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July 30, 2014

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Powerful Lobbyists: Groups determined to save the heart of La Concha hotel

In 1988 when a demolition crew arrived at the former ice plant in downtown Las Vegas, it brought with it an iron wrecking ball that would swing for days at the building's concrete walls and steadfast beams.

Though there were arguments saying otherwise, the fire-damaged building near the railroad tracks in downtown Las Vegas was deemed useless. Those who witnessed the event recall how heartily the massive fire-damaged building resisted its demise.

Later Bob Stoldal, history buff and vice president of news operations of KLAS Channel 8 (CBS), pieced together footage of the wreckage. He included local commentary and mixed in somber piano music, creating a melodramatic story of a relic in a boomtown.

"The really sad thing is that it took a week to knock it down," said Dorothy Wright, who is with the city of Las Vegas Historic Preservation Commission and who also serves on the board of the Neon Museum.

"The wrecking ball just hit it for days. I actually cry when I see the video." Even Stoldal concedes that he feels a welling of emotion when talking about the footage.

"These are buildings," Stoldal said. 'They are not human beings. But they just mean so much."

We love our buildings. Over time they become a part of us. They define our cities, personalize our communities, connect us to the past and texturize our neighborhoods and skylines.

So as the lobby of the former La Concha motel and its swooping futuristic architecture sits empty on the Strip, architects, historians and preservation groups watch with painful unease as efforts to raise lifesaving funds result in little success.

"I think there is a significant chance that we're going to lose it," Stoldal said. "Until I see it moved to a new place, I'm going to be nervous."

The La Concha lobby has a home waiting for it at the site of the future Neon Museum on the north end of Las Vegas Boulevard where it will serve as a visitor center and gift shop to the proposed museum.

The Friedmutter Group Architecture & Design Studios has donated architectural services to the Neon Museum and has worked with the structural engineer, Mel Green, and Flagship Construction, which will be doing the moving.

But before La Concha can be sliced into horizontal pieces so that it fits under the U.S. 95 overpass, nearly $600,000 must be raised to pay for its relocation.

Getting money to fund the project has been more difficult than organizers anticipated even though the building, designed by the late Paul Revere Williams, has a grip on the hearts of many.

"I'm really surprised," said Barbara Molasky, president of the Neon Museum, where La Concha will serve as a reception area. "I hate to say that, but I am."

Building of the future

La Concha transports you to another era. Its unusual spider-web frame creates swooping overhangs that shade the glass windows enveloping the space. Designed by the legendary Los Angeles architect who gained international success, the building has a lot of admirers.

Some tip their hats to its architecture, a representation of mid-century modern roadside Googie architecture with futuristic elements in its design, much of which was razed in the 1960s. Others are enamored of the creativity of the architect, known also as the architect to the stars, and his story of success during a time when there were few flourishing black architects.

Others simply love the building as an old Las Vegas landmark, one of several disappearing relics from the city's past.

"It's so exuberant, daring, progressive, and it represents the modernism of the city at the time," said Alan Hess, architectural critic of the San Jose Mercury News and author of "Viva Las Vegas: After-Hours Architecture" and "Googie Redux: Ultramodern Roadside Architecture."

"Old buildings add to the richness of cities and city life. Las Vegas has precious little of that, especially along the Strip."

Fred Doumani, owner of La Concha and vice president of Majestic Las Vegas, a condo, hotel and shopping area that will be built on the La Concha site, doesn't want to see the lobby crumble. His family has owned the property since 1959 and worked with Williams on the design.

He has donated the lobby and, because of recent plans to double the size of Majestic's shops and rooms, has extended the deadline for the Neon Museum to an unspecified time. Originally, Doumani wanted to use the facility as an entrance to the shops or a club at Majestic Las Vegas, but couldn't find a place for it.

"We're going to do whatever we can to make sure it's preservable," Doumani said. "There are certain things that you don't want to see go down."

For now, pieces of La Concha's former self, such as the mosaic sign that hung inside, sit in a nearby storefront and in a garage at a private residence. The reception desk? Nobody is sure where that is right now, but once moved, the Neon Museum plans to restore it to its original look.

"It was the perfect match for the museum," Molasky said. "We would try to make it as authentic as we can.

"This is a sign that we can actually use as a building -- anything we do to not have it torn down."

Suzanne Marie Couture, an architect and designer with the Friedmutter Group, said that if the funds were in place, the move and completion of the project would take about 1 1/2 years.

