Yahoo Weather

You are here

Personal landmarks: Writers reflect on their favorite Las Vegas buildings

<p>The Flora Dungan Humanities Building / PHOTO: SCOTT DICKENSHEETS</p>

The Flora Dungan Humanities Building / PHOTO: SCOTT DICKENSHEETS

<p>The Las Vegas Library / PHOTO: SCOTT DICKENSHEETS</p>


<p>The Stratosphere / PHOTO: SCOTT DICKENSHEETS</p>



I probably shouldn’t lead with politics, but I do love a building that tells the right people to go to hell — most often (and certainly in this case) officials who push for grimly functional public structures, as if tax-dollar efficiency is a more enduring civic virtue than beauty. (Do we revere the Parthenon for its excellent value per square foot? We do not.) And while the Las Vegas Library probably isn’t our Parthenon, architect Antoine Predock’s tight jumble of forms — the cone, the tower, the blocks, the barrel, the blade — is beautiful, and not just as a rebuff to stingy politicians. There’s an energy to the juxtaposition of its shapes, a harmony to their arrangement. The eye swirls around the tower, slides down the vault, zips along the edges. With its copious sandstone, pale blue vault and a conical room like an idealized desert mountain, the library acknowledges the environment but isn’t ingratiating about it. (Hey, everyone, look at me referencing the desert!) It’s somewhat overlooked these days, partly because — admit it — it’s a magnet for the downtown homeless; partly because the glare of Frank Gehry’s titanium obscures the fact that funky modernism was going on here decades ago; and partly because shape-jumble architecture seems a little 1990 now. No matter. It’s still more venturesome than 99 percent of what gets built off the Boulevard, and that’s enough for me.


The campus of UNLV is largely unrecognizable to me now. In keeping with the city’s relentless creative destruction, many of the buildings where I spent my highly wayward youth are changed, changed utterly (a terrible mediocrity is born, to paraphrase Yeats). But the hideous-lovely tower and slab of Walter Zick and Harris Sharp’s 1972 Flora Dungan Humanities Building still looms over Maryland Parkway unchanged, like a lone fortress of lost modernism. It’s perhaps too much to say I was ever a fan of this edifice, with its soaring-yet-drab lobby; its pebbled, industrial yellow walls; its maze of tiny offices with coffin-windows that ringed a vertiginous atrium where professors spent decades taking cigarette breaks. But as an on-again, off-again English major, I spent hours and hours inside its cramped and crimping ugliness, and over time I grew very fond of its dowdy functionality. Like a dowager aunt, it seems to stand for the not-so-eternal (but still essential) verities of the humanities, faded yet imperious. It’s also the only UNLV structure that’s come anywhere near the word “iconic,” and as a symbol of the university alone its exterior should remain just so (though a thorough redesign of the interior is long overdue). No one should want it otherwise; the building’s ugly beauty is of a piece with the time it was created. If UNLV ever tears it down, the precious little institutional memory the university has will undoubtedly go with it.


Ignore the fugly hotel and ramshackle casino at its base. Just concentrate on the floral elegance of its 1,149-foot tower. A root-like tripod tapers in the middle, then broadens again to blossom into the warren of restaurants, rides and sightseeing vista at the top. Had it been built, as Bob Stupak originally planned, as a freestanding attraction, the Stratosphere would probably have made money. But in a town where financial failure is a worse crime than murder, bankruptcy will forever taint “Stupak’s Stump” in the eyes of many. But … this folie de grandeur has become one of the indispensable icons of the valley, the visual reference point whereby you orient yourself, wherever you are. And since, for a pedestrian or driver, downtown and the Strip might as well be on different sides of the planet, the Stratosphere provides a unifying element in that netherworld below the Fifth Street School and above Circus Circus. The views from its “pod” will never be rivaled by the comparatively puny Ferris wheels that Caesars Entertainment and Howard Bulloch are crawling to erect further south. Destined to outlast most of the casinos on the Strip, the Stratosphere is giving the eccentric Stupak the last laugh.