Design of the Times

From one era to the next, the Las Vegas Strip hotel-casino has been a case study in architecture and design evolution—inside and out.

Opened in 1941—and depicted here in the 1950s—El Rancho is regarded as the Strip’s first “resort.” | Photo courtesy UNLV Special Collections

Opened in 1941—and depicted here in the 1950s—El Rancho is regarded as the Strip’s first “resort.” | Photo courtesy UNLV Special Collections

Perhaps more than any other city in the world, Las Vegas is defined by its visual image. Even those who have never been here know what it looks like, or think they do. “It means the lights of the Strip and over-the-top opulence,” says Heidi Swank, executive director of the Nevada Preservation Foundation. But our city also embraces a cycle of construction and destruction, architectural marvels and treasured memories reduced to nothing but a 10-second YouTube implosion. And a souvenir ashtray.

But the influence of such iconic properties as the Desert Inn, the Sahara and the Riviera can still be seen whenever we gawk at a fountain, eat in a themed restaurant or spend the night in a panoramic suite on the 45th floor overlooking the Strip. Indeed, Las Vegas casinos are built on those that came before—and not simply because parts of the Aladdin are still buried inside Planet Hollywood. Each era has left its imprint, not only in how modern casinos look, but in what they do and how they do it.

The Early Days

In the 1930s, Las Vegas Boulevard—then plain old Highway 91—had a handful of motels and casinos, but the first true resort was El Rancho, designed by Wayne McAllister, the creator of Tijuana’s Agua Caliente hotel-casino. A onetime luxurious gambling resort frequented by socialites and celebrities, Agua Caliente featured a Moorish-tiled spa, a deco-Roman dining room and an enormous roadside tower that became the resort’s iconic symbol. McAllister also designed the Bob’s Big Boy hamburger chain—pair Big Boy’s neon kitsch with Agua’s thematic luxe and you get El Rancho (and a recipe for the Vegas aesthetic in general).

Opened in 1941, El Rancho lured passing motorists with a 50-foot neon windmill and a roadside swimming pool. Inside: steaks and showgirls, in a cowhide and knotty-pine setting. El Rancho begat the Last Frontier, which had bullhorns in every room and a horse corral out back. Then came the Thunderbird and its Native American motif, right down to the portraits of chiefs over the bar. While that style didn’t endure, one feature the Thunderbird introduced did: the porte cochere, with its light bulb-studded canopies hanging above taxis and valets. The Thunderbird opened in 1948, the same year as what is now known as McCarran International Airport was dedicated, so it was no longer enough to attract motorists with a flashy sign. Driving guests to the door required an impressive entrance.

Elegant mid-century neon signage helps lure Las Vegas visitors off Las Vegas Boulevard and into expansive hotel-casinos such as the Flamingo (circa mid-1950s). | Photo courtesy UNLV Special Collections

Elegant mid-century neon signage helps lure Las Vegas visitors off Las Vegas Boulevard and into expansive hotel-casinos such as the Flamingo (circa mid-1950s). | Photo courtesy UNLV Special Collections

Hollywood Glamour

Opened in 1946, the Flamingo eschewed rusticity—i.e. split-rail fencing, fake-saddle barstools—for a pale green and pink neon exterior, and a mirrored and tufted interior with expanses of floor-to-ceiling windows in between. It had the look of a chic Hollywood nightclub or movie set—appropriately so, as the architect was George Vernon Russell, who designed Hollwood celebrity hangouts Ciro’s and the Trocadero.

The Desert Inn (1950s) | Photo courtesy UNLV Special Collections

The Desert Inn (1950s) | Photo courtesy UNLV Special Collections

The Flamingo owed much of its style to Billy Wilkerson, the Los Angeles nightlife player who initiated the project before Bugsy Siegel, um, took over. But Bugsy gets credit for one of the property’s characteristics that became a Vegas staple: the centrality of the casino. Elsewhere, restaurants and showrooms had their own entrances, but at the Flamingo, it was awfully difficult to get where you were going without hearing the jingle of slots and rattle of dice. The Flamingo was also the first to fly in celebrities to decorate grand openings (so feel free to blame Bugsy for our weekly Kardashian airlift).

