How Yesterday’s Foundations Enabled Tomorrow’s Giants: The Story Behind Las Vegas’ Latest Icons

Where are today’s visionaries in the Las Vegas market? Author Oliver Lovat says if you want to discover today’s visionaries, you have to start with those from the past. In Part 1 of the series, learn about how architecture plays a key roll in the city’s birth and development, starting with Caesars.

How Yesterday’s Foundations Enabled Tomorrow’s Giants: The Story Behind Las Vegas’ Latest Icons

In October 2020, Circa opened in Downtown Las Vegas, the first new casino resort on Fremont Street in over 40 years. This was followed by Resorts World in June 2021, the newest debut to The Strip in a decade. These are both very different businesses, but equally important evolutions to the strategic narrative of the city.

Both were designed by award winning Las Vegas based architectural firm, Steelman Partners. With over 30 years of experience, these are the firm’s first full resort developments in its home city, but both are products of a much longer heritage.

Oliver Lovat explores the foundations of Las Vegas casino development, origins of the new projects, the strategic fundamentals and their importance to the future of resort development.

Historic Foundations

Architectural scholar, Stefan Al, believes that the grandiose splendor seen in Las Vegas casinos has evolved partly because of large budgets attributed to the projects and that the buildings themselves are in a competitive architectural race for customer attention. Al advances the post-modernist thesis, that externally, physical buildings are glorified billboards, which was originally advocated by Venturi (et al) in Learning From Las Vegas, the 1972 contrarian appreciation of Las Vegas’ architecture. This was primarily a commentary on the work of architect Wayne McAllister, who incorporated highly visual elements of Americana within his Googie architectural philosophy at the El Rancho, Sands, Desert Inn and Fremont hotels.

Also in the 1970s, Italian semiologist Umberto Eco sought to decode Las Vegas, observing hyperreality in action; that some casinos psychologically create alternative worlds, where on arrival the customer is transported to a different reality, where the normal rules and behaviors do not apply. Design is crucial in this regard.

Despite the sophisticated analysis, the early evolution of the Las Vegas resort was not a high-minded strategy with reasoned deliberation. Impactful decisions were created as much by accident as design, as casino developers simply copied and applied what they knew and liked, in some cases simply by hiring McAllister directly and borrowing liberally from the likes of Morris Lapidus, who in the 1950s and 1960s defined elegance in hotel development, notably in Miami the vacation spot to the “real owners” of early casinos.

Undoubtedly, Jay Sarno and his partner Stan Mallin were the most innovative—some may say, eccentric—casino developers that Las Vegas has ever seen. With Lapidus protégé, Melvin Grossman as architect, the pair opened Caesars Palace and Circus Circus in 1966 and 1968 respectively. On opening, Caesars was already the highly experiential, escapist paradise that defined Las Vegas and inspired Eco, fusing all aspects of design, architecture, operations and emotion into a single building. The sense of arrival was achieved by the glowing “Tiffany” hued lighting, and complimented by fountains, trees, costumes, sounds, shows, bars and restaurants all combining to elevate the customer experience to unimagined levels. Their second project, Circus Circus was even more ambitious (perhaps too ambitious for 1968 Las Vegas, leading to the duo to cede operations to a more functional operator after a short period) with a cacophony of competing attractions. Circus Circus also had fountains, costumes, sounds, shows, 14 bars and restaurants (compared to 6 in Caesars Palace), but also over 700 flashing, ringing slot machines (compared to 200 in Caesars), trapeze artists, carnival games, flashes of nudity and Tanya the elephant walking around. The pair ran out of money before they could build the hotel.

Kirk Kerkorian, an investor in Caesars Palace and Circus Circus, had something different in mind when he concieved the first “traditional” megaresort, The International, which opened in 1969. After decades as the Las Vegas Hilton and LVH, the property stands today as The Westgate.

Architect of The International, Martin Stern Jr was familiar to Las Vegas, having designed for the early resort developer, Del Webb, on The Sahara and The Mint, and also on The Silver Slipper and The Sands, and worked with McAllister in growing the rapidly expanding Marriott Hotel presence across the USA. Kerkorian’s vision was contemporary scale, inspired by the modernist office building, Lever House, on New York’s Park Avenue and UNESCO’s Parisian headquarters, with its distinctive Y-shaped design. Guest rooms were built around a central core on top of a concrete casino podium.

