The implosion of the Stardust Hotel and Casino on March 13, 2007, befitted its glitzy history. At 2:30 a.m., fireworks exploded, lights flashed, and a countdown to its demise ensued, chanted by a crowd watching from a nearby parking lot. After it fell, enormous clouds of dust rose into the sky and then settled on the Las Vegas Strip. The Stardust had been a favorite haunt of the Rat Pack and home to the Siegfried & Roy show. The excesses of organized crime that took place within its walls inspired the book and the film Casino.
The death of the Stardust encapsulates Las Vegas’ reputation as a fan of the wrecking ball—a city that builds only to destroy and replace with something new, regardless of historical significance or environmental impact. And in many ways, that has been Las Vegas’ trajectory.
Yet there’s another side to the city, one concerned with preservation, sustainability, and adaptive reuse—and one that has long been in evidence. “People see Las Vegas as a place of excessive waste,” says Stefan Al, a Dutch architect and author of The Strip: Las Vegas and the Architecture of the American Dream (MIT Press, 2017). “Even though a lot is unsustainable when you’re building in the desert and relying on tourists flying in, many practices are innovative.” Such practices are found both on the Strip as well as downtown, located to the north of all the flash and in the midst of an urban renaissance. Residents are also preserving many of the midcentury modern homes that grace the city.
One might think that the hotels and casinos on the Strip are the main consumers of water in Las Vegas, but in fact it’s homeowners who guzzle most of it. In the mid-1950s wastewater began to be treated and pumped into Lake Mead, the city’s main water supply, and all of the water used in the massive properties makes its way through this process. Hotel and casino owners also work to preserve water and keep costs low through other green strategies: CityCenter, a $10 billion development that houses hotels, a casino, residences, and more, worked with manufacturers to design its own low-flow showerheads that use a third less water.
CityCenter also boasts energy-efficient marquees, signs, and slot machines; the Mandalay Bay Resort Conference and Convention Center has a rooftop solar array that powers over 20 percent of the hotel and casino. Jennifer Turchin, AIA, principal of the Coda Group and president of AIA Nevada, says another way such properties encourage sustainability is by purchasing open source electricity. “These sources can be more sustainable than NV Energy [the state power company] because they use more solar, geothermal, and wind power than the power company can produce,” she says.
The practice of adaptive reuse—in which existing buildings are updated for a new purpose—is perhaps an even more important means of promoting sustainability. The practice retains the embodied energy that went into construction in the first place. “The materials have already been extracted or manufactured, and have contributed to the carbon footprint,” says Michelle Larime of the Nevada Preservation Foundation. “If they stay in place, they’re no longer contributing to the further degradation of our environment.”
Adds Dwayne Eshenbaugh, AIA, founder of Las Vegas firm NOVUS Architecture: “Utilizing our existing building inventory has a pretty large environmental impact, and that’s important for combating climate change.”
Adaptive reuse has been practiced on the Strip for decades. Al recounts how, starting in the 1950s, hotel and casino structures were retained and their signage repurposed to make way for the new. When it opened, in 1942, the Last Frontier Hotel and Casino, for example, featured an Old West theme, with cowboys adorning its front; in 1955, in the midst of the space race, it was renamed the New Frontier. “They changed the building by adding a new sign, adapting the façade, and hanging up images of astronauts,” Al says. “The practice meant that a business evolved while the structure essentially stayed the same. Many hotels and casinos did this, and even pieces of old signs were reused during an upgrade.”
Today, the casino and hotel complex SLS Las Vegas is an adaptive reuse project that goes beyond signage. The property lies within what was once the famed Moroccan-themed Sahara Hotel and Casino. The Sahara’s three guest towers were retained and renovated, for example, and its showroom kept as a ballroom.
Architect Craig Sean Palacios, AIA, worked on projects similar to SLS Las Vegas, including CityCenter and the Fontainebleau Las Vegas, before 2014, when he co-founded Bunnyfish Studio, a Las Vegas firm that specializes in adaptive reuse. He uses lessons learned through casino work to promote green building on a smaller scale. “Adaptive reuse is comfortable for me,” he says.
One of Palacios’ projects is the Inspire Theater, a coffee shop, bar, and theater complex he and partner Tina Wichmann, AIA, designed out of an abandoned convenience store. Palacios and Wichmann created a threestory building within the one-story structure to make room for the variety of businesses; the project was funded by Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh, who in 2013 moved his headquarters to the former Las Vegas City Hall building and wanted nearby amenities for his employees.