Wilbur Clark’s Desert Inn aimed even higher up the cultural scale, owing more to Frank Lloyd Wright than Paramount Pictures, with Noël Coward headlining instead of Jimmy Durante. The resort’s white leather-upholstered bars and surrealistic wall sconces would be chic today. “One of the properties I liked the best was the Desert Inn—ironically since that’s the hotel we blew up to build Wynn and Encore,” says Roger Thomas, head of design for Wynn Resorts. “It had this wonderful kind of casualness.”

The Flamingo showed that Vegas could do more than play cowboy, but the Desert Inn proved that the Strip could be elegant.

Mid-Century Rat Pack

The Sands’ sophisticated Copa Room welcomes Dean Martin and the Rat Pack in 1957; Circus Circus’ big top adds a new design wrinkle in 1968; and the nine-story Riviera begins the Strip’s vertical trend in 1955. | Photo courtesy UNLV Special Collections

The Sands’ sophisticated Copa Room welcomes Dean Martin and the Rat Pack in 1957. | Photo courtesy UNLV Special Collections

The 1950s was the decade that built the Strip—in more ways than one. Not just a period of rapid growth, it was the era that created the myth of Rat Pack Vegas. “I don’t know if there’s ever been another period of time that resonates as strongly in people’s memory of Las Vegas as that particular era,” says Brett Robillard, senior associate and design director of Gensler’s Las Vegas office.

The Sahara and Sands arrived in 1952. The former had camels out front and murals of minarets inside, but the effect was less Arabian Nights theme than mid-century gloss with Middle Eastern flair. “My family lived for a period in the penthouse of the small tower of the Sahara,” Thomas says. “It was a beautifully designed space, really sophisticated.”

The Sands, meanwhile, will forever be enshrined as the site of the Rat Pack summit and the background of the final shot of Ocean’s 11, making it perhaps the coolest place in the entire time-space continuum.

The Sands (1960s) | Photo courtesy UNLV Special Collections

The Sands (1960s) | Photo courtesy UNLV Special Collections

Spring 1955 brought us the Dunes, Riviera and Royal Nevada (fortunately, this was the year Las Vegas also began receiving water from Lake Mead, so those showers, dishwashers and dancing waters could flow). The Riviera was the first “high-rise” on the Strip, at a whopping nine stories tall. Until then, resorts were modeled after motels, with wings or bungalows; from this point forward, the Strip would rise rather than sprawl. Hints of the era’s influence can also be found in the wood veneers and boomerang-patterned carpets often used in contemporary properties, a sort of mid-century meh.

But the real legacy of the ’50s is the swinging, anything-can-happen-in-Vegas, where a kid from Hoboken could headline the big room with a drink in his hand and a movie star on his arm, or a divorcée from L.A. could have dalliances with the head of the Mafia and the president of the United States. “We are eternally banking on that idea of Vegas as this place where you can do things that are not quite acceptable elsewhere,” Swank says. “That’s where we started and what [has] sold Vegas as a brand since the 1950s.”

Anywhere But Here

Just when Vegas established a distinct design personality, the 1960s dawned and it decided to be someone else. Make that somewhere else: “It was that era when the United States was coming of age internationally,” Swank says. “There was the trip that the Kennedys took that brought the United States to Europe. International travel brought the idea of casinos that made you think you were in a different country.” Consider the Arabian theme of the Aladdin, the first Castaways’ Polynesian paradise and, of course, Caesars Palace. “Caesars was the most elegant of the themed [hotels],” says Brian Paco Alvarez, art curator and historian for Zappos. “The blue facade and the pink porte cochere and the beautiful fountains.” Caesars’ eventual expansion only improved its style: “Rome was built without a plan,” Alvarez says, “so it looks kind of authentic, like multiple temples on a hill.”

