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Dreaming The Skyline

New UNLV digital collection offers look at history of resort architecture in Las Vegas.

Arts & Culture  |  Jul 23, 2012  |  By Afsha Bawany

Before the Stratosphere became the unofficial north compass for Las Vegans, there was the Sahara. In 1963, it dominated the city's skyline with its 24-story tower and epitomized the pioneering concept of architectural mastermind Martin Stern Jr. Stern. Along with Homer Rissman, Stern was famous for the development of Las Vegas's integrated resort, an all-in-one destination combining gaming, theater, spas, pools, family activities, and dining.

Their designs - from concept to construction - are now accessible online in a new UNLV Libraries digital collection and show the tremendous influence they had over the city's development.

"Dreaming the Skyline: Resort Architecture and the New Urban Space" has more than 2,000 artifacts capturing the work of Stern and Rissman. The online collection houses photographs, drawings, and proposals detailing their work in Las Vegas, Reno, Lake Tahoe and Atlantic City from the 1950s to 1980s.

"These two architects raised the skyline of Las Vegas," said Peter Michel, director of special collections at UNLV Libraries. "Las Vegas went from two-story motels on a dusty highway in the middle of the desert to what is now CityCenter. Stern and Rissman were critical in changing the style, complexity and visualization of what the Strip now looks like."

The buildings that once graced Las Vegas Boulevard still influence today's Las Vegas architectural style and that of the world's gaming and resort cities, Michel said. Stern's designs include the Sahara tower (1963), International Hotel (1969), the Sands tower (1967), and the original MGM Grand Hotel (1972).

The integrated resort model visitors enjoy today can be traced back to the look and feel of Stern's International Hotel, which had a distinctive tri-tower form with wings radiating off a central corridor, giving rooms panoramic views of the Strip.

The International also had a maze-like floor plan set up so the entertainment features would distract visitors and cause them to have difficulty finding an exit. Casinos like The Mirage and Treasure Island subsequently adopted the International's set up, Michel said.

"He took into account traffic flow and complex items to create a functioning space that's also aesthetically pleasing. Essentially, he was building a minicity, which provided guests everything they could possibly need," Michel said.

Built Not To Last but Always Reinventing

The Las Vegas Strip skyline has undergone several transformations since the 1950s. While the Riviera still stands, the Stardust no longer claims a spot on the Boulevard. Wynn Las Vegas now sits where the Rat Pack performed. The site of the Dunes Hotel and Casino is home to the iconic Bellagio fountains swaying to the tune of Frank Sinatra's "Luck be a Lady."

Yet, Las Vegas' adaptability to customer desires, the tourism industry and market fluctuation drives the innovation behind Vegas's architectural progress, said Glenn NP Nowak, an architecture professor. A building's fa?ade is as important as its interior design. Vegas excels at creating inviting, entertaining spaces that integrate natural sounds, water, and fire such as CityCenter's ice sculptures or The Mirage's erupting volcano spectacle, Nowak said.

"The architecture of the Strip and the valley are constructed in a way to only last for a limited time," Nowak said. "Architecture here happens more quickly, is built more quickly and torn down more quickly than in any other city or than in any other part of the world."

Properties are constantly reinventing themselves to attract new clientele or boost occupancy rates. Some older buildings have become more environmentally friendly, and new properties like The Palazzo and CityCenter have embraced sustainability from the get-go, Nowak said.

The "Lucky the Clown" marquee at Circus Circus, for example, smiles brightly at 123 feet with energy-efficient bulbs.

"The architecture of Las Vegas is so obvious and noticeable. It is such a visual manifestation of Las Vegas's approach to new urban resort entertainment, urban living and urban space," Michel said.

Michel interviewed Stern before the architect died in 2001. The architect wanted his designs to be preserved for historical record, but also in hopes that one day someone would re-create one of his drawings. The old MGM Grand (now Bally's) was Stern's favorite design.

"The last time Stern came to Vegas, he at stayed at the new MGM Grand and loved it. He was very much aware of his historical role and he loved buildings that proceeded his work," Michel said.

Rissman's Skyline

Rissman built the Circus Circus, a hotel-casino that Howard Hughes and Hunter S. Thompson loathed. According to the library's collection, what set him apart and placed him on the map was the Flamingo Hilton Hotel, which had a series of matching, pink glassed, white concrete towers built over six construction phases from 1976 to 1993.

Rissman expanded and renovated the Tropicana, Dunes, Silver Slipper, and some of Stern's original works. He also created designs for the Sands Expo and Convention Center in 1989 and Whiskey Pete's and Buffalo Bill's in Primm, Nevada.

Upon finishing the Hacienda in 1956, Rissman was known to have said the building would last 10 years. Architects knew then what they know now - that Vegas buildings were not built to last. They were comfortable changing as the evolving economy of the tourism industry demanded.

About Dreaming the Skyline

UNLV Libraries houses thousands of physical copies of resort architecture drawings and artifacts. The online database, "Dreaming the Skyline," also features neon signs from the Young Electric Sign Co.

This project was made possible through an $80,000 grant from the federal Library Services and Technology Act through the Nevada State Library.

For more information, visit UNLV Libraries. Members of the public may call special collections at (702) 895-2234.