Viva Las Vegas: After-Hours Architecture
by Alan Hess, Chronicle Books, 127 pages
Many of us hold Las Vegas at disapproving arm’s length, thinking it’s the last place we’d ever want to go. Just wait until you read Alan Hess’s admiring history of the city that began as a wagontrail stop across the Western desert and became a modern synonym for tastelessness, flash, and illusion writ on an ever-grander scale. Hess’s enthusiasm is infectious; he simply loves the twohundred-foot neon signs, the theme architecture in which paddle-wheel steamers bloom in the desert next to Roman amphitheaters that promise orgies of getting and spending. Hess speaks kindly of “Italian marble floors and pink-andwhite leather sofas, lilac carpeting in the casino, and violet and magenta walls.” He tells of chandeliers that “took the form of flying saucers and spinning planets.” And he also brings to his chronicle of hotels and signs and behind-the-scenes money the cooler, analytic sensibility of an architectural historian who sees in Las Vegas a “potent urban model” of today’s car-oriented commercial strip.
The book is filled with wonderful color photographs as persuasive as the text; they carry with them a certain weight of nostalgia. And by the last picture—of “Del Web’s Mint“—you feel real regret for an undulating pink neon sign’s loss in 1988. More recently the Dunes’s eighteen-story minaret-topped sign (still a survivor when Hess’s book was published) vanished in a great, enormously publicized fireworks of an explosion that in itself was being filmed for a movie. So perhaps it’s a good idea to get out there soon, before Las Vegas decides to reinvent itself all over again.