In June, Craig Palacios toured his parents through the rehabbed Inspire Theater on the corner of Fremont Street and Las Vegas Boulevard. The abandoned convenience store had long been an eyesore on one of the city's most important corners. Now the upscale theater, coffee shop, and bar complex is a gateway to the East Fremont district.
Around the corner, Bunnyfish Studio -- the architecture and design firm Palacios and fellow alumna Tina Wichmann launched in 2011 -- was completing the final stages of the John E. Carson Hotel project. The cinderblock building had been an extended-stay men's hotel with shared bathrooms. Like many longtime Las Vegans, Palacios' family had seen such properties turn into sketchy remnants of better times and turn locals away from the city's core.
Now, the mixed-use space has been adapted with offices -- including Bunnyfish's new headquarters -- a yoga studio, gourmet donut shop, sushi restaurant, and celebrity chef Kerry Simon's new Carson Kitchen restaurant and bar.
"Until we took that tour, I don't think my parents got what I did," said Palacios, a native Las Vegan. "Mom used to say things like, 'Now that you don't have a regular job and a boss anymore...'"
Just three years prior, Palacios and Wichmann left their positions at established firms to strike out on their own. "We quit at a time when people thought we should just be grateful we had jobs at all," Wichmann said.
The Great Recession had taken a severe toll on the construction industry, recovery seemed distant, and the city's downtown scene was still amorphous.
With 35 architecture and interior projects completed in three years, Bunnyfish's work dots the burgeoning East Fremont District and branches into to the Strip and the suburbs. The studio landed the job for Eat on Carson Street, one of first restaurants with backing from the Downtown Project, which is investing $350 million in the city's original core. Its stamp is also on the Hydrant Club, a social spot for dog owners near the Container Park; the Scullery in the Ogden; and the Gold Spike Casino remodel.
"In high school if I was goofing off," Palacios said, "my dad used to say I'd find myself working on East Fremont Street. He turned out to be right in the strangest -- and best -- way."
At age 7, Wichmann's family moved to a new neighborhood in Anaheim, California. She'd go exploring its construction sites, bringing back discarded bits of drywall and tile to build structures in her backyard. As an undergraduate at UCLA in the early 1990s, however, professors discouraged her from architecture; the field had been in a decline and jobs were scarce. "Architecture seemed so uncertain, and medicine seemed like a reliable field."
She majored in psychology and worked eight years in pharmaceutical research before the drive to create drew her to UNLV's architecture bridge program. It allows students with a bachelor's in another field to catch up on the prerequisites and join the master's program with 18 months.
"UNLV was a great choice for me because the focus is on this being a vocation -- on preparing you for the realities of the profession. Many instructors were working professionals who later became our employers and now our peers," Wichmann said.
Palacios' path to architecture likewise was delayed. His father was the captain of the Desert Inn showroom. His mother was a cocktail waitress at the Four Queens until she got pregnant with him and was asked to resign. "In our house there wasn't much talk about going to university," he said. "There were plenty of jobs around town that paid well if you had energy, which I did."
After graduating from Valley High School, Palacios enrolled in UNLV while working as a concrete finisher. In the middle of his second semester, he was offered a job opportunity in San Diego. "My grades were always good, but I really didn't have a direction in school." He later moved to Seattle, where he started taking community college art classes. "In the blink of an eye, I had an associate's degree and realized I wanted more."
He applied to the University of Washington's architecture program but discovered that he hadn't properly withdrawn during that last semester at UNLV. "I came back here just to retake those five classes and realized that this was where I wanted to be."
His wife, Nicole Boston Palacios, '06 BA Art History, packed up their condo, and he returned to complete two bachelor's in architecture and art history and then his master of architecture. "In Seattle we'd moved into a very affordable neighborhood that everyone thought was unsafe. We were in early on its gentrification -- I hate to even call it that -- so moving to downtown Las Vegas made sense to us. We wanted to be here for better or worse."
Wichmann remembers distinctly the moment in studio class that Palacios became her design partner. During a brainstorming with her regular studio partner, "this guy wheels his chair from all the way across the room and started hitting me with questions. I thought, 'Who is this guy?'" But the more they talked, the more she realized their ideas were gelling.
Now as business partners, they temper each other's tendencies. "He's the balloon, and I'm the rock that the string is tied to," Wichmann said. "We push each other out of our comfort zones -- and that's a key element of great design.
After graduation in 2007, both quickly landed jobs at mid-sized, Las Vegas-based firms. Five years later, Palacios had survived downsizing as his hospitality-focused employer turned to overseas markets. "I was running around Southeast Asia, trying to build up work, hiring architects, renting office space (for the Singapore branch)," he said. "I thought if I'm going to be 100% reliant on getting the work, I may as well do it for myself and in Las Vegas."
He set up shop in an 8-by-8-foot space in the Emergency Arts studio collective and got to work on his first project rebuilding fire-damaged mid-Century home. Late one night, a guy happened by and started asking questions and picking Palacios' brain about how to turn downtown into a safe, walkable community for locals. That guy turned out to be Tony Hsieh, owner of Zappos.com, who was soon to fund the Downtown Project.
At her post-graduation firm, Wichmann worked on the D gates at McCarran Airport and a number of Clark County School District projects. It was good work but she wanted to do more. And downtown was ripe for revival.
"You have to have vision to be part of this," she said. "It's so organic and happening so fast. Downtown has been somewhat of a blank canvas for us."
Their 5-person firm now includes Yanina Umanzor, '13 M.Arch., and Juan Medrano, a current interior design student, as well as licensed architect Justus Pang. In mid-August, their latest completed project, the Bunkhouse Saloon, will reopen with an expanded outdoor venue and entertainment space.
"Tina and I used to hang out there when we were at UNLV," Palacios noted. "It's pretty amazing to now be part of making our own community a better place.
"I can't really predict where this will be in five years, but I think we're just seeing the tip of the iceberg."