March 2017

Luck be a Lady

Rediscovering Las Vegas’ Mid-Century Modern Soul

By Lissa Townsend Rodgers

When people think about Las Vegas, the images conjured up are often those of 50-60 years ago: Showgirls and wiseguys tossing dice beneath Sputnik-shaped chandeliers; Women in cocktail dresses linking arms with men in suits and meandering amidst obtuse-angled neon signs and kidney-shaped pools as “Luck Be a Lady” plays in the background. If there’s an era and an aesthetic that personifies the fantasy of Las Vegas, it’s mid-century modern.

Mid-century modern was often considered a sort of “roadside” architecture, identified with diners and gas stations. But it reached its apotheosis along the Las Vegas Strip, in casinos like the Desert Inn, where textured natural stone met parabolic pink curves, or the Sands, where tourists played blackjack and shot craps on Abstract Expressionist carpets beneath flying saucer chandeliers.

But mid-century style wasn’t just for casinos—after their shifts, the pit bosses and cocktail waitresses would take it home with them to neighborhoods like Paradise Palms, Beverly Green and McNeil. And those areas are where mid-century Las Vegas still lives on, in buildings that contemporary Las Vegans still call home. Such Eisenhower-era landmarks as the Moulin Rouge and the Riviera may be gone, but their employees’ homes continue the design legacy, one that is increasingly embraced, not just by locals, but by lovers of architecture, design and history worldwide.

Interest in mid-century design has been on the rise for several years. “Trends cycle and recycle, so Mid-Century is having a resurgence right now,” says Michelle Larime, associate director of the Nevada Preservation Foundation, adding that there is also a more concrete reason for the interest. “From a preservation standpoint, buildings usually need to be 50 years or older to put them into that preservation category, so a lot of these buildings are sort of aging into that,” she says, adding, “Nationally, you’re seeing a lot of attention on mid-century because now these buildings are becoming focal points for a lot of these preservation communities.” Steven Franklin, a Las Vegas realtor who specializes in vintage neighborhoods agrees that “it’s taken off nationally over the last 10 years and it’s really accelerated in Vegas over the past five or six years.”

There is an abundance of mid-century buildings across the southwest. Southern California and Palm Springs are strongly identified with the aesthetic, but Las Vegas has many examples of its own. “If you look back in the 50s and 60s in Las Vegas, it was a time when the city was growing very rapidly,” says David Baird, professor of architecture at the UNLV School of Architecture. “The period of time that mid-century modern was coming into its own, it was a period of time when the middle class was experiencing a lot of prosperity, so the needs of mid-century modern architecture really focused on the needs of the average American family,” he explains, “One of the reasons why it’s had a resurgence in popularity is that there’s enough in that style that still resonates with people and how they want to live today.”

One of the chief mid-century design characteristics that suits contemporary lifestyles is the open plan—the flowing of one living area into another. The abolishment of dark hallways and multiple doors first became common within this style. Baird also notes the appeal of “clean lines, simplicity, an emphasis on function, a connection to nature. A lot of mid-mods replaced the walls with post-and-beam construction so, what would happen is, the walls no longer have too hold the roof up, so they can become glass” connecting indoors and outdoors.

The airy, open-to-the-outdoors nature of mid-century modern homes is another reason why our city has so many of them: In a warm climate, where people spend six months out of 12 outdoors, features like patios, planters, and shade-providing extended rooflines make sense. Larime calls the style “desert modern,” with “breeze blocks, some of the more prominent rooflines, like the butterfly roof or the folded plate roof, that’s very specific to the Southwest… Even though it pops up all over the country, there’s not these pockets of dense neighborhoods like we have here.” And, as always, Sin City added its own special flair: “The mid-mod style here in Vegas, I find to be much less austere than the stuff you’d find in Palm Springs,” says Baird, “it does have a little bit of a local flavor to it.” Las Vegas tends to add a “muchness” to everything and so its mid-mod homes tend toward brighter colors and bolder lines than those seen elsewhere.

