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Grasping at the Past
This story is part of a series on the moments that shaped UNLV on the way to its 60th year.
On April 30, 1956, Las Vegas school district director R. Guild Gray planted a shovel in the dirt and turned a hardscrabble patch. With that, the future UNLV was on its way to taking physical form.
That groundbreaking was at the site of what would become Maude Frazier Hall. In March, the cornerstone was laid. The Boulder City High School band played and Lt. Gov. Rex Bell spread concrete. By September, it opened as the first actual building of the University of Nevada-Southern Branch.
Designed by Zick & Sharp, the architectural firm that gave us the Moulin Rouge, The Mint, and the Flora Dungan Humanities Building, Frazier Hall would last for 52 years. By 2007, it would have cost some $15 million to repair water leaks, the roof, electrical system, plumbing, and heating and cooling systems. The university opted to tear it down, opening a view at Maryland Parkway and Harmon Avenue toward the campus’s green interior.
But then something unexpected happened. The Las Vegas community took an interest. Preservationists joined the fray at a time historic preservation in Las Vegas had precious few wins to boast of. The Las Vegas community had come to feel a sense of ownership over a university that, 50 years earlier, they had to be wrangled into funding.
“The community mobilized,” said history professor Andy Kirk, who sided at the time with preservationists. “Their arguments weren’t just that it’s an old UNLV building, so it’s historic to UNLV and it should be kept, but that it’s an interesting piece of midcentury architecture.
“That was different. There was a sense that UNLV and the buildings on campus are really part of our city, that the university is a community resource and not just a place of higher education.”
While the practical-minded argued that financial concerns were paramount, people like Mary-Margaret Stratton of the Atomic Age Alliance, a key player in the fight to save the building, found allies around the city, and beyond.
In a Las Vegas Review-Journal letter to the editor from Dec. 9, 2007, architecture critic Alan Hess, author of Viva Las Vegas: After-Hours Architecture, took up the cause. “Frazier Hall’s simple abstract forms, carefully balancing one side against the other, subtly contrasts uncluttered horizontal and vertical lines,” Hess wrote. “Its simplicity was its art, and it expressed the sleek efficiency of the new era.”
Preservationists tried to make their case through the media, to plead for the history and the architecture. They held rallies at Pida Plaza. But ultimately, the decision stood. And, to be fair, $15 million is no small bundle. Frazier Hall was razed on Jan. 5, 2009, pulled down into the mud under a gray sky. In a nod to history, a section of the original building was saved for Pioneer Wall and its brass memorials to our founding administrators and benefactors.
By that time, the buildings that make modern campus seem, well, modern, were already in place. Greenspun Hall had just opened. The Student Union and Recreation and Wellness Center had been around more than a year. Lied Library was eight. The old gym and James Dickinson Library had long been converted for the Barrick Museum and Boyd School of Law, respectively. Poor old Archie C. Grant Hall is the only part of the 1957 campus that stands virtually untouched.
The fight to save Frazier Hall, even if it was ultimately unsuccessful, did spur a newfound spirit of preservation that you see in the way people approach the remaining midcentury buildings and signage downtown today. The fight to save the lobby of La Concha and the opening of the Neon Museum can trace their roots in both spirit and personnel to the Frazier campaign.
“This is a moment in the evolution of this city. What’s cool about it is that in most places, this happened in your grandparents’ generation. But we get to live it all here,” Kirk said. “Often in preservation, the lost fight is the critical moment. It’s sad that the building went away, but there’s a lot of good that’s come out of this one.”
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