Recently, in the drawing room of Primrose restaurant, stocked with art and books and looking out onto the spreading tree sculpture by Brazilian artist Henrique Oliveira in the Monte Carlo’s renovated lobby, Jim Murren and Andrew Zobler discuss design and intellectual capital, revealing their budding friendship in their aim to broaden the cultural cachet of the Strip.
The two famed hoteliers from opposite spectrums of scale and reality (Las Vegas, where Murren runs MGM Resorts International, and New York, where Zobler founded Rydell Group) are turning their collaborative, $450 million renovation of Monte Carlo — a mid-'90s, 3,000-room hotel (used more for "room inventory" than as a deliberate destination) — into two high-end boutique hotels under one roof.
MGM's partnership with Zobler, whose Sydell Group operates NoMad in New York, The Ned in London, and The Line in Los Angeles, is another defining move for a company that's been rebranding itself and raising its cultural profile through art, architecture, and dining for the past decade.
As they talk with a group of reporters, the MGM Resorts' CEO, once again repeats what has become a mantra served from company icon Kirk Kerkorian: “Anytime you can bring intellectual capital to Las Vegas, MGM is going to shine." Murren, a Connecticut-born art collector who studied art history at Trinity College, then moved on to Wall Street before landing in Las Vegas, has been bringing in world-class architects, designers, and blue-chip artworks to push Vegas further from its old slots-and-lobster image.
When CityCenter opened in 2010, designed by famous architects and featuring a $40 million postwar/contemporary art collection, it also continued Steve Wynn's quest for art as tourism (also tax credit, in Wynn's case). In addition to CityCenter, MGM also includes Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art and Bellagio's Picasso restaurant, where Picasso's work hangs amid well-heeled diners. Last year MGM Resorts became an official sponsor of Art Basel Miami, with a sculpture park at the art fair that featured a totem by Swiss artist Ugo Rondinone, similar to the style of work MGM will receive for its outdoor park on the Strip — after donating heavily to Rondinone's Seven Magic Mountains project outside of Las Vegas. MGM National Harbor, which opened December 2016 in Baltimore also includes an art collection with art collection with a public walking tour.
In Las Vegas, the Park MGM (the eventual rename for Monte Carlo), ties together its "neighborhood" on the Strip, threading MGM's City Center, T-Mobile Arena, and the Park) and heralds the launch of a new brand: Park MGM, destined for gaming and non-gaming areas outside of Las Vegas.
The collaboration with Zobler's Sydell Group is slated for a late 2018 completion and is designed to cater to an upscale, younger clientele seeking cultural experiences who might otherwise avoid Las Vegas. From the vantage point inside Primrose, Monte Carlo is already barely recognizable. Whereas MGM went large and eye-popping with City Center, it’s going vastly smaller in scale at Monte Carlo, creating two hotels within one — while continuing to operate. Guests checking into Monte Carlo are already staying in refurbished suites at Monte Carlo prices.
Zobler, known for collaborating on restorations of old buildings into high-end boutique hotels for upscale intellectuals, says he was “a little apprehensive at the beginning to see if we could accomplish it. We generally do smaller, idiosyncratic hotels.”
When it came to the Monte Carlo, Sydell went opposite of Las Vegas tradition by breaking down large, impersonal spaces and warming them up with residential-style classical design, crown molding, warm colors, art, original objects, and visceral environments. Some rooms feature multiple artists and their works, hung salon-style. Gaming is more sequestered in the casino area, rather than spilling into other public areas.
"It's dehumanizing if spaces are big, no matter how good they are," Zobler says, sitting on a couch near Murren inside Primrose. "The best thing you can do (is) to make people feel they are at home. A lot of these big hotels are not warm." Working with British designer Martin Burdzinski, the result is old-school classic Parisian meets New York bohemia, with a nod to classic, grand European hotels.
"Were trying to find customers that gravitate to the kind of hotels that Andrew already has,” Murren says. “That customer who says, ‘I want to stay at the The Ned.’”
The art begins in the lobby, with Oliveira's tree sculpture, in which guests stand under the trunk of the tree with its roots extending outward across the ceiling. The artist was commissioned to create the piece for Park MGM, using reclaimed wood sourced from Southern Nevada to create its trunk and branches. Murren says the nod to sustainability is the response to his commissioning of Maya Lin to re-create the Colorado River using recycled silver from Nevada (a piece you can view in Aria). Behind the front desk is “Dreamscape III, VI,” a multimedia piece by Shahram Karimi and Shoja Azari that creates a sense of movement in the nature scene. Soon there will be two David Hockneys hanging in the lobby. Under the ceiling near the bank of elevators, a large cylindrical and illuminated photo collage by Richard Tuschman provides a sense of direction and allows ample space for viewing the work. Harry Gruyaert’s picnic photographs hang in Primrose.
In all of this, the ghost of Monte Carlo — though it’s a place, as Zobler says, "without great architectural heritage" — is not entirely absent. There are hints, such as Monte Carlo's chandeliers hanging in the lobby. "I didn't want to make the whole history disappear," Zobler says. "We wanted to preserve some of the heritage that was here. I don't believe when you renovate a building you want to erase the history."