The Courtyard at the Historic Fifth Street School
Three elements make a great public space. Enclosure. Delight. And a view. While large public spaces are not a Vegas specialty, there are small spots here and there if you know where to look. Top of the list? The courtyard of the Mission-style Fifth Street School. Completed in 1936, the handsome, low-slung schoolhouse (now a cultural center for the city and a design outpost for UNLV) is the gem of Downtown.
Steps from Las Vegas Boulevard, mere blocks from Fremont, but worlds apart, the school’s courtyard is a remarkably calm and sensual place. It’s framed by a palette of white walls, red roof tiles and red wood columns; the west wall of the courtyard features a fountain marked with green and blue tile. Bistro lights and trees fill out the rest of the space. Surely it’s the best spot in town for a cozy wedding.
The materials are delightful — rich and textured. It’s a place that invites you to touch its surfaces and to take a few slow, luxurious breaths. Best of all, no one is trying to sell you anything. There’s nothing to do here but recharge your spirit. You might have to get creative to find a place to sit (the ledge of the fountain, nearby stairs), but the courtyard quickly energizes you.
As for the view? There’s no neon here, true. No majestic mountains or desertscapes. But face east, and the brilliant, louvered canopy of the Lloyd D. George Federal Courthouse stands tall over the courtyard, a silent sentinel connecting you back to the grandeur of Las Vegas.
Grand Canal Shoppes at the Venetian
Going on a gondola ride in Las Vegas is so cheesy — but so good. I’ve visited Italy, so when I moved here, my inclination was to snub the Venetian as a Disneyland substitute. Which, it turns out, is exactly what it is, but it does this really well. Heading through the crowd at the mini Piazza San Marco, my eye lands on a replica of the famous Venice clock tower, resplendent with Roman numerals circling bronzed zodiacs ticking time beneath the balconette holding a Virgin Mary statue. On the shelf above, a copy of the winged lion of Venice surveys approvingly as a petit comédie-Italienne commences upon the small stage below. Actors in motley and royal dress, one on stilts, juggle, dance, and sing in Italian, recalling 17th-century street performances.
As we slide down the canal, passing lion-shaped fountainheads, kissing for luck under bridges, the sonorous Italian ballads of our gondolier, Tino, surround us, completing the fantasy. Strangers walking by pause to listen; for a moment, we are all caught up in the Italian enchantment. Gliding by ornate quatrefoils windows, beneath the glowing “sky,” you are immersed in a moving Italian painting.
In May, The Venetian turns 20. With casinos moving away from travel-destination themes, who’s to say how much longer this faux Italian experience will be around. If you have never indulged your gondola urge, this almost-Italy moment will satisfy cravings for amore.
Smith Center Lobby
With its offerings of orchestra concerts, Broadway shows, and other big-name performers, The Smith Center has done much to burnish Las Vegas’ cultural bona fides — but the lift to a higher cultural plane begins in the lobby, from its polished marble floors to its shimmering chandeliers. If The Smith Center’s exterior is reminiscent of the Hoover Dam, the interior evokes a luxury ocean liner of the art deco era. The curving staircases are designed for intermission grand entrances, and the soaring sculpture of an angel reminds audiences that all art begins with inspiration.
Lissa Townsend Rodgers
UNLV Student Recreation and Wellness Center
There are few places I spend more time than the gym. At heart I’m an anti-gym-rat — but biking, hiking, or running outdoors every day isn’t an option here. And besides, the real reason I fell in love with this gym is the pool. With its half-dozen 25-yard lap lanes, vaulted ceiling, and window walls, it’s nicer than the pool in any other gym 15 minutes from my house. But over the years I’ve fallen in love with the rest of the SRWC, too. The squeak of sneakers on the glossed wood courts and the echoes from a pickup game take me back to my childhood YMCA.
The SRWC’s architects — DMJM Design of Scottsdale, Arizona, and Hastings & Chivetta of St. Louis, Missouri — blended these nostalgia-promoting elements into a highly functional layout that puts nearly every available activity within sight of the central foyer. A third-floor loft serves as a running track that overlooks the second floor, where the weight room, dance studios, and office space are arrayed around a spiral staircase. The bottom floor holds not just the pool, courts, and cardio room, but also restaurants and the student wellness center. Everything feels like it’s easily within reach. I can’t help but believe this is intentional, as it lowers the psychological barrier of sticking with a fitness regimen.
Sure, it’s humbling to be surrounded by co-eds in the prime of their life when I’m struggling to shoulder press 25 pounds. But I like to think I’m setting an example by showing up, week after week, as freshmen come and seniors go.