"We need to get the money together and move this building," Couture said while standing inside the lobby, stuffy from having the air-conditioning turned off. "That's all there is to it."

Out with the old

As Doumani's wife, Allison, pulled bottled water out of storage last week to feed dying plants inside the lobby, Doumani played a video of himself at age 2 taking on Muhammed Ali in the parking lot out front. The video was taken four decades ago.

"It's really amazing. Who would have thought that Las Vegas would do what it has," Doumani said. "Especially in the last few years. If only people knew that Las Vegas was going to change the way that it did there would be more efforts to preserve it.

"I was disappointed with the (closing of the) Glass Bottom pool. It just killed me. It just broke my heart."

When word got out of La Concha's demise, Andy Kirk at Preserve Nevada was flooded with phone calls from local residents and interested out-of-state parties, including the Los Angeles Conservancy.

"They were asking, 'Who's going to do something about this?' " Kirk said.

Preserve Nevada, which operates out of UNLV and has a statewide board that includes former senator and ex-governor Richard Bryan as its chairman, was able to secure funds from the National Trust for the engineering survey.

Originally, costs for moving the structure were thought to be $100,000. That figure, however, has more than quadrupled since learning that the lobby would not fit under U.S. 95, the monster of an obstacle that seperates the lobby from its future destination.

"Originally we thought we could pick it up and move it," Couture said. "But that's completely impossible. Essentially, at some point or another you'd have to go under U.S. 95."

Earlier talks included discussions about flying the building to its new site, or shipping it on a nearby railway car.

Save La Concha

Kirk said that in the six years he's been in Las Vegas, he's never seen a bigger outcry to save a building. In addition to the Neon Museum and Preserve Nevada, organizations trying to help are the Historic Preservation Commission of the city of Las Vegas, the Preservation Association of Clark County and the State Historic Preservation Office.

That kind of interest is a testament to the building's outstanding design, said Ron James, Nevada's state historic preservation officer and author of "Temples of Justice: County Courthouses of Nevada."

Normally with mid-20th century buildings, James said, "They're just passing through the bottleneck. It's difficult for people to see their historic value. Old buildings have the value they have because they're rare survivors.

"And Las Vegas has resided on architectural cutting edge in the last five or six decades. It appreciates the new and inventive, rather than the past."

But of the La Concha, James said, "rises above the rest. The architecture is just stunning."

Stoldal and other interested locals are researching what Williams has contributed to Las Vegas in terms of architecture. We do know that Williams designed Guardian Angel Catholic Church and played a role in the design of the former Royal Nevada and the Thunderbird Downs, an old horse racetrack located near the Las Vegas Convention Center.

David Millman, historian and curator of collections at the Nevada State Museum and Historical Society, said anything that Paul Williams designed should be rescued.

"We don't have a lot of older buildings done by nationally recognized architects so that in itself is worth saving," Millman said

By the time Williams had been hired to design the La Concha, he had already established a name for himself as an architect, designing homes for Hollywood celebrities. He did work in Northern Nevada nearly 20 years prior, building a couple of homes in Reno in the early 1930s, then later the First Church of Christ, Scientist, which today serves as the Lear Theatre.

His work also included the Beverly Hills Hotel and the United Nations building in Paris.

"(He's) really coming into his own posthumously as an important architect," said Mella Harmon, who has written National Registration nominations for Williams homes in Northern Nevada.

"He's one of my favorites."

Kirk said he hopes that the outcry to save La Concha represents a change in public apathy for older buildings, though it comes a little too late as much of Las Vegas' past has disappeared.

"The La Concha represents an era on the Las Vegas Strip where there is virtually nothing left of its kind," Kirk said. "Nobody has engineered so much effort on one single structure as the Neon Museum has. When they stepped up to the plate, it looked like a long shot. Now it doesn't look like such a long shot."

Others are scratching their heads as to why renovation wasn't done on some other 20th-century properties to draw the young and trendy tourists.

"Many of the young, hip tourists are looking for that mid-century modern style," Hess said. "The proof of that is Palm Springs. It has attracted a hip, well-to-do creative class of tourists."

A number of years ago, Hess said, representatives from the Hard Rock Hotel called him looking for information on the architect who designed the original El Rancho as a way to possibly incorporate that early Las Vegas style.

"Old buildings definitely have a role in a modern economy," Hess said, adding that in some areas, such as on East Fremont Street, "There is still a lot of that left."

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