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8 wonders of Las Vegas: exploring six decades of high-stakes architecture.

Every few decades, Las Vegas seems to reinvent itself, as it has reinvented so much of every other place's history and architecture. Maybe you can't please all the people all the time, but Las Vegas has always tried. Pick a theme--Egyptian, Roman, medieval, Old West--they all await you on The Strip.

Now, with the opening of three mega-resorts and other new attractions catering to baby boomers and their boomlets, Las Vegas is reinventing itself again. Sin City wants to be thought of as Fun Town: the Rat Pack meets Mickey Mouse, and the whole family is invited.

Here, such bizarre juxta-positions as a casino fronting an amusement park should come as no surprise. For in Las Vegas, reality and fantasy have a dependent relationship not unlike that of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. In this intensely competitive market, reality exists as the commercial impulse, and fantasy has taken form in the constantly evolving world of dazzling neon signs and theme architecture.

It's an unsentimental place, and much of its architectural heritage has been lost. Yet remnants of the old-style resort survive: some structures are intact; others are hidden under several layers of remodeling.

Not everyone appreciates The Strip's market-driven landscape. Deriders call it plastic and artificial, which of course it is. But the city can also be appreciated precisely for those qualities, counters architecture critic Alan Hess, author of the new book Viva Las Vegas: After-Hours Architecture (Chronicle Books, San Francisco, 1993; $18.95).

Prewar hotels, best represented today by survivors in downtown's Glitter Gulch, emulated the Wild West. Postwar hotels moved away from that theme, but the era's architects and sign-makers, notably the Young Electric Sign Co., embraced the West's anything-goes mood and applied it to the emerging resort center. "What made Las Vegas great and allowed these people to do both marvelous and tasteless work is that there were no set standards of art, taste, and design," Hess says. "Thank goodness they took it as far as they possibly could."

Much of the early neon signage is gone, but Glitter Gulch remains one of the most instantly recognizable of all Western streets. And, says Hess, Las Vegas offers truly indigenous Western architecture, albeit newer and greatly influenced by Los Angeles, another urban quick-change artist. Las Vegas's commercial-strip architecture, modeled after L.A.'s, is repeated endlessly throughout the region. And the cool, modern lines of its 1950s resorts brought the sophistication and car culture of Los Angeles modernism to the Nevada desert.

"Las Vegas has always been influenced by Los Angeles, but it has always pushed those concepts to the limit," Hess says. "That sense of Hollywood modern elegance is light-years away from what Las Vegas has become."

In the 1960s, with structures like the round 17-story Sands and the now-closed Landmark Hotel, a tower in the same vein as Seattle's Space Needle, Las Vegas flirted with a Jetsons-style futurism. And Caesars Palace in 1966 introduced the history-as-high-concept hotel to The Strip. The resort has continued to refine the notion, and in 1992 added perhaps the most distinctive shopping mall in the West, The Forum Shops--faux Roman but pure Vegas.

The Wizard of Odds

Some old hotels like the 1941 Spanish rancho-style El Cortez still try to draw customers with the lure of the "world's loosest slots." But times have changed: gambling has spread across the country, from Atlantic City to Mississippi riverboats to Western Indian reservations.

So, like a boxer, Las Vegas has counterpunched with bigger-than-big, self-contained fantasy worlds that make Glitter Gulch look positively quaint.

Today, at the south end of The Strip, a 9-story lion holds court in front of the new $1.2-billion MGM Grand, the world's biggest hotel, with 5,005 rooms. The lion looks past a pair of replicas of the giant heads from Easter Island at the Tropicana and on across six lanes of traffic to Excalibur, a 3-year-old

hotel-cum-castle.

Here, images don't just clash, they have head-on collisions. From the castle's turrets, the eye travels effortlessly to Egypt, where a sphinx guards Luxor, a mega-hotel-casino set in a 30-story black glass pyramid. The sphinx gazes past a 1950s motel no bigger than its front paws. Part Giza, part Tail o' the Pup, this is roadside architecture on an epic scale.

In the heart of The Strip, crowds gather to watch an erupting volcano outside The Mirage. Nearby at Treasure Island, yet another new mega-resort, two full-size ships sail into battle in a bay fronting a stylized pirate village. One French-accented pirate sounds more Pepe Le Pew than Gerard Depardieu, but the special effects are memorable as the pirates sink a British frigate.

Even as the new hotels and remodels carry out such themes, they overwhelm the past with their sheer mass. But colossal scale comes as no surprise, not in a city electrified by Hoover Dam and inspired, according to legend, by the outsize vision of mobster Benjamin ("Bugsy") Siegel.

Siegel, so the story goes, gazed out across the empty desert and decided this was the place. The myth conveniently ignores the fact that Siegel's supposed creation, Flamingo, was already under construction and would become the third hotel on The Strip. But in Las Vegas, history doesn't stand in the way of a good story--or a good idea.

8 wonders at a glance, from old to new

1. Glitter Gulch: Original casino center, on Fremont Street, with trademark light displays like 60-foot-tall neon cowpoke Vegas Vic, which dates to the late 1940s. Most casinos and hotels capture the feeling of an earlier Las Vegas. See it at night.

2. Flamingo Hilton: Began as a motor lodge; several remodels turned it into a multistory hotel. Still notable for its display of plumelike neon lights.

3. Sands: Old motel wings and pool recall Las Vegas's Hollywood modern era. Round tower from 1967 is vintage Rat Pack Vegas.

4. Caesars Palace: Friends, Romans, and countrymen lent the style this hotel has refined over the years. At The Forum Shops, an indoor sky changes from night to day above a Roman-style street. Robotic statues in Bacchus's fountain come alive in a light-and-sound show every hour starting at 11 A.M.

5. The Mirage: Eco-Vegas. Lushly planted entry, white tigers behind glass, dolphin habitat out back ($3 admission, 12 and under free). It set a new standard for Vegas elegance, a new kind of showmanship. Volcano erupts every 15 minutes after dark till midnight.

6. Luxor: Pleasure dome in a pyramid; design by architect Veldon Simpson of Green Valley, Nevada. Highlights include a full-scale replica of King Tut's tomb and a three-part Secrets of the Luxor Pyramid attraction designed by special-effects wizard Douglas Trumbull ($4 to $5 per part; check schedules). Rooms have Egyptian-style furnishings.

7. MGM Grand: Hollywood-theme mini-city; design by Veldon Simpson. Follow the Yellow Brick Road to The Wizard of Oz robotic attraction beneath a giant dome; 33-acre MGM Grand Adventures Theme Park is outside ($25 adults, $20 ages 12 and under). Four room motifs, including Casablanca and The Wizard of Oz.

8. Treasure Island at The Mirage: Pirate fantasy world. Plundered treasure stashed in casino alcoves; wood plank sidewalk and rope railings bring the theme to street level. Ships battle every 90 minutes from 3 to 10:30 P.M.; best seen after dark.
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Title Annotation:Nevada
Author:Jaffe, Matthew
Publication:Sunset
Date:Feb 1, 1994
Words:1213
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