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UNLV Libraries Main Page -> Architecture Studies Library -> Las Vegas Guides and Collections -> Las Vegas Architects and Buildings Database -> People

Jo Harris

Born: 1927
Died: 2005-06-04
Primary Profession: Interior Designer/Architect
  • Southern Nevada
  • California
Notes & References: Caesars Palaces: Las Vegas, NV
3570 Las Vegas Blvd. S.
Melvin Grossman (Architect) and
Jo Harris (Interior Designer)

She was responsible for laying out original inside of Caesars Palace, Circus Circus

Jo Harris, 78, the original interior designer for Caesars Palace and Circus Circus, died Saturday in Sacramento, Calif., from complications of diabetes. She served as a top aide to developer Jay Sarno for 28 years.

"He had the upmost respect for her work," said Heidi Sarno Straus, a daughter of the late Jay Sarno. "She had a style all her own, and it really appealed to my father."

She described the style as "high drama ... very Vegas glamour ... everything sunken marble, velvet on velvet and very ornate."

Stan Mallin, Sarno's longtime partner, described Harris as a pleasant associate. "She was very clever in designing and naming restaurants," including Cleopatra's Barge, the Bacchanal Room and Noshorium coffee shop at Caesars.

She consulted with them on casino exteriors, but "mainly her forte was interiors," Mallin said.

Harris was born in Sharon, Pa. Her father developed the first fully cantilevered, low-wing monoplane in Cleveland, and she had her own airplane, motorcycle and car when she was in high school.

She started working as an unpaid assistant to a local architect there at 14. She learned interior design at a department store in Youngstown, Ohio, and later did commercial design in Tulsa, Okla., Miami and Atlanta, where Sarno hired her in 1956.

Sarno and Mallin gave her 24 hours to design a combination nightclub, restaurant, convention center and motor inn for Birmingham, Ala. They also built the so-called cabanas in Atlanta, Dallas, and Palo Alto, Calif.

The Palo Alto project resembled Sarno's first casino, Caesars Palace, which opened in 1966. She designed it in a classical European design. A line of Italian cypress trees, fountains and reflecting pools led to the building.

Before Caesars, the design of most Strip casinos "was all just accidental," she recalled in an interview eight years ago.

The development team took a different approach with Circus Circus. It was built around an arena where circus performers still do stunts. Carnival attractions were on the second floor, along with "the world's best pickup joint." It had numbered tables with phones that could be used to call guests at other tables.

Attractions included a live raccoon that played basketball in a vending machine and a sideshow where a woman changed into a gorilla. The gorilla then broke out of her cage and sent people running.

Circus Circus was the first Strip casino designed for the family market, Mallin said, but it was "ahead of its time. It was not well-received." In the years after Circus Circus opened in 1968, there were fuel shortages, he said. "We went through some tough times" before Circus Circus and the concept won acceptance under Bill Bennett's management, he said.

After those projects, Harris became chairwoman of the new architectural and design department at Bauder College in California.

She helped Sarno plan his last project, The Grandissimo. It would have been the biggest hotel ever built, with 1 million square feet of public area and 6,000 guest rooms. It was to have waterfalls, a boat ride for guests, an illuminated aquarium with mermaids and an indoor swimming pool.

But the Grandissimo was never built, and Sarno died in 1984.

Survivors include three sons, Mickey Mahan of Houston, Bo Harris of Florida, Jack Benner, also a designer, of Berlin; and a daughter, Jill Von of Phoenix.

Memorial services are pending at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at 11101 51st St. in Sacramento. Arrangements are by Evergreen Memorial.