Build it up. Blow it up. Build it better. That might have been the de facto motto of can't-stop won't-stop Las Vegas -- until the housing bubble popped and brought with it the end of an era.
But even the global economic crisis has a silver lining. In Southern Nevada, that's arguably translated into a willingness to revisit the past with something more than a wrecking ball. Some business and individuals are now considering history an asset instead of a liability, something to embrace rather than erase. Here are a handful of the folks and firms who are thriving in the past.
The Siegel Group: Boutique and improved
After dropping out of junior high, Siegel Group founder Steven Siegel earned money by buying old cars, restoring them and selling them for a profit. He later moved on to buying down-and-out apartment buildings and fixing them up, eventually creating Siegel Suites extended-stay hotels. And over the past few years, he's been rescuing classic Las Vegas properties.
The company bought downtown's well-past-its-prime 112-room Gold Spike casino in 2008. Viewing the fleabag 50-room motor lodge next door as a blight on the neighborhood, the Siegel Group bought that as well and rechristened it Oasis at Gold Spike. Today, both offer completely renovated modern rooms. The $3-a-hand "sexy blackjack" tables, open only at night, draw both local residents and tourists. And the casual, affordable Golden Grill has become a popular downtown lunch spot for government workers.
With basic rooms costing between $35 and $65, the prices aren't drastically less than some options on The Strip. But Siegel Group's Director of Business Affairs Michael Crandall feels they still hold a unique appeal for budget-conscious tourists.
"You can absolutely get a room at The Hard Rock or the Luxor or any of these places that are offering $39 or $49 room nights," he says. "But after you stay there, it's $39 a person for breakfast or lunch. Or it's a minimum on Friday or Saturday of $25 at a blackjack table. So you can't really afford to stay on the Strip. The amenities cost more than the room."
The Gold Spike was just the beginning for The Siegel Group. Later in 2008, it bought The Mount Charleston Hotel, and commenced giving the mountain resort a full makeover. And when one-time hipster hangout The Artisan Hotel was closed down following repeated health code violations, the company swooped in and bought that as well. Its once-filthy hotel rooms have been cleaned. The bar has reopened. And the restaurant has been approved to once again open for business. Crandall believes all of those properties were "hidden gems" just waiting to be rediscovered.
But the purchase that excited him the most is the dilapidated 150-room St. Tropez, directly across Harmon Avenue from The Hard Rock. Others viewing the abandoned resort may have only seen the green water in the pool and the trashed rooms. But Steve Siegel and his team envisioned hammocks hanging from trees, guests doing yoga poolside, suites by famed designer Marc Tracy and private candlelight dinners on guests' balconies. So they brought in former Hard Rock Casino president Yale Rowe to create their most ambitious project yet, Rumor, which Crandall views as "The Roosevelt in Hollywood meets The Viceroy in Palms Springs."
The four boutique hotels clearly serve very different markets. But Crandall says one philosophy underlies them all. "The most important thing is you know your customer," he says. "If you know your customer, you can cater your business around your customer." - Al Mancini
Tropicana Las Vegas: Restoring excitement
Although the new mantra at the Tropicana Las Vegas is "We're changing everything," they're really not. After two solid decades of scrapping old hotel-casinos outright and replacing them with high-cost megaresorts, the Tropicana is a "new" casino for the Great Recession: fresh skin and innards woven into the skeletal structure of an existing casino-resort.
"When are they gonna redo the Trop?" is a question that's hung over the Strip since the late '90s. A series of owners were either too indecisive or too penurious to pull the trigger on a makeover, allowing it to deteriorate. Canadian investment firm Onex Corp. bought the Trop out of bankruptcy in June 2009 and installed casino veteran Alex Yemenidjian as CEO. His challenge: restore excitement without spending a fortune.
The first set of upgrades, which included a complete redo of the casino floor and the Paradise Tower, was budgeted at $165 million - chump change in the era of $8.5 billion CityCenter.
"We really benefited from the timing of the economy," says Vice President of Hotel Operations Arik Knowles. With so many contractors suddenly idled, "everybody's looking to unload materials," he says, which enables Knowles to obtain furniture, accessories and maintenance equipment at deep discounts. "Forty-two-inch plasmas, in our class, is unheard of," he says of the high-definition TVs that are now standard in Paradise Tower rooms. The new chairs in the convention center "were meant for another property but we were able to piggyback" off the rival's misfortune. (Knowles is a former Fontainebleau executive.)
Aside from being greeted by two footmen at each door, another sign of a new Trop attitude is the white marble flooring and white-painted brickwork in the casino. According to Knowles, the new "South Beach" theme translates as a lightening and brightening of guests' perceptions, with a casual, approachable feeling -- reflected in the "residential" look of the refurbished rooms -- a paramount consideration.