Circus Circus’ big top adds a new design wrinkle in 1968. | Photo courtesy UNLV Special Collections

Circus Circus’ big top adds a new design wrinkle in 1968. | Photo courtesy UNLV Special Collections

As Las Vegas developed more and bigger resorts, large-scale themes helped accommodate mass and provide an identity. If Caesars Palace was a Vegas pinnacle, Circus Circus went straight for the lowbrow. Today, it’s known more as a kid-friendly amusement park; but when it opened in 1968, Circus Circus was an adult playground. (Who’s more adult than Hunter S. Thompson  and James Bond?) Cocktail waitresses dressed as sexy majorettes and served shots in paper cups as drunk gamblers whooped down a grown-up size slide.

Over the years, themes have ranged from the medieval midway of Excalibur to the upscale Epcot of Paris and Venetian. And even though the concept waned in the past decade, it’s not gone: Resorts World, developed by the Malaysian-based Genting Group and slated for the former Stardust site, will nod to its Asian roots with red pagodas, a live panda habitat and a Great Wall replica. “I don’t think we’ve seen the end of theming altogether,” says Brad Schulz, FAIA, vice president at Bergman Walls architecture firm. “That’s still part of what makes Las Vegas what it is.”

The ‘Big-inning’

In 1970, Hilton Hotels purchased the Flamingo and the International, becoming the first New York Stock Exchange-traded company to enter the gaming industry—with more to follow. And as casinos went corporate, so did their exterior aesthetic, with  mirrored towers—the kind often associated with captains of industry—sprouting toward the heavens.

The nine-story Riviera begins the Strip’s vertical trend in 1955. | Photo courtesy UNLV Special Collections

The nine-story Riviera begins the Strip’s vertical trend in 1955. | Photo courtesy UNLV Special Collections<?em>

During this time, “largest showroom,” “largest pool,” “largest sportsbook,” and “most hotel rooms” became marketing buzzwords. Enormity began to epitomize Vegas almost as much as neon. “You have these big spectacles, and the idea is to attract attention with the grandeur to get you into the casino,” says Robillard, noting that inside was often a vast, low-ceilinged maze of slot machines and craps tables without clocks or natural light. “I don’t know if it’s on purpose to make you lost or disoriented.”

By 1978, a new competitor entered the picture: Atlantic City’s first legal casino opened, and with cards and dice available elsewhere, Las Vegas needed a new, more spectacular way to lure tourists.

First Family, Then Fancy

As the 20th century wound down, the Strip steadily grew, bouncing on the successive bubbles of Reaganomics, dot-com and real estate. But an innovation in substance, rather than size, came from The Mirage in 1989. Steve Wynn’s masterpiece suited prevailing fashions by being both giant (more than 3,000 rooms) and themed (tropics and tigers), while also simultaneously pointing toward the trends of the future. The dolphin habitat and fake volcano appealed to families; the swank bars and exotic pool satisfied a more sophisticated crowd. “The Mirage changed the perception of what Las Vegas is,” Schulz says. “Everything wasn’t just centered on bringing people to the casino itself. … People come here now because it’s an attraction; it’s not just a place to [gamble].”

The evolution continues: The Mirage opens as a game changer in 1989. | Photo courtesy Las Vegas News Bureau

The evolution continues: The Mirage opens as a game changer in 1989. | Photo courtesy Las Vegas News Bureau

By the early ’90s, family-friendly was the trend, epitomized by Excalibur, Treasure Island and The Wizard of Oz-themed MGM Grand. But while it drew the strollers-at-10 p.m. crowd, it also brought the disdain of those who loved Vegas for its distinctly adult pleasures—and, as in most battles, the big kids won. Slowly, casinos shifted focus to high-end restaurants, bombastic nightclubs and bikini-clad blackjack dealers. Eventually, the MGM tore down its amusement park to put up Skylofts, and Treasure Island’s kid-friendly pirate battle gave way to sexy sirens.

