Observers from outside have long noted what those of us living in Las Vegas already know: The character of our community is rapidly shifting, transient and impermanent.
That’s historically been true of our commercial and residential architecture, the structural guideposts that can be erased with a wrecking ball. Some locals have started a new organization to hold onto the past, however.
Heidi Swank, a assemblywoman in the near-downtown area, a former UNLV anthropology assistant professor and a resident, with her husband Scott Swank, of the Beverly Green neighborhood, is working to create the Nevada Preservation Foundation. The effort comes at a time when there is renewed interest in Las Vegas’ mid-century architecture and history, including an effort to rehabilitate the aging Huntridge Theater near downtown.
Swank filed paperwork with the state in October to create the new nonprofit foundation. A temporary advisory board is in place and she is in the process of putting together a permanent board and getting federal nonprofit tax status.
When people think of Las Vegas history and, especially, of the loss of that history, they think of the massive implosions on the Strip. But Swank is looking not at the big commercial properties, but at the mid-century residential efforts.
“We’ve lost a lot of these smaller homes that were designed by these architects, named architects, who were outstanding at what they did,” Swank says. Her own house was designed by noted architect Hugh Taylor, who designed the Desert Inn Hotel.
Smaller commercial properties also need an advocate, she says.
“In the corridor along Fremont Street, the mid-century hotels, some of those have gotten renovated beyond being able to find the bones,” she says, referring to the underlying older structure. “Others have been torn down. Some have been repurposed.
“We lost the Pair of Dice Hotel,” she says, ruefully. “There’s a lot of building that we’ve lost.”
Swank says she’s not as worried about the Strip, where change has been constant over the last 60 years.
“We’ve got a lot more beyond the Strip,” she says. “People forget that there’s so much more than the Strip to be saved.”
A few neighborhoods Swank believes need to be recognized for their historical significance include the Biltmore Bungalows, Berkeley Square, and the residential neighborhood south of Beverly Green that includes Paradise Park, where the city of Las Vegas recently completed a survey of the modest, 900 to 1,200-square-foot bungalows. Those two-bedroom homes sold rapidly in the post-World War II years to families who suddenly had access to home financing.
“Homes were available to folks who couldn’t pay 50 percent down,” Swank says. “It could be something people call mid-century modest.”
Paradise Palms is another neighborhood that calls out for preservation, she believes. The community is crowded with residential architecture that is equal to that found in Palm Springs and other western towns and which helped define the look and character of residential areas in the post-war America, she says. “I think the mid-century architecture is really important to the West.”
The foundation, which still is in a nascent form, has already served as the basis for working to preserve Liberace’s Las Vegas mansion. Also, Swank has worked with Clark County to help draft an ordinance that will help neighborhoods protect older structures when “significant changes are proposed.”
Swank says she will work with the city, county and other local governments to help preserve unique and important architecture; she notes that efforts such as the National Registry of Historic Places, which recognizes valuable properties, doesn’t actually mean those places will be preserved.
Swank knows that sometimes preservation efforts make people nervous. They fear that they will lose control or value in their property. But she says that’s not the intent - and in fact, home and business owners may see a positive impact.
“If you look at studies of home values… in the vast majority of cases, home values go up faster than neighborhoods that don’t have historic preservation,” she says. “If people know the neighborhood is not going to have massive change to it, that provides stability.” CL