The complex is just one example of many recent adaptive reuse projects in and around downtown Las Vegas—the oldest part of the city—which began to flourish after the 2008 economic crash. With fewer resources to build, developers and designers looked to repurpose older buildings in the city’s core rather than start from scratch. Today, says Eshenbaugh, whose firm is also known for its downtown adaptive reuse work, “people are generally interested in keeping buildings intact. They’re demolished only when they’re absolutely unusable.”
Just southwest of downtown is Faciliteq, an office furniture store and showroom located in a building that once was an auto repair shop. Turchin was involved in the garage’s transformation as a sustainability consultant. “Not only did we get LEED certification,” she says, “but a majority of the interior is comprised of furniture that guarantees future flexibility.” For instance, none of the building’s walls are permanent, and they can be easily moved to create different-sized spaces. “People know what they want their building to be today, but what about in 10 years?” Turchin asks. “This is easier and creates much less waste.”
In the middle of downtown is another adaptive reuse project fashioned out of an old garage. The Kitchen at Atomic, designed by Eshenbaugh’s firm, is now a hip restaurant that’s an extension of Las Vegas’ oldest freestanding bar, Atomic Liquors, where in the 1950s customers would crowd the roof to watch the nearby atomic test explosions. The garage’s roof had to be redone, but Eshenbaugh kept the masonry walls, concrete lintels, and an intricate mid-century window wall that had divided the main space of the garage from the office. It now divides the dining area from the kitchen, so customers can watch the chefs at work.
The thirst for such projects in and near downtown hasn’t just emerged from financial constraints. It’s also related to a trend occurring in cities across the country, in which many residents are seeking more walkable, denser environments. Older downtowns—in contrast to spreading suburbs—can furnish these spaces.
“Las Vegas has a serious car culture and there’s a lot of sprawl,” says Bunnyfish Studio’s Wichmann. “But people want to live in more urban environments and use their vehicles less.” Wichmann says that more condos and apartments are beginning to appear downtown and off the Strip to provide housing from which people can walk to nearby services. “That also helps with the carbon footprint,” she adds.
Even the architecture of the Strip is showing signs of increased walkability. Al reports that the New York-New York Hotel & Casino used to feature fake storefronts on its façade, but now has actual shops in which pedestrians can browse. “It’s emblematic,” he says, noting that the Strip’s spaces are becoming more externally oriented in general. “Twenty to 30 years ago, casinos were designed to make it difficult to navigate out of, to keep people inside and gambling. But today there’s a recognition that walkable exteriors are beneficial and sought-after.”
The desire for walkability has also translated to a desire for single-family midcentury modern homes closer to downtown and the Strip—and with it a more tightknit, communal way of life. “People want more of a sense of community,” says Turchin. “It’s a resurgence of the traditional neighborhood with blocks and houses, with nearby schools, grocery stores, and restaurants.”
The Nevada Preservation Foundation’s Larime has noticed this trend in her position as director of neighborhood stabilization. In this adaptive reuse work, she and her colleagues work with owners to update historic homes (as well as commercial buildings) with new plumbing, wiring, and the like while preserving the integrity of the exterior. (Larime experiences such an environment every day: Her organization is a tenant of the Historic Westside School, Las Vegas’ oldest school building, which was built in 1923 and ceased to function as a place of learning in 1966. It was renovated in 2015 and opened a year later as an office complex.)
“Preservation is highly flexible in that it tends to only apply to a building’s exterior, and there’s a lot that can be replaced with modern materials in the interior,” Larime says, adding that many homes and buildings in Las Vegas are currently “aging to significance” as they approach their 50- year mark and beyond—making it easier to preserve them with historic designations and grant and tax credit options.
Tax credits, in many cases, make historic rehabilitation projects a viable option in scenarios where they otherwise wouldn’t be feasible. Although reuse projects are subject to a number of stringent guidelines—the buildings in question must be listed on or be eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, and they must also be certified by the National Park Service as having met the U.S. Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation—the Nevada State Historic Preservation Offices encourages the adoption of historic preservation and adaptive reuse as an economic development strategy with short and long-term economic benefits.
Though preservation, sustainability, and adaptive reuse have been part of the Las Vegas built environment for decades, the last 10 years have witnessed a sea change in the types of buildings and spaces people are drawn to—for financial and environmental as well as cultural reasons.
Palacios sums it up: “The driving trend is to take advantage of existing architecture,” he says. “We’re even seeing new buildings that go up that try to mimic historic elements. It’s driven by consumer interest—it’s what people want.”