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"Martin, they're blowing up your tower."
"What tower?"
"The Sands Tower."
" . . . oh. . . . well, it wasn't much of a tower . . ."

   author's conversation with Martin Stern, Jr.

" . . . and (Kirk) Kerkorian said, "I want to build a hotel."
And I said, "What kind of hotel?"
"A Big One"

   from a conversation with Martin Stern, Jr.

Sahara High Rise Tower

Line sketch of the Sahara High Rise Tower

Artist's rendering of Sahara High Rise Tower
Artist's rendering of Stern's design for
the Sahara High Rise Tower

    In 1996 UNLV Libraries Special Collections acquired, with the assistance of Michael Acorn, Director of the UNLV School of Architecture, and Alan Hess, Los Angeles-based architectural historian and preservationist, all the architectural drawings, design brochures, specifications, artists rendering and photographs of Martin Stern, Jr., who designed and defined a significant chunk of the Las Vegas skyline from his 1953 low-rise room additions to the Sahara, the addition of its first high-rise tower in 1959, to the 1964 cylindrical, sculpted tower of an expanded Sands Hotel. Stern defined the new post-Hughes corporate Strip architecture with his 1969 Hotel International (later the Hilton), and in 1973 with his grandiose MGM Grand (now Bally's), in which Stern's epic porte cochere finally supplanted neon as the primal architectural statement.
    Martin Stern, Jr., moved from the East Coast to Los Angeles, where he worked as a sketch artist at a movie studio, in the 1930's. After working for a number of noted architects, he established his own practice in the early 1950s designing suburban housing tracts, apartment buildings, restaurants, bowling alleys, office buildings and the notable googie-style Ship's Coffee Shops, which helped to define LA's drive-in culture.
     Stern's first foray into Las Vegas market was in 1953 with the low-rise room additions for the Sahara Hotel. The layout of the early strip hotel/motels was wide-flung low buildings surrounding great outdoor swimming pools. This was a time when many of the Strip hotels were expanding by adding room additions partially in response to the new competition presented by the state-of-the-art Sands Hotel which had opened the previous year. Stern continued a long-standing relationship with the Sahara. He designed their first 14-story high-rise tower in 1959, as well as the later additions of a convention facility in 1967, a 342-room hi-rise addition in 1977 and another 625-room addition in 1979.
     Stern designed the new tower for the Sands Hotel in 1964 as part of a major expansion project completed in 1967. The original two story room buildings, designed by the original Sands architect Wayne McCallister, were actually moved to accommodate the expanded casino, showroom, and convention space of the modern corporate convention hotel. Gone was the intimacy of the original Copa Room where Jack Entratter's parade of Stars and Copa Girl productions had performed for decades, and the casino where headliners mingled with elegantly suited and furred casino crowds after the show.
MGM Grande porte cochere
MGM Grand porte cochere
    Howard Hughes purchased the Sands in 1967 for $23 million from Jack Entratter and Carl Cohen, although they (like Moe Dalitz at the Desert Inn) continued to run the hotel and casino under Hughes corporate management. Both Entratter and Cohen left the Sands soon after (following Sinatra who left for Caesars after Cohen punched him out), reportedly disgusted with the incompetence and venality of Hughes' people. The New Sands, designed by Stern in 1964 and sporting a new YESCO sign more in keeping with its new image, signaled a new scale and tone on the Strip. Gone was the sleek and low-slung intimacy of lounges, manicured lawns with rambling motel room wings with private box balconies overlooking the pool with its beauties, replaced with a bigger, bolder, and self-confident look of a legitimate corporate business.
     Not all Strip hotels went High-rise. In 1967 Stern designed a low-rise remodel for the Flamingo, with a curved facade and a glass encased sky-room restaurant (echoing the old Desert Inn's sky-room restaurant). The Flamingo's familiar pink neon champagne cylinder (part of the 1953 renovation and not part of Bugsy Siegel's original hotel) was gone, replaced by the now equally familiar pink plumed sign. And, having raised the skyline of the Strip, Stern did the same downtown with a 26-story high-rise for the Mint Hotel in 1968.
    But it was with the International Hotel, off the Strip and next to the Convention Center, built for hotel mogul Kirk Kerkorian, that Stern truly altered the Las Vegas architectural landscape. The International, a megalithic triform (often repeated and now ubiquitous if not de rigeur on the Strip), was an overscaled smooth-sided corporate block in which the porte cochere and elaborate driveways and parking lots defined the setting, not the highway.