In Las Vegas, two famed architects created significant mid-century buildings: The first, Paul Revere Williams was best-known for his work in Los Angeles, where he created luxury homes for stars like Cary Grant and Lon Chaney, as well as the Beverly Hills Hotel. In Las Vegas, his design for the lobby of the La Concha Motor Inn epitomizes mid-century design’s love for both the organic and the space-age, as it evokes both a seashell and a spaceship. While the motel itself is gone, the building which fronted it has been renovated and relocated to serve as the lobby for the Neon Museum. Williams also created the Guardian Angel Cathedral, the Royal Nevada Casino, and a number of homes in the Carver Park neighborhood that have unfortunately been razed. Hugh Taylor, the second architect, worked on several casinos, including the Moulin Rouge and Desert Inn, but was best-known for designing homes. He created the Morelli House in 1959 for Sands bandleader Antonio Morelli, a spacious home with built-in bars and breakfast nooks, lavishly-tiled his-and-hers bathrooms and a number of other amenities that still impress. Formerly located in the Desert Inn Country Club Estates, the house was relocated Downtown, where it serves as headquarters for the Junior League of Las Vegas. 
Still, in Las Vegas, mid-century is a style that doesn’t endure in a museum or a vacuum, but rather one that is lived in, and with, by homeowners all over town, especially in several neighborhoods that have been recognized for their abundance of the style. The most celebrated, Paradise Palms, is situated between Eastern Avenue and Maryland Parkway around the Las Vegas National Golf Club. It’s a collection of larger homes that trend more toward the streamlined side of mid-mod; many structures feature textured concrete walls, often popped in bright colors, and angular rooflines. A more eclectic collection of houses can be found in the McNeil neighborhood, west of Rancho between Oakey and Charleston. There are Gingerbread-adorned Cinderella ranches alongside angular prairie homes with glass-block walls. The variety even extends to the owners’ personal touches–the turquoise trim on one home matches the paint job of a vintage Ford in the driveway. The newest addition to the historic neighborhood roster is Beverly Glen, just east of Las Vegas Boulevard between Oakey and Sahara. The neighborhood has an intriguing collection of mid-mod homes, along with old-school apartment buildings, like the pale-blue Rexford, and a streamlined church built to the height of 1956 design. It’s an area in historical transition, as some houses are lovingly restored, while others still hide their original flair under beige stucco or behind colonial shutters and leaded-glass front doors.

But even Las Vegas’ abundant supply of vintage homes may not be enough to satisfy demand. As a realtor, Franklin notes that demand for mid-century houses has increased but “they’re getting harder and harder to find because they’ve been altered, especially since the recession. A lot of investors came in and ripped out a lot of those original features.” Today, those original features are what makes those homes desirable: People want the original pink tile in a bathroom or the built-in minibar in the living room. “You see a lot of people coming in and buying [homes] that have been redone and they’re just redoing the redo,” Franklin adds. “They’re scouring Craigslist for original fixtures and, if they can’t find those, they buy new ones that are reproductions of that era.”

Tearing out the stainless steel appliances and granite islands of a kitchen that’s only a few years old to replace them with a baby blue refrigerator and Formica countertops may outrage the practical-minded, but the passion for mid-century design extends into home interiors as well. Many homes of the era are furnished with mid-century pieces—usually a mix of authentic period furnishings acquired from estate sales/Main Street boutiques alongside reproductions from West Elm knockoffs to five-figure custom pieces. After all, the design of mid-century furniture is in perfect harmony with the open, airy feel of the buildings themselves. Mid-century modern furniture, most of it doesn’t come down to the ground—the couches and chairs have legs. So, the room you put that furniture in appears much bigger than if the furniture came down to the ground.

This renewed interest in mid-century style extends beyond buildings and furniture. This spring, fashion is full of bright pinks and yellows and the sort of ankle-skimming pants once worn by Ann-Margret. The Oscar-winning film La La Land embraced mid-mod retro from the jazz soundtrack to the Eames chairs to Emma Stone’s “cat eye” liner. The newly designed City of Las Vegas logo, with its curvy pink font and “stardust” diamond details, also draws on our city’s identification with mid-century style, one that’s less about buildings and furniture than the fantasy evoked by an era. “It’s part of the allure and the mystique and people still want to connect with that,” says Baird.

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