace lair decorated with Nazi memorabilia, murals of Hitler, and a painting of Engelstad dressed in full Nazi uniform. Oh yeah, and – according to the Times – they were staffed by bartenders in T-shirts reading “Adolf Hitler: European tour 1939-45.”
Engelstad claimed his interest in Hitler was purely historical and that the festivities were just ”theme” parties to boost employee morale. But the gaming authority did not see it that way. According to the Times, their investigation also turned up a printing plate used to make hundreds of bumper stickers bearing the words ”Hitler Was Right.”
The myth of the swastika-shaped Imperial Palace – which, frankly, never seemed so outlandish, considering what happened inside the building – pretty much ended with the advent of Google Earth in 2005.
While the casino hotel had swastika-like angles, aerial shots clearly showed that it bore no distinct resemblance to a swastika or any other known symbol.
But the myth has resurfaced since the Imperial Palace was imploded – and that’s another myth because it wasn’t imploded. It was supposed to be. But then the Great Recession hit, and Harrah’s (now Caesars) – the debt-plagued company that purchased the hotel from the Engelstad family in 2005 – opted to build the Linq over the bones of the Imperial Palace instead. So, when viewed from above, the current hotel retains the former hotel’s exact non-swastika shape today.
Engelstad’s scandal in some ways resembles the one that would befall Steve Wynn exactly 30 years later. Though the sexual-assault allegations against Wynn were clearly different, the same uncomfortable schism confronts historians attempting to reconcile the good these men have done for Las Vegas with their dark sides as people.
Like Wynn, Engelstad was a fiercely independent casino hotel owner who, despite the odds stacked against him, willed a unique vision for his property into reality. Englestad built up the Imperial Palace – originally the Flamingo Capri – from 650 to 2,700 rooms, and reopened it in 1979. He also codeveloped the Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
Both men also donated generously to charity and were well-liked by the Las Vegas elite. Engelstad’s contributions included $104 million to build a hockey arena at his alma mater, the University of North Dakota.
And neither man was technically ever convicted of a crime – or brought up on charges – in connection with their scandals.
Engelstad later denounced Hitler and apologized to the Jewish Federation of Las Vegas for his “error in judgment.” He called the parties he threw for his employees on Hitler’s birthday “stupid, insensitive, and held in bad taste.”
He died of cancer in 2002. Two arenas – the one at his alma mater in Grand Forks, North Dakota, and a second in Thief River Falls, Minn. – still bear his name.
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