Last week, we explored the future-fantastic world of Googie architecture from its home base in Los Angeles. Born of the 1950s automobile culture that defined 1950s and 60s Southern California, the various roadside coffee shops, diners, motels, and bowling alleys of the era were designed to catch the eye of passing motorists, and the imaginations of an entire generation of Americans. This week we will conclude our special two-part edition of Cityscape with a trip down the I-15 to Las Vegas, Nevada, to the original bright light city that was once famously guaranteed by the King of Rock n Roll himself to set your soul on fire.
Away from the modern mega-casinos and hotels of the Las Vegas Strip, north to Fremont Street, the original Old Strip is home to the birthplace of Las Vegas' 1950s and 60s heyday, the era of the Golden Nugget, Sands, and Stardust, of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Sammy Davis Jr. While many of the classic Las Vegas hotels and casinos have fallen to the wrecking ball, many survive, either in situ, as a part of the Fremont Experience, or as one of the many salvaged neon signs and other memorabilia to be found at the Neon Museum, all of which can be found in downtown Las Vegas.
Seen above, the Old Strip on Fremont Street in downtown Las Vegas was once home to the many casinos, hotels, and nightclubs of Sin City's golden era. While the arrival of Googie architecture in Las Vegas would come a little later than the period depicted in the above image since the first generation of casinos sported a more classic Wild West theme, the foundation for outlandish over-the-top design, complete with coloured lights and flashy neon displays, was already well in place by the time the 1960s rolled around, bringing with it the Space-Age-inspired whimsy that had by then been established in Southern California.
By the 1960s, as seen in the postcard view of Fremont Street above, the look and feel of the Old Strip was beginning to shift towards a much more modern Googie-inspired aesthetic. The addition of The Mint Las Vegas in 1957 was among the first examples of the style to break onto the Old Strip. Viewed in more detail below, The Mint featured a collection of Googie tropes, including a swooping, saucer-like roofline, neon lights, and not one but two starbursts placed atop the twin roadside greeting signs.
Pictured below, Binion's Gambling Hall & Hotel originally opened in 1951 as The Horseshoe with a Fremont Street facade sporting a much more Country Western look, complete with oversized horseshoe decorations in keeping with the rest of the strip. After a series of reinventions, what is now known as Binion's — a key fixture within the Fremont Experience, a preserved five-block pedestrian mall in the heart of downtown Las Vegas — updated its look over the years to comply with the changing tastes of the day. Its current facade contains several Googie-inspired design cues, including repeated geometric shapes, boomerang pylons, and the requisite overabundance of neon necessary to establish its presence amid the lights of the Old Las Vegas strip.
Over time, Fremont Street slowly lost its appeal. Its increasingly outdated establishments, many of which had been built upon the bones of much older turn-of-the-century taverns and commercial buildings, were unable to compete with the first generation of modern casinos, hotels, and nightclubs that started to appear on what became the new Las Vegas Strip, located just south of the downtown core on Las Vegas Boulevard.
Viewed in the postcard above, the original Stardust Night Club was opened in 1958 as one of the first establishments on the new Las Vegas Strip. The quintessential poster child for all things Googie, The Stardust featured a strikingly literal interpretation of the Space-Age aesthetic then in vogue: the planetarium-themed facade included a panoramic view of the Solar System, complete with rotating planets and twinkling stars. Constructed out of a a mixture of neon and nearly 1,000 incandescent bulbs, The Stardust became an instant icon and symbol for the new Las Vegas.
Pictured above and below, The Sands Hotel and Casino opened in 1952 on the Las Vegas Strip, and soon became the epicentre of the particular brand of cool, hip entertainment provided most famously by the Rat Pack, along with a host of featured players including Red Skelton, Ann-Margret, and Lillian Briggs. Designed by Southern California's Wayne McAllister — a key figure within the rise of Googie architecture, who was responsible for Bob's Big Boy in Burbank, California, among other notable structures — The Sands features an impressive array of Googie tropes, including a reliance on geometric shapes, multiple large pylons, and an overt futuristic aesthetic and Space-Age character. Below, the expanded Sands Hotel and Casino, bought by famous billionaire and noted eccentric, Howard Hughes, in the 1960s, highlights the additional Googie-influenced 500-room hotel tower and other structures, which further link the establishment to its distinct time and place.
Beyond the Las Vegas Strip, there remain a handful of Googie-inspired motels and other roadside establishments that are highly evocative of the style and era from whence they came. Until its closure in 2003, this included the La Concha Motel, whose iconic main lobby has been restored and relocated to the Neon Museum. Designed by Paul Williams — another Googie great who was responsible for the LAX Theme Building in Los Angeles — the La Concha Motel was opened in 1961 towards the south end of the Strip, with a signature swooping lobby and main entrance that were instantly recognizable amid a city of outlandish architecture and design.
Begun in 1996, in the wake of a long series of demolitions and redevelopments throughout the 1980s and 90s, the Neon Museum in downtown Las Vegas is home to hundreds of signs and other architectural salvage from Sin City's 1950s and 60s heyday. A central component of the surrounding Fremont Experience which itself has benefited from the restorative efforts of the museum's capable restoration team, many of the most iconic neon and incandescent light bulb signs of Las Vegas' bygone golden era have been restored to their former glory for all to see. Pictured below, the original Stardust sign sits within 'The Boneyard,' the Neon Museum's permanent outdoor display of old Las Vegas' unique architectural legacy.
For more than 70 years, Las Vegas has been synonymous with grandeur and excess, an adult Disneyland for those looking for a particular brand of entertainment and adventure miles away from the rest of the civilized world in the middle of the Nevada desert. The location for countless modern novels and films, the city's seedy underbelly and mafia roots have been the inspiration for countless tales of debauchery and underworld crime. Today, Las Vegas remains a premier destination for millions of tourists per year, with a recent much more family-friendly makeover serving to boost its appeal for visitors of all ages. For urban explorers, or for those less interested in the delights of the Las Vegas Strip, a visit to Fremont Street and to the Neon Museum, or to one of the many Googie-inspired remnants of Las Vegas's golden era Rat Pack days, is well worth the effort. Sin City remains one of the most distinctive architectural destinations in the United States.
Cityscape will return next week with a brand new installment. In the meantime, SkyriseCities welcomes new suggestions for additional cities and styles to cover in the weeks to come. Got an idea for the next issue? Let us know!