The Other Las Vegas


Heidi Swank and Dave Cornoyer


Newsletter, Regional Spotlight
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The Other Las Vegas is part of the Docomomo US Regional Spotlight on Modernism Serieswhich was launched to help you explore modern places throughout the country without leaving your home. In this edition, we're heading to Vegas!

What will you find if you wander off the Las Vegas "Strip"? Longtime residents and preservation advocates Dave Cornoyer and Heidi Swank will introduce you to "the other Las Vegas," full of midcentury charm that visitors don't commonly see. Swank, the director of Nevada Preservation Foundation, introduces some of the misconceptions that exist around preservation in Las Vegas and shares a project the organization spearheaded to highlight the city's "uncommon" modernism. Cornoyer takes readers through a variety of the midcentury residential neighborhoods that helped shaped the city and discusses how they've fared over time. 

The Other Las Vegas, Part 1
Las Vegas: Uncommon Modern

by Heidi Swank

Living in Las Vegas is in some ways an odd experience. In a city that is so acutely aware of itself, so well-known across the world, and so visited, it often seems as if our identity is not determined so much by Las Vegans, but by others’ perceptions and experiences of our community. Even to say that people visit Las Vegas is a misnomer. Visitors to Fremont Street are visiting Las Vegas, but The Strip itself is not even within the confines of the City of Las Vegas. It is in Unincorporated Clark County. A fact that often takes even residents by surprise.

Doing historic preservation work in Las Vegas, though, is not as odd. Las Vegas faces many of the same challenges as other cities, especially when it comes to the mid-20th-century and more recent past. We have heard that our midcentury architectural resources are “throwaways” because they do not exhibit the ornateness of earlier eras. We have also seen attempts to construct a Las Vegas history that never existed by building faux historic structures, most notably the new Nevada Supreme Court building in Downtown Las Vegas. Unfortunately, none of these challenges are unique to Las Vegas.

What may be unique, though, are our implosions. These in themselves are tourist attractions. Over the years, they have expanded into spectacles complete with music and light shows coordinated with the detonation of explosive devices. Jokes resound that we are the only city that would implode a building called “The Landmark” and a common refrain from Las Vegans is that “we blow everything up!” In fact, this is far from the truth. Nevada Preservation Foundation estimates that Las Vegas has about 70% of its older and historic resources, if you do not include The Strip. While still below the national average among cities of about 80%, it’s far from ‘everything.’

The longevity of the implosion myth is due, in large part, to the ways in which the Las Vegas Strip permeates so many aspects of life in and perceptions of Las Vegas. Even in the field of architecture, the Las Vegas Strip holds a prominent place. Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi’s seminal book Learning from Las Vegas focused exclusively on the symbolism of architecture as seen on The Strip. Credited with ushering in the postmodern era of architecture, it also overlooked the more quotidian areas of Las Vegas where modernism had taken hold and greatly influenced both residential and commercial architecture.

During the 20th century, Las Vegas experienced an explosion in population. From 1940 to 1980, the period within which Las Vegas: Uncommon Modern is focused, the population of Clark County grew from 16,000 to just under a half a million. With all that growth came city infrastructure. Soon there were churches, office buildings, shoe stores, diners, the full complement of buildings that comprise a city.

Yet, so few visitors and even Las Vegans are aware of these older and historic communities. For a city so enamored with its own past, we have for too long focused on too narrow a slice of our history. It was the aim of Las Vegas: Uncommon Modern to bring attention to these buildings, to the banks, churches, and homes, uncommon not in their number or typology, but only in that tourists and Las Vegans alike don’t see them. We wanted to help both residents and visitors see what locals like to call “the other Las Vegas.”

In the fall of 2017, Nevada Preservation volunteers fanned out across the Valley armed only with a cell phone and an Instagram account to sleuth out our more modest end of modernism. Each was assigned a section of the Las Vegas Valley, encompassing North Las Vegas, Las Vegas, Urban Unincorporated Clark County, and Henderson with one photo from Boulder City also coming in. They were assigned to photograph any building that appeared to have been built between 1945 and 1975. Over 500 individual buildings were recorded and can be found on Instagram under the hashtag #UncommonVegas.

Volunteers and staff culled through these 500 photos and selected 100 that best represent the breadth of modernism in Las Vegas. With grants from various institutions, Nevada Preservation hired a professional photographer to capture these 100 buildings. Working with the Urban Land Institute, Nevada Preservation held a day-long workshop, entitled Vacant Vegas, for local jurisdictions, architects, developers, and community members to explore how to revive long-vacant modern commercial buildings. Speakers brought in case studies of their work, delved into funding issues for complex projects, and the day concluded with charrettes that brought out new, fresh ideas for working with distressed properties.

By July 2018, our staff had selected 25 of the 100 photographed buildings from across the Valley to be printed, framed, and exhibited to the public at the historic Westside School in Las Vegas where our offices are located. After almost a year of visitors the exhibit closed in February 2019 in tandem with the publication of the exhibit catalog, Las Vegas: Uncommon Modern.

When we started this project, Nevada Preservation had just turned four years old. Looking back, it seems an ambitious project to have taken on for such a new organization. However, it is clear that it achieved more than we had anticipated. It gave our volunteers a chance to engage with our historic resources and gave them a new perspective on their community. The Vacant Vegas workshop validated restoration efforts focused on these resources. Lastly, the exhibit and catalog built connections with the arts community and people not quite adventurous enough to be out sleuthing for historic buildings and helped them to see their community in a new way.

Las Vegas is not a typical city, but it’s also not as “uncommon” as it is made out to be. Las Vegas: Uncommon Modern provided a window through which locals and tourists could view “the other Las Vegas,” appreciate it, learn from it, and understand that these seemingly mundane midcentury resources are a critical tie to our community identity that emerged not only from The Strip but from our neighborhoods and Main Streets. 

About the Author

Dr. Heidi Swank received her doctorate in anthropology with an emphasis on history and language from Northwestern University in 2006. She has published and presented widely on the ties between history, placemaking, and every day lives. Heidi has almost twenty years of successful grant writing experience, implementing field research and overseeing student research across the globe. As a resident of our older downtown Las Vegas neighborhoods, Dr. Swank has gained significant knowledge of mid-century resources and styles. She has spent almost 10 years researching this and other eras of 20th century architecture.

The Other Las Vegasis part of the Docomomo US Regional Spotlight on Modernism Series, which was launched to help you explore modern places throughout the country without leaving your home. Previous spotlights include Chicago, MississippiMidland, Michigan, and Houston. Have a region you'd like to see highlighted? Submit an article.

If you are enjoying this series, consider supporting Docomomo US as a member or make a donation so we can continue to bring you quality content and programming focused on modernism.

The Other Las Vegas Part Two
Jones and Emmons: Modernism for the Las Vegas Masses