Since the Trop evolved -- then devolved -- over a half-century, "original" is a relative term. The initial V-shaped motel wings remain and will get repainted, along with being stripped of some trellis-like frippery. In the Paradise Tower, the first-generation chair rails, plaster ceiling medallions and bathroom tiling will be ongoing vestiges of the old days.
However, the dark wood-paneled front-desk area and its "old school experience" are slated for removal, as is the signature barrel-vaulted, Tiffany-glass ceiling over the table games. Knowles concedes this "is the one controversial element. Everybody wants us to keep it." Even in a recession, progress in Vegas extracts a high cost in nostalgia. - David McKee
MEET Las Vegas: Reintroducing style
Except for a cryptic, all-caps "MEET" along its parapet, there's nothing that outwardly denotes the three-story, windowless structure at 233 S. Fourth St. as Las Vegas' newest convention facility. MEET Las Vegas, which opened March 16, is a caterpillar-to-butterly transformation that owes its metamorphosis to Mayor Oscar Goodman. When CEO Dan Maddux was opening his previous executive-training facility, the White House behind the Convention Center, Goodman told him, "Downtown would be a better place for you." (Hizzoner is nothing if not direct.) Maddux soon found himself scouting downtown for C2-zoned buildings that were conducive to hosting events and exhibits, and to which he could transfer White House's training facilities. (The latter now operates from the top floor of MEET Las Vegas.) He needed a high-ceilinged building with few or no columns interdicting its floors. "In exhibitions, a column-free floor is desirable . . . Bank buildings tend to meet those requirements," Maddux says, and he lucked into a 1974 structure.
"That was the one building that had the ceiling heights I needed on the first floor," he says, in addition to all the other prerequisites. Nearby, pre-existing parking garages would absorb traffic, enabling Maddux to cannibalize the bank's parking lot to create an outdoor pavilion. "There are not a lot of outdoor spaces in Vegas," he says, "unless you have a pool that you have to work around.
"While the city was wonderful to work with, they did say this was a building they wanted to maintain" for its architectural character, Maddux says. In the end, "the only thing we reused was the outside." Inside, "it was, for all intents and purposes a decaying office building . . . a freestanding steel structure, perfectly intact, with another building in the middle that was sagging."
Since natural light isn't desirable in exhibitions, the window glazing was blacked out and clad in aluminum for "a much more updated look." At night, LED lighting recessed in MEET Las Vegas's myriad archways "completely washes down the building. I wanted to create an events experience that, when they're driving down Fourth Street, the event begins the minute you see our building in the distance."
A zealous downtown convert (he even has kind words for Neonopolis), Maddux sees MEET's boutique exhibition space as part of the area's evolution into "a walkable city where people live, they work, they can be entertained. . . . While we may not have a lot of interesting architecture from the early 20th century," he says, there's considerable mid-century architecture "and it's going to be part of our flavor going forward." -D.M.
Paradise Palms: In with the old
"We saw the train wreck coming in new-house construction," recalls Building Media CEO Craig Savage, who wanted to demonstrate to his peers that retrofitting of existing homes could be done tastefully and "somewhat affordably." His target audience: the 2010 International Builders Show. He needed a demonstration house near the Convention Center.
Savage's eye fell upon 3546 Pueblo Way, a 1963 domicile that was part of Las Vegas' first master-planned community Paradise Palms, alongside the Stardust Golf Course. It had seen better days.
"The house had good bones and a good feel, although it had been a crack house," Savage recalls. "It had been invaded by the SWAT team. They had blown a big whole in the door."
Behind the damage lay a single-story home in the Midcentury Modern style, with an open floor plan, low-pitched roofs, vaulted ceilings and wall-sized windows. One thing missing: insulation.
Savage is more blunt: "Midcentury houses are incredible energy pigs. We wanted to maintain Midcentury vernacular and at the same time create a net-zero energy home," one that puts as much back into the power grid in a year as it extracts. "Essentially, we created a thermos bottle."
Having bought the house out of foreclosure, Savage began work in November 2009. Aluminum siding and decaying wood were stripped away and replaced with artificial stucco. Cavities in the walls and ceiling were filled with high-density construction foam. Clerestory windows and French doors, and their wood or aluminum frames, were replaced with triple-paned windows and fiberglass framing. Floor-to-ceiling windows were downsized. Countertops and carpeting made from recyclable materials (including plastic bottles and corn oil) were installed. The original roof was crowned with a second, slightly elevated, metal roof to relieve the pressure created by Las Vegas' fierce sunlight.