Despite his many projects, perhaps Stern’s most enduring legacy for 20th century Las Vegas was his decision to hire Joel Bergman.

In January 1968, trainee architect Bergman started work at Stern’s practice and in short order was dispatched to Las Vegas to work on The International. In 1976 a young Steve Wynn hired Bergman (as part of Stern’s practice) to work on his Las Vegas Golden Nugget hotel tower. Further impressed by the architect’s work, in 1978 Wynn hired Bergman full-time as VP Design and Construction of his Golden Nugget company. Bergman was 42 and the oldest guy in the company. Shortly after, Wynn, Bergman and the leadership team headed east to Atlantic City to begin work on The Golden Nugget Atlantic City, Wynn’s first new resort project.

Joining the Nugget team in his native Atlantic City was a young Paul Steelman. When Bergman left The Nugget team and joined Resorts, a rival casino company, Steelman came with, but the departure was short-lived. Realizing their value, and pumped with newly available bond finance, Wynn realized the value of the pair, and re-hired Bergman and Steelman for his next project, this time back in Las Vegas.

In the newly formed design and construction company, Atlandia, the assembled creatives picked up their tools and went to work.

Architects and designers, Bergman, Steelman, Scott Walls, Brad Friedmutter, Henry “Bud” Conversano, DeRuyter Butler, Don Brinkerhoff were aided by casino executives, Bobby Baldwin, Marc Schorr, Barry Shier, and Kenny, Elaine and Steve Wynn. This was perhaps the most complete group of professionals ever to come together in this field.

The collective analyzed, studied and interpreted all that had gone before. The work of McAllister, Lapidus, Sarno, Grossman, Hilton, Kerkorian, Stern, resort developer Chris Hemmeter of Hawaii and Sol Kerzner’s Sun City in Southern Africa, all came under scrutiny. What worked, what didn’t and what was possible, occasionally making the impossible, possible. The template for future successful casino resorts was codified in these sessions.

With Bergman leading, the group were charged with capturing the ideas of visionary developer Wynn, who himself had been mentored by his friend Sarno. Except this time, what was built did not come directly from Wynn’s imagination. This piece was carefully and deliberately scored, then rescored and rescored again until it was perfect.

The outcome was The Mirage, the almost perfectly formed Y-shaped, immersive escapist paradise, with a customer journey that included fountains, trees, costumes, sounds, shows, bars and restaurants, plus this time, a volcano, dolphins, lions and tigers, all combining to elevate the experience to unimagined levels, just like Caesars Palace had done a generation before. The cost of the Mirage was over 30 times that of Caesars Palace, which opened just over two decades previously.

Having been present for this instructive process, many of the Mirage protagonists went their own ways, and Steelman launched his own practice, exporting the formula of the elixir that was created.

With the asset class proven and commercial finance ready, Las Vegas projects grew in ambition and scale over the subsequent decades. External leadership joined the industry and the consolidated corporate companies sought non-casino architects to attempt to interpret their vision for the future of Las Vegas. These new, multi-billion-dollar projects landed, many led by big-name architects (and executives) that seemed embarrassed by the heritage of the city, who disregarded local experience as provincial naïveté and were willfully dismissive of the decades of study into casinos and customer psychology.

Some of the new casino developments were successful, but many didn’t justify their investment. Industry insiders and rival casino owners observed closely, as tribal and international developers did recognize the value of what Las Vegas’ professionals had cultivated.

After leaving Mirage Resorts, Bergman remained active in resort development until his passing in 2016. Despite his many projects, perhaps Bergman’s most enduring legacy for 21st century Las Vegas was his decision to hire Paul Steelman.

Articles by Author: Oliver Lovat

Oliver Lovat FRICS leads the Denstone Group, which offers strategic consultancy on customer-facing, asset-backed investments, including casinos. He is visiting faculty at Bayes Business School at City, University of London.