Photo by Kin Lui

Replicated History in the Community

Faux versus original Las Vegas design and how its made an impression on the city

There’s a lot of talk about how quick Las Vegas is to throw out its history. (“Las Vegas” being used as shorthand for the resort operators who make many important decisions about the region’s most prominently built environments.) What’s missing is how that history can often find a second life that is sometimes more fulfilling than its original one.

Exhibit A: something you’ll see if you venture into the Las Vegas Natural History Museum, just south of the Old Mormon Fort.

Luxor once stood out for its all-encompassing theming, no small feat in an era when Excalibur, Paris Las Vegas, New York–New York, Treasure Island and The Venetian all sought, with varying commitments to fidelity, to reproduce, respectively, medieval England, the City of Light, Art Deco Gotham, a pirate haven and the Queen of the Adriatic. For starters, the resort itself was a pyramid—you can’t get much more literal than that. Then there was the sphinx outside. Those are still there, but what was inside made the black glass exterior look subtle. A Nile River ride and talking animatronic camels were, again, the most obvious tributes to ancient Egypt, but an important part of the resort was the Tomb & Museum of King Tutankhamen.

Dawn of a dynasty? Luxor opens on October 15, 1993.

Back at the Luxor’s opening in 1993, this was family-friendly Las Vegas in a nutshell. Not only could you gamble at Luxor, but instead of dropping off your kids at the pool and hoping they avoided sunburn, you could give them an honest-to-God educational experience. The exhibit included a replica of an Egyptian village, hands-on instructional activities, videos and a re-creation of the tomb that Howard Carter rediscovered in 1922.

Fifteen years later, the exhibit, whose reproductions and depictions captured life and death more than 3,000 years ago, had worn out its welcome on the Strip. The Nile River ride was long gone as the property shifted to a less obviously pharaonic ambiance. Rather than consign the Tomb & Museum, which cost a reported $3 million to assemble under the auspices of Egypt’s antiquities ministry, the casino decided to donate the collection to the Las Vegas Natural History Museum, which has been displaying it since 2010.

Perhaps fewer people see the wonders of the 18th dynasty in their current digs on North Las Vegas Boulevard than when they were ensconced in a new casino resort, but it’s a good bet they’ll last more than 15 years in their current home. What’s more, Treasures of Egypt, as the museum is now called, is almost certainly more accessible to the families of Las Vegas now than it was on the Strip. A few blocks north from the 95’s Las Vegas Boulevard exit, travel time from most parts of the Valley is likely shorter, since museum-goers don’t have to traverse the congested Strip. And while there is a fee, an annual family membership is reasonable, and parking remains free (by contrast, rates just went up at Luxor—again).

Exhibit B: The Stardust (remember that place?) once had a Polynesian restaurant named Aku Aku. It served its last mai tai in 1980. But one of the two giant stone moai (known to those of us less worldly in the Pacific islands as “tiki statues”) that decorated its exterior has, for years, stood in silent watch over Sunset Park’s lake.

Photo by Kin Lui

Unlike the Egypt exhibit, the statue standing by itself has few purely educational lessons to offer. Its value might be more aesthetic than instructional. But it gives one of the Valley’s public spaces just that much more quirkiness. A reproduction of moai makes sense in front of a Polynesian restaurant; on an island in the middle of a lake in the middle of a park in the middle of a desert, it makes you wonder. How did an artifact from the South Pacific end up in the Mojave? It’s an interesting story (the basics of which are explained above), but one that wouldn’t be asked if it were still in its original place.

Compared to the incongruity of an artificial lake in the desert, maybe a moai isn’t such a big deal. And it might teach us something about the history and influence of Pacific islanders in Las Vegas.

Casino operators often boast about how much they give back to the community, and they certainly deliver funding to a wide range of charitable organizations around the Valley. But allowing their discards to be reused might be the most significant way they have genuinely contributed. Something made for tourists becomes a thing of real value to locals.

It’s kind of like when banquet-goers don’t eat as much dessert as has been prepared, and it gets passed on to the employee cafeteria. Finally, a chance to eat the stuff we give company.

For many years, the identity of Las Vegas hinged on being a place where replicas outshined the originals, sometimes literally: a black glass pyramid with thousands of rooms and a gigantic light beam shooting out the top, a casino themed after Monte Carlo with more hotel rooms than the actual Monaco resort. For the past decade and a half, the focus has been less on re-creating distant locales and more on providing a presumably more authentic modern luxury experience. In many ways, though, faux Las Vegas made a more original design statement than “genuine” Las Vegas.

In that way, we’ve seen the replicas, cast off from their original homes, make their way out into the surrounding city. Adopted, appreciated and even cherished, they are symbols of the unlikely and sometimes unexpected ways that community can blossom in the desert.

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