In a town full of fake castles, pretend skylines and mock pyramids, sometimes we don’t notice the real masterpieces right in front of us. Such is the work of architect Hugh E. Taylor, who applied his mid-century modern style to everything from the luxurious Desert Inn casino to the modest-yet-stylish homes of Paradise Palms and Beverly Green.
“If you’ve lived in Las Vegas for any amount of time, you have either worked, shopped or gone to school in a building that he helped design,” says Kris Shepherd, chair of the UNLV College of Fine Arts advisory board.
Taylor died on October 3 at age 91, but his legacy will continue to be recognized. He will be inducted into UNLV’s Nevada Entertainer/Artist Hall of Fame in 2016, and the Nevada Preservation Foundation is establishing the Hugh E. Taylor Archives, a collection of thousands of architectural drawings and photographs.
“He wasn’t really a well-known architect, but he made such an impact on our community,” Shepherd says. “The scope of work that he did—huge tracts of homes, whole areas we didn’t even realize he had done until we went through his work. It was a big discovery for Las Vegas architecture.”
Taylor also worked on the Moulin Rouge casino, the original Sunrise Hospital and the Country Club Towers apartment buildings, among many others, but creating homes was what he enjoyed the most. “He did eight houses in Beverly Green and about two-thirds of the Desert Inn Estates houses,” says Heidi Swank, executive director of the Nevada Preservation Foundation. “He did a lot of tract homes and custom homes. … He just wanted to know that people felt comfortable in his houses.”
While mid-century modern was Taylor’s prime aesthetic, he found many shadings within that style. He created edgy-for-the-time houses with angled butterfly roofs and textured concrete; sprawling high-end homes constructed of expanses of glass, wood and stone; “Cinderella” ranches with peaked roofs and ornamental shutters that are cute and a comment on cute at the same time—30 years before irony entered the vernacular.
Taylor’s most visible home is the Morelli House, which was built in 1959 for Sands bandleader Antonio Morelli. In 2001, it was moved from its original location in the Desert Inn Country Club Estates to Downtown, where it serves as headquarters for the Junior League of Las Vegas. The home may be mid-century, but it is also surprisingly modern: the open plan, the abundant storage, the combination of natural light and privacy—all would be covetable in any contemporary home. The enormous kitchen has warming drawers, appliance cabinets with textured glass doors, a giant breakfast bar and a breakfast nook that comfortably seats six. You can imagine Morelli heading home with pals like Frank, Judy and Nat after the last set for a little jam session, then breakfast, perhaps a Bloody Mary from the built-in bar—with console TV! On wheels! It was a milieu Taylor understood: “He was old Vegas,” says Swank, recalling his vast collection of bolo ties and “fabulous” shoes. “He was a pretty cool cat,” concurs Shepherd.
Post-Mad Men era, mid-century style—and Taylor’s work—fell into obscurity for decades, but now it’s back in favor. “At one time they were the really hip, new houses everybody wanted. Then for a long time no one wanted anything to do with them,” Shepherd says. “And now you find one that’s perfectly preserved and people just fall all over themselves to own it.”
Las Vegas is known for mimicking other cities, but if we have an aesthetic of our own, it can be found in the mid-century modern buildings of Hugh E. Taylor, a man who built playgrounds for the Rat Pack, as well as homes and schools for blackjack dealers and line cooks—all with elegance, comfort and style.
See below for more of the Morelli House
(Photos by Darrin Bush/Las Vegas News Bureau)