Las Vegas Sun

October 25, 2014

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Trying to save a bit of history

The crazy curved shells of the La Concha Motel lobby, with their arched concrete and shiny glass, make the structure look like something out of the Jetsons.

But the futuristic-looking building is actually one of the last vestiges of the 1960s Las Vegas Strip, and UNLV history professor Andrew Kirk and his students in the public history program are trying to save it from implosion.

Kirk's student-led Preserve Nevada group highlighted the La Concha Thursday as one of Nevada's 11 most endangered historical sites, Kirk said. The La Concha and the Spanish Trail are the only Southern Nevada sites on the list.

Only the lobby is now left of the famous motel, and unless Preserve Nevada and other local preservationist groups can raise $600,000 to move it to the Neon Museum site two miles down the road, it will have to be demolished to make way for a new high-rise hotel and condominium project, Kirk and Barbara Molasky, president of the nonprofit Neon Museum, said.

"In preservation it usually takes more than the imminent threat," Kirk said of Preserve Nevada's endangered list. "It takes the actual destruction to get people up in arms, but by then it is too late."

Dwarfed by the neighboring Wynn Resort and the Stardust, the 3,300 square-foot La Concha lobby is currently a tiny dot of nostalgia on a five-acre, prime piece of Las Vegas real estate, said Edward Doumani, whose family has owned the site since 1959. Doumani has donated the building to the museum to see it live on for "future generations," but Doumani said nostalgia alone isn't enough to keep the lobby on the current site.

"Naturally there is some sadness (to see the building go)," Doumani said. "But as time goes on you have to stay competitive in this industry."

So to save the motel, a hallmark of "Googie" architecture and the brainchild of renowned architect Paul Revere Williams, Preserve Nevada has been working with the owners, the Neon Museum and other local preservation entities to physically move the building to a new location two miles north on the Strip.

"Googie" architecture got its name from one of the space-age looking roadside coffee shops in Los Angeles that embodied the modern style, according to critic Alan Hess's book on the subject. Williams, one of the first black architects to be inducted into the American Institute of Architects, was famous for the style, which he incorporated into the La Concha, the Ambassador Hotel and the Paris United Nations Building.

The motel's lobby structure will serve as the new visitor center for the nonprofit Neon Museum, home to many of Las Vegas' famous neon signs, at the museum's site just south of Cashman Field on Las Vegas Boulevard.

But moving an awkward, circular structure is easier said than done, Molasky said. And Preserve Nevada and the museum have less than six months to raise the initial $400,000 it will take just to physically move the structure before Doumani has to break ground on the new development.

Engineers currently expect to have to cut the building into eight pieces to transport it down the Strip on four flat bed trucks, where the building will be reassembled on a new foundation and restored for public use, Nancy Paolino, director of business development for Flagship Construction, Co.

"It's a very delicate process," Paolino said, noting that engineers have to carefully cut the building between stress points and shore up the shells so that they won't break.

Height and weight restrictions, along with liability issues, make it impossible to move the building as a whole, Paolino said.

The engineering is a cakewalk, however, compared with raising the money for the project, Paolino and Kirk said.

"The Neon Museum needs community support and needs people who may want to contribute to the funding effort of making this happen," Kirk said. "It would be such a novelty to see a picture of a building traveling down the Las Vegas Strip rather than a picture of a building being imploded on the Las Vegas Strip."

Molasky praised the Doumanis for working with the museum to save the building, but she said it's now up to the community to decide whether it wants to help keep an important part of Las Vegas' history.

"It is basically a window into our past," Molasky said of the motel lobby. "It shows that the Las Vegas Strip looked like in the 1960s and 1970s."

Preserve Nevada is a statewide preservation entity ran out of UNLV, Kirk said. Co-directed by graduate student Michelle Follette, students do all of the work to record and preserve historic sites in the state and get to network with perservationists from across the country.

It is the only university-ran group he knows of in the country, Kirk said.

"It's benefited the public history program at the university immensely by providing remarkable training just right there and providing opportunities most undergraduate and graduate students wouldn't have.""

Andrew Kirk

UNLV HISTORY PROFESSOR

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