The Making of a Vegas Icon

Analyzing which Las Vegas landmarks qualify as iconic (Bellagio Fountains) and which don’t (the High Roller)

Illustration by Cierra Pedro

Illustration by Cierra Pedro

Late last month, the Clark County Commission awarded Caesars Entertainment’s High Roller observation wheel the inaugural Las Vegas Icon Award. The County Commission’s best intentions aside, Vegas icon-hood can’t be bestowed, like a key to the city. It can’t be earned, either. It just happens. The ultimate test of whether something is truly iconic really comes down to this: When you see it, do you immediately think of Las Vegas?

Using that standard, the city’s most obvious icon is Betty Willis’ Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas sign. It isn’t just Willis’ classic midcentury design, or the Nevada silver dollars that spell “Welcome” that give the sign its stature. The starburst and simple diamond shape is so widely recognizable, in part, because Willis refused to copyright it, allowing her creation to be used in innumerable souvenirs and advertisements for the past half-century.

Combine the ubiquity of that silhouette with the plain fact that, until the 1990s, the Strip didn’t have a very notable skyline, and you’ve got a bona fide icon. You could even argue that, outside of the Statue of Liberty’s “Give me your tired, your poor …,” it’s the most famous welcome sign in the United States.

Downtown has its own icon in Vegas Vic, which also has benefited from copying. The neon cowboy, built by the Pioneer Club, was based on a design originally commissioned by the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce and used to market the entire city. So, like Willis’ sign, it represented more than one interest. Towering over low-rise gambling clubs and shops, Vegas Vic was the most eye-catching thing on Fremont Street for decades.

But Vegas Vic—which the Young Electric Sign Company (YESCO) constructed in 1951—is actually becoming less iconic with each passing day. No longer moving or talking, it looks much less notable under the Fremont Street Experience canopy than it did when atomic blasts could be seen over its shoulder.

Individual casinos, of course, have their own claims of iconic status. If the Caesars Palace fountains weren’t iconic before December 31, 1967, they became so that day after Evel Knievel’s failed motorcycle jump over them. Like Vegas Vic, though, Caesars’ fountains have been crowded out by the resort’s nonstop growth—not to mention the slightly more striking Bellagio fountains across Flamingo Road.

Bellagio is noteworthy because, unlike other Strip resorts built in the 1990s, Steve Wynn’s masterpiece became an icon on its own merits, not on those of the place it copied. For most passersby, a glimpse of Bellagio’s fountains in full bloom doesn’t conjure up images of Lake Como; it means Las Vegas. There’s only one Bellagio, and only one dancing fountain show in the desert.

Bellagio’s uniqueness certainly gives it an iconic edge over buildings such as Wynn’s namesake resort up the road or the Venetian, facsimiles of which can be found in Macau and, in a few years, Everett, Massachusetts. Certainly a place like the Venetian/Palazzo’s Grand Canal Shoppes qualifies, though, right? Not really. You could just as easily be on the Cotai Strip in China—to say nothing of actual Venice—as the Las Vegas Strip.

By the same token, Luxor’s pyramid, Paris’ replica Eiffel Tower and New York-New York’s re-creation of the Manhattan skyline, when taken together, suggest one place: Las Vegas. But on their own terms each is too reminiscent of the original to rate in the class of Bellagio, Vegas Vic or the Welcome sign.

Some of our city’s icons mean more to locals than visitors (or Hollywood). The Thomas & Mack Center heads the list. To any objective observer—and for the sake of argument let’s say that the thousands of cowboys and rodeo fans who’ve filled the venue each December since 1985 can’t be objective—it’s an unremarkable multipurpose arena, the kind of sports and entertainment box you’d find in any metropolitan area. The Mack, though, is much more than that to longtime residents: To them, it’s the Shark Tank, the place where, 25 years ago, Las Vegas found redemption (and a civic identity) along with Jerry Tarkanian’s Runnin’ Rebels. It’s not the architecture but the shared history that makes such a generic building iconic.

So icon-hood is a tricky thing. Some structures might be built for it; others might have it thrust on them. But the most resonant icons are the ones that remind us of everything Las Vegas has to offer—including hometown pride.

David G. Schwartz is the director of UNLV’s Center for Gaming Research.