MGM Grand
MGM Grand
    The MGM Grand followed in 1971, again built for Kerkorian, with its grandiose entry befitting the Hollywood that defined the hotel's theme. Inside, Stern developed and refined the interior labyrinth of the self-contained resort micro-city with craftily designed and interconnected casinos, restaurants, and shops, and the enormous showrooms and theaters that Las Vegas headliners and burlesque extravaganzas now required. It was a different Las Vegas, a different show from Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra crooning in the Copa Room and slipping into the casino for some after-the-show relaxation at the tables.
    The MGM Grand was the last of Stern's Strip monuments, but he continued to redesign and refine the Las Vegas skyline at the Sahara, where he continued to add on, and at the Riviera, where he designed a series of additions. The Riviera was the first high-rise hotel in Las Vegas, with its 9-story Miami-Modern tower completed in 1956. Stern added a 300-room addition in 1974, in 1977 he added six stories to the top, and in 1981 and 1984 he designed the expanded casino. His trademark was the tower with the top floors wider than those below, to accommodate the luxury suites with their panoramic views. He was the master of resort hotel casino design, integrating all the complex functions from parking to casino security. He knew which colors to put near which slot machines, where to place restaurants and elevators for the maximum effect. He understood the economics of luxury suites and casino design -- hence his specialty in casino and tower expansion. The El Rancho, another north Strip property (not to be confused with the original El rancho which burned in 1960), was expanded by Stern in 1982 and 1983, and a hi-rise tower of his design was added in 1987.
    Stern was also responsible for the export of the Las Vegas hotel/casino to other resorts. His association with Harrah's, Harvey's, MGM, The Sands, and the Sahara made him the most prolific architect in Reno/Tahoe and in Atlantic City, where his Las Vegas forms were often repeated in scaled-down versions such as the MGM Grand in Reno. But he did not simply transplant Las Vegas hotels to other cities. His designs for the Showboat and Playboy properties in Atlantic City, Harrah's and Sahara at Tahoe, and the Kuilima Hotel and Country Club in Hawaii were distinctive blend of a resort theme with its natural setting. The Atlantic City Showboat design, for example, took the traditional gambling boat motif of the Las Vegas Showboat hotels and rendered it into a modern stylized and streamlined cruise ship design.

Xanadu's atrium
Artist's rendering of the Xanadu's atrium

Artist's rendering of the Xanadu
Artist's rendering of the Xanadu

    An architect's unbuilt projects are almost as interesting as the ones that are built -- perhaps because they survive as the unadulterated image of the architect's design unblemished by actual construction, renovations and aging. Stern made designs and proposals for the Flamingo, the Aladdin, the Thunderbird, the Fremont, the Stardust, and Circus Circus which were not constructed. His 1965 Fremont Hotel high-rise design included a saucer shaped Sky Room at the top. Stern's 1970 Circus Circus design lost out to Rissman and Rissman, and Associates. Stern's 1972 proposal for the expansion of the Flamingo that included its first high-rise tower was also rejected in favor of a Rissman design. Stern's 1975 proposal for the Aladdin was rejected in favor of Lee Linton's Moorish design. In 1981 Stern designed a twin for Linton's tower which was also not constructed. Also in 1981 Stern designed an expansion project for the Landmark Hotel with a large quarter-circle high-rise with a towering atrium, and triangular theater structure jutting from an open plaza. It had design elements, the sloped and stepped tower, with which he had experimented on the Xanadu and later used in the Atlantic City Showboat.
    But the Stern design that should have been built was the Xanadu. The Xanadu Hotel, developed by Donald Trump, was planned for the site now occupied by the Excalibur. Trump's financing fell through and Stern estimates that he himself lost a million dollars in the project. The Xanadu was a giant mastaba with a huge atrium. The rooms were stepped back by its sloping walls, a presage of the later Luxor. Most striking in the glittering presentation drawings of the interior of the atrium is the circular bar suspended several stories above the floor on a slender stemlike column, like a small Shangri-La in the clouds, or maybe a giant daiquiri glass.

    When Martin Stern donated his drawings to UNLV he remarked that from them, all his buildings could be reconstructed to the last detail -- an interesting thought. The collection consists of over 600 sets of drawings, representing over 300 individual projects involving over 100 buildings; some of the buildings having been the subject of several projects such as renovations or additions. Of particular historical value are sets of original drawings of buildings which Stern later renovated, such as the original McCallister drawing of the Sands when it was the Cafe LaRue, as well as original drawings of the Riviera, and Stardust. There are probably 15,000 drawings including site plans, perspectives and renderings, shadow plans, floor plans, a set of comparative studies of floor plans of different Las Vegas Hotels, elevations, sections, details, furnishings, architectural, structural, mechanical, electrical, and plumbing plans representing all stages of design from preliminary pencil sketches to presentation, submittal and working drawings. From the details of external ornamentation of stair rails, to the doodling of traffic patterns in parking lots, casino layouts, theater design, lighting and all those structures and functions of the modern mega-resort hotel, tennis courts, pools, coffee shops, window frames elevator doors, even the furniture layout in the penthouse suites (of the Sands Tower) there is much of the history of Las Vegas in the drawings of Martin Stern, Jr.

Martin Stern, Jr. alphabetical inventory of projects

Remembering Martin Stern, Jr.

Architecture Library Stern Exhibit

Updated: Monday, 17-Dec-2012 10:54:25 PST
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