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Desert Companion

In Search of a Vegas Style: Why don't we look like Palm Springs?

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T.R. Witcher
Illustration by Delphine Lee

TR WitcherEditor’s note: In this rotating column, a writer explores a topic of relevance to Southern Nevada in six installments. Our first Writer in Residence is T.R. Witcher. This is the second of six columns about housing. Read his first essay at desertcompanion.vegas.

Homebuilder Dave Cornoyer first visited Las Vegas when he was 19. He went looking for the stylish house where Robert De Niro’s Sam Rothstein lived in Casino. He found the mid-century neighborhood Paradise Palms instead. To him, it epitomized the coolness of Las Vegas.

“At the time,” he says, “I still had this mid-century idea of Las Vegas, the resorts and the pool, the stonework, and the fun architecture.”

Today we build tight, red-tile-roofed homes, packaged in every color from the Periodic Table of Brown, packed so close they almost live like townhomes. It is functional and the very antithesis of cool. It’s chiefly why Las Vegas, one of the most iconic places on Earth, also feels strangely placeless. By comparison, those mid-century-mod cribs are like cool little time machines to a zestier, martini-addled past. Trying to draw a line connecting the two — if such a line can be drawn — is to try to answer whether Las Vegas has its own vernacular style, a question that forces us to think about the idea of affordability as much as aesthetics.

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The earliest residential subdivision, Buck’s Addition, was platted in 1905 by Peter Buol, just east of William Clark’s original Las Vegas Townsite. In the prewar years, developers who purchased land would put in “basic utilities and minor infrastructure such as roads and sidewalks,” wrote Michelle Larime, with the Nevada Preservation Foundation, in a 2015 report for the state’s Historic Preservation Office. Then they’d sell to whoever could afford to actually construct their own home. If you couldn’t, and not many people could, you were out of luck.

The valley began to grow after 1931, the year Hoover Dam began construction, gambling was legalized, and divorce laws were liberalized, and grew even faster after the war. As the Strip took off, residential development drifted south of the city’s boundaries, where developers faced lower taxes and fewer regulations.

In 1960 Irwin Molasky broke ground on the city’s first master-planned community, Paradise Palms. Stretching roughly between Desert Inn and Twain, Eastern and the Boulevard Mall, the new neighborhood, with its HOA, community park and pool, tennis courts, and golf course, offered buyers a shared universe of leisure.

But the homes were pretty dope, too. It wasn’t just the modern kitchens, built-in appliances, CMU block fireplaces, or swimming pools. Molasky found a style to match his ambitions in Palm Springs.

Like Vegas, Palm Springs exploded after World War II, and it needed housing fast. Famed Swiss Bauhaus architect Albert Frey had moved to Palm Springs and found the desert climate a perfect fit for his minimalist, open aesthetic. The Palm Springs style — aka desert modern, or what we think of when we say mid-century modern — at first pioneered homes that were “discreet to the street” but featured expansive, glass-filled backs that opened on to views of backyard pools and 11,000-foot Mount San Jacinto. The unique attributes of the look quickly came into their own: the overhangs and clerestory windows, those dramatic flat gable roofs, the variety of building materials, the open floor plans.

But Palm Springs really took off when the father-and-son-led Alexander Company began building cheaper, mass-produced mid-century homes and turned to the design firm of Palmer and Krisel. In one summer, the Alexanders built 600 homes. (The Alexanders built a few thousand in Palm Springs alone; other developers built many more throughout the Coachella Valley.)

Molasky was friends with the son, Bob Alexander. Local preservationists speculate that Molasky was so impressed with what he saw on a trip to Palm Springs that he hired Las Vegan Hugh Taylor, who had designed the popular Desert Inn, to do something similar.

Taylor did — so similar, in fact, that, until just a few years ago, preservationists believed architect Will Krisel designed all the homes. (Apparently Krisel, who did design some of the homes, also believed this.) But Taylor turned over his archive to the Nevada Preservation Foundation in 2014; turns out the initial homes at Paradise Palms — though indebted to Krisel’s Palm Springs work — were designed by Taylor himself.

The Paradise Palms master plan consisted of 1,000 homes — almost all were built between 1960 and 1965. Similar developments followed: Molasky built homes at Winterwood Country Club and at Black Mountain Golf Course in Henderson. And easy breezy ranches were popping up from a host of builders everywhere: Scotch 80s, McNeil Estates, Glen Heather.

And then the sixties ended. The crystalline, sparkling purity of modernism was no longer sexy, just constraining. “The Atomic Age was over,” says Downtown real estate agent Jack LeVine, who specializes in the city’s vintage neighborhoods. “We’d gone to the moon. We went back to building more traditional-style housing.”