Amid the modernization was a lot of restoration. Mirroring installed on the hearth in the 1980s was removed, as were extensions to the master bath and closet. Savage also "un-remodeled" the garage to recreate the original carport, upgrading it with a permeable driveway of crushed glass and resin. Theoretically, you could wash your car and the water would go through the glass and back into the soil, not the storm drain.
The end result, says Savage, is a house that's "three times as energy-efficient in the walls and over four times [as much] in the roof." As for the synthetic, water-permeable new lawn out back, Savage says there's only one way to tell it's not real: "You've gotta eat it." Thanks, we'll take your word for it. - D.M.
"I tend to have a passion for old things," explains Quentin Abramo, owner of Faciliteq Architectural Interiors at 817 S. Main Street, a one-stop shop for sustainable workplace environments. In 2005, Abramo relocated his base of operations from Arizona to Las Vegas. Since Faciliteq does considerable business with Clark County and the City of Las Vegas, it was logical for Abramo to set up shop downtown.
His eye fell upon the former Sedano Garage. It had been built in 1949 as a boxing arena, "like the Thomas & Mack of downtown," he says. But as car dealerships became the dominant business in the vicinity, pugilism gave way to ABC Garage, later Sedano. Since the interior was a wide-open space, requiring little alteration, it was an ideal showroom for Faciliteq's modular interiors.
But the attraction was more than pragmatic. "The facility I bought has some great architectural bones," says Abramo, noting with particular enthusiasm the 27-foot-high, bow-trussed roof, "the old way to build a ceiling that looks like a hangar." He estimates it would cost $500,000 to replicate that today -- nor would one get the postwar woodwork. "It's cool! There's no other way to say it."
The cathedral-like roofing meant that heating and cooling would be routed under the floor, giving Faciliteq another chance to show off its "holistic approach to workplace interiors." (It requires less energy to pump hot and cold air from floor level.) Over the original gym flooring, a series of two-foot-by-two-foot concrete tiles were laid, with all the necessary ductwork and electronic cabling rerouted through the newly created, 14-inch-high crawlspace.
The brick walls on the north and south sides were retained, while the old roll-up doors were converted into full-length windows. (Faciliteq is a believer in the connection between natural light and productivity.) "It was a perfect scenario," Abramo says, to create a showroom attractive to the design community. They can appreciate the vintage architecture, as opposed to rummaging through yet another anonymous, box-like, tilt-up building, which Abramo decries as the standard mode for building anything in Vegas that's not a casino. The American Institute of Architects were certainly impressed, giving Faciliteq its 2007 Nevada Excellence in Design award in the Sustainable Design category.
Abramo may call Faciliteq's new home "an envelope that affords room for sustainable design," but it's not without its nostalgic touches: The old garage engine hoist, a bright-orange machine, still hangs in place, a reminder of Faciliteq's previous metamorphosis. -- D.M.
Dating from 1944, the house at 1211 Franklin Ave. was originally built as a two-bedroom, one-bath dwelling. "We would call it a cottage-style house," says Levine, who adds that the carport was subsequently enclosed, increasing the house's footprint from 900 square feet to 1,600.
"It had the original kitchen and bathroom tile work," Levine says, by way of explaining its attraction. The original wood window frames were still present and in good condition. As for the additions to the original structure, the realtor notes they "were done well instead of poorly, like we often see" in do-it-yourself expansion projects.
One aspect of the original style LeVine had to redo was the flooring. Originally, per the style of the time, 1211 Franklin had a parquet floor over concrete, but that had been stripped out over the years. That wasn't the only "back to basics" task that faced LeVine.
"We undid 10 bad paint jobs that went one on top of another." (He estimates that 90 percent of the task lay in the preparation alone.) He also redid the exterior stucco, as what he inherited was a patchwork. The outside "had some nice awnings, so we decided to keep those," he adds.
In the bathroom, the original sink was still in place, as was the light fixture. LeVine deemed the latter less than ideal but sighs, "There's only so much budget."
Besides, there were more urgent tasks at hand. While much of the original pipework that provided the water supply had been replaced, some of the cast-iron pipes were still in situ, 66 years later. The house wasn't living on borrowed time but overtime. As LeVine explains, cast-iron pipes "have a 50-year lifespan before they're clogged." Ergo, he pulled out the remnants and replaced them with copper.
What lessons has LeVine learned? According to his blog, they include, "40 year old wallpaper is not fun to remove" and "EVERY plumbing job will require [three] trips to the hardware store."
Duly noted, weekend warriors. -- D.M.