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Whipple in time: Can (and should) an old city building be saved?

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Reed Whipple Center
Scott Dickensheets

The exterior of the Reed Whipple Center, on North Las Vegas Boulevard.

Early last year, Bernard Gaddis, founder of the Las Vegas Contemporary Dance Theater, thought he had found a home for his innovative, and itinerant, dance troupe, a staple of Vegas’ cultural life since 2007. The closed Reed Whipple Cultural Center, just north of Downtown, would make a perfect venue. “I also wanted to be Downtown,” he explains. “When I started the company, that was a dream of mine. I never wanted to be in Summerlin or Henderson.”

The building was in the center of the city’s Cultural Corridor; its neighbors include the Old Las Vegas Mormon Fort, the Las Vegas Natural History Museum and the Neon Museum. Whipple was the right size, Gaddis says: “The city does need a smaller theater, 600-700 seats, that’s Downtown, that we could work together with the Smith Center in presenting smaller artists from around the world — not just Vegas, and not just nationally, but all over.”

But, as Gaddis has discovered, Reed Whipple seems to exist in a kind of permanent limbo: always down but never quite out, a vessel through which many pour ideas of revitalization, though none come to fruition. Its fate may tell us much about the ceiling of potential in both the city’s Cultural Corridor and Downtown itself.

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According to Bob Stoldal, chair of the city’s History Preservation Commission, Reed Whipple was constructed in 1963 by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to serve as a “multi-stake center, an administrative and recreational hub serving multiple congregations within the denomination.” The building was named after Las Vegas City Commissioner Reed Whipple, who was also a church leader. The clean lines and handsome symmetry are a worthy addition to the city’s stock of modern mid-century buildings.

The church departed the building after just seven years; between 1970 and 1973 the building served as a temporary city hall while a newer city hall building (the current Zappos HQ) was under construction.

Once the city hall left, the city, which still owned the building, drew up plans in the mid-seventies to convert the building into a cultural center with an 800-seat theater and a mix of offices and arts-and-crafts workshops. The intention, even then, was to provide an off-Strip arts center that catered to local residents. Over time, Reed Whipple added art galleries, workshops, dressing rooms and prop storage spaces.

Whipple did fulfill some of its potential as a multiuse space. Architect Craig Palacios remembers it as a place to catch arts events, seasonal shows and take music lessons growing up. The Rainbow Company Children’s Theater resided there for decades. During the aughts, the Neon Museum used Reed Whipple for its administrative offices. Gaddis and the Las Vegas Shakespeare Company also rented space there for a brief time. And Gaddis’ dream isn’t the first: the Las Vegas Shakespeare Company and Nevada Repertory Theatre have in recent years floated similar plans to revitalize the facility, including one that would include the beloved local restaurant Rosemary’s.

The building is shuttered now, but walk around it today and you can’t miss the potential. Situated across the street from the Neon Museum and next to the Las Vegas Library, it’s a prime link in a chain of venues that stretch the life of the central city north of Downtown. Two 8-by-16-foot murals celebrating the arts were installed above the main entrance in 1998, adding a bit of splash to the facade. (Tile murals celebrating the Mormon faith, apparently, are underneath.) But it’s a derelict place, as well. Those wood murals could use a coat of paint. The day I went to visit, a homeless man was bivouacked at the entrance.

Still, local preservationists and architects rallied to the building’s defense late last year when word got out that Whipple was standing in the way of a potential light rail line. The Regional Transportation Commission is working on early plans for a line running from McCarran Airport, up the resort corridor and into downtown. (This is separate from RTC’s Maryland Parkway light rail line, which would also run to the airport.)

The city’s Public Works Department was adamant that such a line serve the cultural corridor, as well. A preliminary idea would locate it on Casino Center as it passed through Downtown, ducking beneath the Fremont Street Experience, then “daylighting” north of 95 on Veterans Memorial Parkway, veering east through the parking lot just south of Reed Whipple, ending at Las Vegas Boulevard, right across from the Neon Museum. Initially the plans would have wiped out the southern wing of Whipple.

When preservationists objected, the city offered up a few alternatives. One would have demolished the southern corner of the building. “I had to explain that taking out a corner is still taking out a portion of the building,” says Heidi Swank, executive director of the Nevada Preservation Foundation. “It’s not about the amount of the south wing, it’s about whether or not you’re compromising the street view.”

The other idea was a new alignment that would allow planners to barely fit the line in without taking out any part of Reed Whipple. The challenge? If planners want to take the line over Las Vegas Boulevard and onto the Cashman Center site due east, they will have to overcome a slight skew in the trackway.

