Is Crime A Suitable Subject for a Museum?
by Monique Gaudin
“There were a lot of people who said, it is going to be a tribute to the mob. And it is reasonable to say that, if you think of when Oscar was a defense attorney, saying the things he said.
And then, they bring in these major figures from museums. And you have the FBI involved, through Ellen, and others. You have me, I’m a history professor, and you still have people who say, it will be a tribute to the mob, which I think is insulting,” stated CSN professor Michael Green in reference to the restored, old Las Vegas Post office and Federal Court House, reopened February 14, 2012, officially, as the National Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement™.
In looking over the applications filed on behalf of the buildings February 10, 1983 listing in the National Register of Historic Places, it is interesting to note, that housing a museum for organized crime is not the first ethical encounter enshrouding this building.
The federal building was part of President Herbert Hoover’s addition to the Public Buildings Act of 1926, where on March 31, 1930, “General authorization for new building construction from $338 million to $568 million, to be spread over about 10 years,” was given. In the economic fallout of the Great Depression, the American Institute of Architects (AIA) questioned the quality, and ability, for one government agency to produce buildings that were not; “Mediocre and uninspiring.”
The building was started in 1931 by the Plains Construction Company, but was completed by Rosen and Fischel Inc. of Chicago, after the owner of Plains, J. O. Pearson, was found guilty of forging the signatures on the securities for his bond.
Then there is the event that put the building on the map of ethical debates, on November 15, 1950, where it was one of the fourteen locations of the Kefauver hearings. The Kefauver Crime Committee, was a five-member Special Committee to Investigate Organized Crime in Interstate Commerce, headed by Senator Estes Kefauver of Tennessee. “What was really so important for the Kefauver committee hearings, were that, this was the first time that the general public, got a chance to see, with their own eyes, this very seedy criminal element,” shared Mob Museum Director, Jonathan Ullman. “This was a time when televisions were just becoming mainstream. So about half the households in America had TVs, and they were the first senate hearings to be shown on television. It was a few years before the McCarthy hearings.”
As the city grew, and new buildings were erected, in 1965 the federal courts and offices vacated the building, moving to the Foley Federal Building. In 2002 the federal government gifted the building to the city of Las Vegas. Mr. Ullman stated that there were two deed covenants that came with that gift; “the city had to agree to one; rehabilitate the building, and two, repurpose it for some kind of cultural use.”
The post office remained in the building until 2005 and renovations began on the interior of the building in 2007. Given the building, and the cities history, with nefarious dealings, the concepts of a Mob related museum seemed a natural choice.
“Early on, there were discussions on a lot of different types of museums. And, things that could have been done, with the building,“ said Professor Green. “You can look at this museum and say, if it had just been about the mob, some might have thought it was a tribute. And then you look at the material about law enforcement, the prosecutors, and it becomes a different matter.”
“I think, some of the apprehension also goes to, the way in which organized crime has been portrayed in other forms of media,” say Mr. Ullman. “In popular culture, it is often romanticized, and glamourized. And then there is also a segment of the population that was concerned about; there certainly is a history in Las Vegas, but is that something we should be proud of,” continued Ullman. “When you think about the events that took place in this building. You think about the history of Las Vegas, and you think about the fact that, like it or not, Las Vegas founding fathers were gangsters. When you put all those different factors together, the Mob museum actually makes perfect sense.”