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Ex Henderson Pavillion
Photography by Brent Holmes

Open Topic: The Hill Is Gone

Desert Companion

The Life and Unnecessary Death of the Henderson Pavilion


An earthmover churns up the hillside, lifts its great yellow claw, and pulls a pine tree until it snaps. The trees will give way, one after the next, the branches gathered and discarded. Tomorrow there will be nothing but stumps; what was green will be brown, what reached upward will be flattened. A staircase to the hilltop will have been alchemized into rubble. Soon the hill itself will be gone, and the seats below, and the stage, and the shell which once supported a canopy of sails long since blown away in the great and terrible storm of June 2018. The Henderson Pavilion, this place that promised music under moonlight, will be gone, supplanted by another place extending other promises: walls and a roof and climate-control and a hockey rink and young men gliding in their armor and the people of my city, shoulder-to-shoulder, cheering them on. I should embrace the new promises made, but I cannot stop lamenting the old one broken. This is the summer of 2020, life is under assault from assailants seen and unseen, reason has given way to rhetoric, and the two remaining modes of discourse appear to be panic and denial. There is a body count and a deadening of souls. Who am I to mourn, in such times, a place?

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It happened so fast. On February 6, the Vegas Golden Knights announced that they had purchased a minor-league hockey team. On February 13, Henderson Mayor Debra March informed us that the team would come to Henderson, that it would play at the corner of Paseo Verde and Green Valley parkways, and that the structure that occupied the corner, the Henderson Pavilion, would give way to a new arena. Among the townspeople, household whispers led to social-media bewilderment: In a city with so much raw land, why here, in place of this? Wasn’t it possible to love both our hockey and our Pavilion? On March 9, the city held a public meeting at which a man gave a PowerPoint presentation about all of the ways in which the Pavilion was unworthy — too old, too hot, too expensive to repair and maintain. At the end of the presentation, an elderly woman stood up. She was told she’d have a chance to comment to the city’s note-takers at the breakout sessions, but she said she would comment right now, to the people of her town, assembled here elbow-to-elbow in a plague season. “How many of you have ever been to the Pavilion?” she asked. Every hand in the room went up. “How many of you have ever had a bad time there?” All of the hands went down.

In the breakout sessions that followed, there was a corner to talk about traffic flow for the new arena, a corner to talk about parking, a corner to talk about design. There was not a corner to talk about saving the Pavilion.

On March 11, the president of the United States appeared on TV to acknowledge at last the danger of a renegade strand of RNA known as the coronavirus. For the next month and a half, time stood still, streets fell silent, and the air grew clean with quarantine.

The people’s hibernation coincided with the new arena’s gestation. By May 19, the city approved $42 million for the arena, to be matched by $42 million from the Knights. Architects were hired; renderings were produced. A group of Hendersonians gathered almost 3,000 signatures on a petition to put the matter on the November ballot. The city rejected the petition, arguing that each signature page did not explain exactly what would happen if the initiative blocking public money for the arena were to make it to the ballot and pass. (As a signatory, I understood quite well that if the initiative blocking public money for the arena were to pass, public money for the arena would be blocked.) The grounds around the Pavilion were fenced off, the adjacent farmer’s market was moved a block away, and on August 18 the earthmovers arrived, and I pulled my car over to mourn the trees.

I am trying to write not from a place of outrage but of love. My love for thePavilion helped me fall in love with Henderson. Like any public building worth its salt, it was built to serve our children’s children.

I am trying to write not from a place of outrage but of love. My love fuels my outrage. My love for the Pavilion helped me fall in love with this city. I was raised not a Hendersonian but a Las Vegan, out on the far-edge frontier once known as Flamingo and Sandhill. After a decade away, I moved back to the valley in August 1999 and found myself suddenly a resident of Henderson, a place I had previously associated with a sulfurous thing called “The Henderson Smell.” Now I associated it with the morning scent of mountains wet after monsoon rains.

In 2002, about five miles from our little house, the city opened its Pavilion, an amphitheater crowned by a lovely green hill with sapling pines at the top and seating at the bottom and a canopy that looked like a quiet fleet of sailboats or an arriving flock of doves. The place, designed by Denver architects Anderson Mason Dale, cost $10.3 million, and the result looked well worth the investment, a place, like any public building worth its salt, built to serve our children’s children. At the grand opening on September 27, the Las Vegas Philharmonic played Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man.” Hal Weller, then director of the Phil, mused on the many fall and spring seasons to follow. “The Pavilion,” he said, “is the perfect setting.”

Others agreed: When the American Institute of Architects held its national convention in Las Vegas in May 2005, the Institute’s most prestigious body, the College of Fellows, chose to induct its new honorees not in a palace on the Strip, but at the Pavilion. The AIA called the setting “High-Desert Grandeur.” It was certainly grand for my family. Season after season we went there for free symphony performances and children’s plays and cool morning walks along the palm-lined perimeter. Our little boy ran around the complex, across emerald lawns and fields of Mars-red clay. On show nights we took him to the top of the hill and showed him the lights of this, his native valley.

In 2006 we moved to Eugene, Oregon, and in 2010 we moved home from that paradise in part because we found a house within walking distance of the Pavilion. Our boy was in fourth grade when we returned, and his class’s first field trip was to a country-music festival and fair at the Pavilion. The hillside and plaza and Martian perimeter were filled with music and food, rides and games, gold-panning and a petting zoo. When the rain came, swirling and sweet, the people of Henderson huddled beneath the canopy of doves and under one another’s umbrellas. We were in that unlikely place called together, and the Pavilion had brought us there. In the years ahead, we listened to Beethoven and Stravinsky from the grassy hill; we watched Charlie Chaplin navigate the bewilderment of Modern Times while the Henderson Symphony Orchestra played his music. We sat on picnic blankets alongside friends old and new. We watched children roll laughing down the hillside.

When the Golden Knights came to town, the Pavilion’s playoff watch parties gave us free access to the expensive delights of the National Hockey League. The crowd gathered under the tent and before the big screen, decked in gold and black, nibbling on food-truck burritos and licking Hawaiian shave ice under the summer sun. Girls did cartwheels on the lawn while their mothers cheered on Marc Andre Fleury, a man so suddenly magical that locals were naming their dogs after him. It was here, after three hours of nerve-wracking action on the big screen, that I experienced the most profound moment of communal togetherness in my long Southern Nevada existence — May 20, 2018: Golden Knights 2, Winnipeg Jets 1. This team, in its first year of life, was going to the Stanley Cup Final. It was the Pavilion’s greatest moment, and it was the beginning of the end. For it showed that Henderson loved its hockey, and even more so, that it loved its Knights, and that the territorial locus of that love was right here, on this hill, whose glory was inseparable from its doom.

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