Lost in the furor over the demolition threat is the reality that such plans are in an extremely early stage and years away from being a real possibility. They may not happen at all. Mike Janssen, deputy director of the city’s department of Public Works, sounded an optimistic note. “Whenever we hear of a concern, no matter what angle it’s from, we want to try to find a solution that resolves that concern. I would think we’d be looking for an alternative that addresses the concern with any impact to the building,” he says. “We would do everything we could to see that through. Sometimes the resolution just ain’t there. There’s not a solution to the problem. But at this location, I think there’s still plenty of room to sift out an alternative that would miss the building.”

Still, late last year the Historic Preservation Commission passed a resolution opposing the demolition of any portion of Reed Whipple. While the resolution is not binding, it “creates a spotlight on the building, and the city has a tendency in the past to listen to the historic preservation commission,” Stoldal says.

Meanwhile, Stoldal says the commission also plans to request that funding be allocated to develop a nomination for Reed Whipple’s inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places. The commission hired a firm to study the building’s suitability for nomination back in 2011. But it did not measure up for a variety of reasons, most fundamental being that the Reed Whipple, while a “competent work of modern architecture,” was deemed neither rare nor unusual.

Reed Whipple may not have the architectural significance of the Fifth Street School, but surviving nearly 50 volatile years of change in the center of the city must warrant its own kind of respect. Of course, preserving a building is easier if you’re readying it for some new use. A future use for Reed Whipple remains the real question at hand — and the best chance at guaranteeing that it lasts. “We don’t have a lot of adaptive reuse,” Swank says. “It’s kind of a growing thing. I don’t think people yet understand the economic benefit of reusing the building.”

Transit officials have kicked around turning Reed Whipple into a transit stop. And Gaddis still hopes his Contemporary Dance Theatre can find a home there. The troupe had shared the space for a while with the Shakespeare company. Then Gaddis left. When he heard news the drama company had left, as well, he contacted Councilman Ricki Barlow, who has spearheaded other efforts to bring the building back. Barlow put Gaddis in touch with Craig Palacios, of the downtown architecture firm BunnyFish studio, who helped draw up some plans.

In addition to the 650-seat jewel box theater, Gaddis wanted to include a dance library and dance museum, and a youth study center on the Whipple site. On the adjacent block to the south, he hoped to help develop artist lofts and a choreographer’s residence, along with ground-floor businesses that would range from a grocery store to massage and physical therapists to a wellness center.

Gaddis responded to an RFP from the city and prepared a financial and business plan. He figured transforming the building would cost around $25 million, but they were going to move in, begin fixing it up and fundraise in stages. He was hoping to lease the space for a dollar. “We already had mirrors and floors; we could already get in and operate it.”

Early last year Gaddis had hoped for a grand opening last November, but he got caught in a typical bind: He says donors were willing to step forward, but not unless the troupe had the building. And the city wasn’t going to give them the building without the money. “I guess they felt that I was not financially able to keep the building up.”

So Gaddis moved his company to the edge of the arts district, near Main and Charleston. “They’re still willing to work with us,” Gaddis says of the city. “I don’t know what the city has planned. They haven’t told me anything other than the fact they were not going to do the RFP."

But even as the threat of its destruction roused its defenders, the fate of Whipple is unclear. Copper has been stripped from the building. Repair work will require more than $100,000. It’s unclear whether the city will pay for that or ask a developer to pony up. “Would it be more advantageous to have someone come in and buy it outright with some type of agreement to work with some other partners? Or would it be in the best interest of the city to be the landlord of the property? That’s his decision,” says Joe Mitchell, assistant to Councilman Ricky Barlow. And it’s a decision, he adds, that Barlow himself won’t make until “we’re quite clear in how these other things might affect it.”

So Reed Whipple sits and waits. The city seems to want to reuse it. There’s no shortage of exciting ideas, but the longer the city dilly-dallies, the more expensive it’s going to be save this structure. “Nobody who stops and thinks about it wants to tear it down,” Palacios says. “But you gotta remember that it’s Vegas, man. Our first reaction is to tear things down.”

“I think everybody wants it,” says Gaddis. “I think everyone was very receptive. They have to figure out what they want to do. I’m optimistic because I believe this city needs it."

 

Editor's note: This post has been modified to include a mention of the Rainbow Company Youth Theatre, a longtime tenant at Reed Whipple before it closed.

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