Builders lost their boldness, Cornoyer says, “the sense of creating fun pieces of living art to live in.” The architects who invented California modernism — Krisel, Paul Williams, A. Quincy Jones, and others — did inspired work in Las Vegas. Can anyone name the designers who built residential Las Vegas from 1980 onward? (Cornoyer, I should note, lives in Paradise Palms and is the forward planning manager for Lennar Corp.)

What we can name are the master-planned communities, which grew ever bigger, from Charleston Heights in the ’60s (Sproul Homes) to Spring Valley (Pardee) in 1972, to Green Valley (American Nevada) in 1978, on through to the mother of them all, Summerlin, the 25,000-acre city of master-planned communities (Hughes bought the land in 1952, but its conversion began in 1988), to more recent iterations (Rhodes Ranch, Mountain’s Edge, Southern Highlands, Aliante, Centennial Hills, Inspirada, etc. etc.)

“You can see the rings,” LeVine says. “You can leave Downtown and go in any direction and see the changes, the pre-WWII ring, the ’50s ring, the ’60s ring” — up to the present day.

The metaphor of rings suggests difference — sexy vintage hoods Downtown that grow more generic and widget-like the closer you get to the hills. But if you trace the route the other way, any notion of a Vegas vernacular style is no easier to find.

We know the terroir of cities not by their grand boulevards, libraries, and museums, their parks or skyscrapers, but by the coherence of their residential styles: a Brooklyn brownstone, a Chicago three-flat, a San Francisco Victorian.         

Palm Springs is the real home of mid-century mod, all spit-shined glamour; Downtown Vegas, with its weathered stock of vintage homes on lots that may or may not have landscaping, offers something harder to define, grittier, more lived-in, more eclectic.

Heidi Swank, executive director of the Nevada Preservation Foundation, cautions that we shouldn’t take too narrow a view of what mid-century modern was. “Mid-century modern is not just butterfly roofs,” she notes. There were other styles, like the single-level “story book” or “Cinderella” style (think birdhouse cupola, multipaned windows, and low eaves) that L.A. architect William Bray built off of Oakey between Spencer and Eastern.

But mostly, Swank says, “It’s ranches. Ranches are the huge bulk of mid-century modern architecture.” Yes, Paradise Palms signals the golden-hued mythos of a burgeoning capital of cool. But the “backstage” of the slick Palm Springs aesthetic is the more straightforward California ranch home, the rambling, quintessential postwar American suburban residence. Credited to architect Cliff May, that’s the style that largely defines the center of Las Vegas.

The generic, inexpensive California ranch homes eventually morphed into the generic, red-tile, two-story Mediterranean, another import from Southern California that began appearing in earnest in the 1980s and proliferates the farther out from Downtown you go.

Molasky, it seems, was reaching for the new; future generations of developers and builders seem driven by playing it safe. And that’s what marks the Las Vegas home in totality: It’s happily, unashamedly derivative.

That a sleek, desert-modern style never became the style — too designer-driven, too showy? — suggests that perhaps our town has never been all that interested in its own built history. Or that the anonymity of our style confers a patina of democracy — whether you park cars or close deals, you’re probably living in the same kind of house. (The size of the house and the car parked out front may serve as the class signifiers.)

Or maybe it’s that we’ve invested so heavily in the iconography of the Strip to define our ambitions, identity, and place, that there was no need or desire for the rest of the city to symbolize anything at all.

But if the sexy style of Paradise Palms never really caught on, we might find one other strand of a vernacular style in the idea of the master-planned community itself, with its promise of ease and convenience, affordability, and sedate, insular, trouble-free living. All that careful planning — just for you. The Downtown neighborhoods seem more eclectic and less mass-produced — but the same ethos that drove Molasky drives Summerlin and the rest. Who knows? Maybe in 50 years the homes on the edge of the city will gain their own kind of cachet.

“Hugh Taylor is our guy,” Swank says. “We do all we can to promote Hugh, but Hugh was not this groundbreaking architect. He was a get-it-done architect. He could read the trends and use those trends to do interesting things.”

Maybe Taylor is the standard-bearer for the real aesthetic of Las Vegas, a chameleon who could riff on the prevailing style of the day. Swank took Taylor’s oral history shortly before he died in 2015. He told her he didn’t make special houses. He made houses — mostly California-style ranches — that were good and comfortable. “For him, he almost took more pride in the tract homes because he wanted to make homes for regular people.”

Next month: Vegas’ wild new houses of tomorrow

 

If you’ve enjoyed this read, wait until you get your hands on a bunch of these reads from contemporary voices mining the good stuff from Las Vegas — all laid out in a gorgeous design experience. Subscribe. It comes to your house. For real!

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