Thursday, June 15, 2006 | 7:17 a.m.
The Kansas real estate tycoon who bought the New Frontier eight years ago has long had designs on creating a Strip resort rivaling the best in town.
By the end of this year, Phil Ruffin hopes to start making good on that intention, by replacing his aging casino with a $2 billion hotel named after Montreux, the Swiss resort town alongside Lake Geneva.
Ruffin, who made millions in dollies, gas stations and modestly priced hotels, has never built a resort. Nor has Paul Steelman, Ruffin's appointed visionary and a veteran casino architect, ever designed a Strip resort from the bottom up.
Even without equity investors or corporate partners, Ruffin, who bought the property for about $200 million in 1998, said he is up for the challenge.
Steelman said he believes the concept behind Montreux will put Ruffin's stamp on Las Vegas in the same way that Steve Wynn and Sheldon Adelson created their world brands here.
Word of Ruffin's 2,750-room resort a few months ago conjured up images of Alpine cottages and quaint stores peddling Swiss watches, cheese and chocolates.
But that's hardly the case, based on a Paul Steelman Design Group digital tour featuring more than two hours of three-dimensional video images of the resort's final design. Montreux's interior - a mix of glass artwork, waterfalls and reflective surfaces - resembles the hip, boutique hotels of New York and Los Angeles, or the latest of Las Vegas' posh ultralounges.
Steelman was one of several architects who designed the Mirage, but he is better known for remodeling several Las Vegas resorts and designing casinos in smaller markets around the world.
His experience in designing several casinos in Switzerland gave birth to Montreux, named for the town near the Matterhorn that is home to an international jazz festival.
But instead of mountain scenery and yodelers, the Montreux will feature a lobby with a massive chandelier dipping into a giant vase of water.
The design may surprise Las Vegas regulars who patronize the older properties at the north end of the Strip and have grown accustomed to the New Frontier's 1970s-era interior and Western theme.
Reflecting the Strip's diminishing dependence on gambling, less than 2 percent of the property - about 100,000 square feet of the resort's 6 million square feet - will feature casino games. More than a half-million square feet of retail space will put the property in a league with the biggest malls in town.
"It's fun. It's not heavy, drapey or tassely," Steelman said. "I call these 'smile buildings.' They make you smile and they make you happy.' "
Steelman's attempt to create upbeat designs echoes Wynn's philosophy.
But Steelman says the Montreux boasts plenty of original ideas.
A couple hundred suites at the resort will connect to a health club, spa and meditative retreat operated by the Golden Door, an upscale brand in California and Arizona, among other resort locations. These spa rooms lead directly to the 50,000-square-foot spa and pool area, a layout appealing to resort aficionados who would rather not traipse through a casino.
The property also will feature the Strip's largest ballroom. At about 116,000 square feet, the room will be able to stage major events with stadium seating, from tennis matches to hockey games and poker tournaments.
The resort's "lakefront" will be a pool on the third floor of the property atop its retail stores and overlooking the Strip.
In another departure for Las Vegas, the Strip-front facade of the property will be lined with retail shops and "people-watching" hangouts rather than slot machines.
Ruffin also is planning a boulevard of high-end boutiques on the south side of the resort facing the Fashion Show mall . With shops on both sides of Fashion Show Drive, the street would become the Las Vegas version of Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, Calif., Steelman said.
A much talked-about observation wheel, Las Vegas' version of the London Eye, would tower more than 450 feet in the air on the northeast corner of the property.
The Montreux is intended to appeal to Middle America rather than design experts who favor urban, minimalist architecture, he said.
Ruffin is "not a guy who likes office-building architecture," Steelman said. "He doesn't feel that it fits in Las Vegas. He feels architecture here has got to have a certain solid style to it."
On the other hand, heavily themed properties are on the way out, he said.
"Young people today they're going to Egypt, they're going to Russia, they've been to China," he said. "They are not going to be immersed or be happy in some plasticized, faux finished thing. The theme (of Montreux) is somewhat indescribable, but has the right emotional characteristics."
While Montreux marks the architect's first big venture in Las Vegas, he is known for leading other major projects around the world.
Steelman designed the Sands Macau, a $240 million property owned by Venetian operator Las Vegas Sands that paid for itself after a year and opened 600 days after its first blueprint. The Macau casino, distinguished by its high ceilings and natural light, was the first American property in the Chinese province and infused feng shui design principles with Las Vegas glamour.
He also designed a casino in Helsinki, Finland, to appeal to the Finns' appreciation for technology. Casino Ray features a glass staircase, walls with digital images and high-tech games.
Montreux isn't a shot in the dark, but a careful collection of proven resort concepts topped off with some new ideas, Steelman said.
"There are about 70 rules you must follow if you're doing any casino," he said. "If you look at the planning of Wynn's resorts, from the Mirage through to the Bellagio and Wynn, they have the same fundamentals. We have to follow those rules. Then you have to engage (several) new concepts within those rules."
After years of trial and error, Las Vegas operators know what works and what doesn't, he said.
"We know the money-making possibilities of this," he said. "We call it 'power space.' We have as little non-making money space as possible and as much power space as possible."
Montreux could start construction before the New Frontier comes down before the end of the year, he said. The timing depends on several variables, including obtaining demolition and construction permits, he said.