At the turn of the century, thousands of $400-a-night hotel rooms and a squadron of six-figure condo towers were planned. “There’s the tendency for some to look back at the good-old days, even a decade ago when construction was booming and the city was taking off like crazy,” says Glenn Nowak, assistant professor at the UNLV School of Architecture. “But those can be signs that things are happening way too fast.” Indeed they were—then came 2008, and the roll stopped.

Boutique to the Future

When casino construction lurched back to life post-recession, it was on a smaller scale. CityCenter slipped under the wire of the overblown era, but also reached toward the next wave with its subdivision into three hotels, a high-end shopping mall and a residential tower. Over the past few years, there’s been a definitive move toward boutique hotels, which offer an intimate setting and a vibe more geared toward a specific clientele. “Some of the bigger properties are trying to do that, when they carve out a Delano or carve out the Nobu Hotel in Caesars,” says Joe Faust, who worked on SLS as president of Dakota Development. “They’re trying to create that boutique, smaller atmosphere inside the mega projects.”

The Strip’s most recent arrivals—the Cromwell and SLS—are smaller than the average Strip properties and are also remodels of existing hotels, which is another new twist. “This shift toward more small-scale developments and remodels,” Nowak says, “probably allows the stakeholders involved to be more precise with what they are doing, to take smarter risks, to pay attention to the more ephemeral details.”

The long-gone Stardust will soon become Resorts World. | Photo courtesy Genting Group

The long-gone Stardust will soon become Resorts World. | Photo courtesy Genting Group

The massive Resorts World aside, this move away from gargantuan properties to more comfortably scaled ones looks likely to continue—much to the delight of designers such as Wynn’s Thomas. “I’m hoping that the scale of hotels has seen the mega-hotel limit,” he says, noting the boutique movement offers “more specificity to the kind of experience you’re having. It’s not as vast, and it feels more intimate.”

You could argue that the “boutiquing” of the Strip fits today’s ultra-personalization/instant gratification culture, but  it also harks back to the era of smaller casinos. And evoking vintage Vegas is increasingly part of modern Sin City’s appeal: The Cosmopolitan’s Chandelier bar may not be a conscious echo of Caesars’ still-stunning crystal-draped casino, but both make you feel like Tiffany Case with a pocketful of diamonds. Similarly, the Wynn’s Country Club restaurant is barely a decade old, but it has that golf-course view, and owner-and-headliner-at-the-next-table relaxed glamour that was a fixture of the Desert Inn.

Then there’s SLS, which deliberately incorporated the Sahara’s history into its design. “We bought it from the family, and we told them, ‘We’re not going to blow it up; we’re not going to turn our back on the history,’” Faust says. “We said we would find a way to integrate some of that history into the property, which I did through some of the photography in the carpets. … The old ‘S’ door handles were made into chandeliers.”

Today’s resorts are also recognizing the power of pedestrians, as a number of properties have remodeled their facades into an array of shops and restaurants that allow passersby to gradually be lured into the casino with many small temptations rather than one giant neon display. “Now you get a much more permeable interior environment that’s connected with the exterior,” UNLV’s Nowak says.

the Barbary Coast-turned-Cromwell ushers in the boutique era. | Photo  by Kobby Dagan

the Barbary Coast-turned-Cromwell ushers in the boutique era. | Photo by Kobby Dagan

But the multifaceted, something-for-everyone approach is also a more accurate depiction of what all Strip properties are becoming, as gaming revenues drop and spending on other attractions rises. For proof, take a stroll through a casino and note the design changes. “We’re seeing less banks of slots, more open areas, more lounge areas, a friendlier environment,” Schulz says.

Still, no matter how eye-popping Las Vegas’ architecture has been through the years, it’s always been a backdrop for the game—be it blackjack, poker or other ways of trying your luck. Faust remembers discussing such a point with SLS designer Philippe Starck. “We described to him what a casino is, and he said, ‘Ah, it’s a big movie set.’ So he said, ‘Design a movie set, and let them play in the middle of it.’ He looked at it as people are playing a game, they want to be seen, they want to have fun. They want to be out there.”

Lissa Townsend Rodgers talks about the evolution of Strip hotels on 97.1 the Point. Listen to the broadcast below.



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