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September 1, 2014

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With rally, fans will show love of midcentury modern, Frazier Hall

Preservationists have wept openly as wrecking balls chipped away at Las Vegas history.

But with UNLV's Maude Frazier Hall on the chopping block, nobody is reaching for their hankies just yet.

Local advocates are feeling optimistic that UNLV's first building, completed in 1956, can be saved, and it seems everyone has an interest in this one. It's historic (first campus building). It's in memory of Frazier, Nevada's first female lieutenant governor and an ardent education advocate. It's part of Las Vegas' architectural story, and still maintains its original flat roof and cantilever overhangs.

But as a precaution, the Atomic Age Alliance is holding a "love in" to advocate preservation of Maude Frazier Hall from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. today. Mary Margaret Stratton, the alliance founder, calls the structure a midcentury diamond in the rough.

The County Commission voted recently to protect the building and Stratton says today's rally, which includes the singing of "Give Maude a Chance," is to let regents hear from the "popular consciousness."

Architecture critic Alan Hess says the building is a good example of midcentury modernism in one of the great midcentury modernist cities. Others argue the same.

"This is what makes no sense to me," says Lynn Zook of Classic Las Vegas, a local history organization. "UNLV is celebrating its 50th anniversary - but saying, as part of its 50th anniversary, 'Let's tear down the first building.'

"A place attached with higher ed might be more on the ball. It's the roots of UNLV showing that this is where we've started and this is how we've grown."

The discussions could go on.

Patrick Klenk, president of Westar Architecture Group and a member of the Las Vegas Historic Preservation Commission, wrote in the group's newsletter that the building isn't architecturally significant because it is merely a subtle nod to the movement, rather than a hearty example.

Others have simply dismissed Maude Frazier Hall as a shed whose time has come.

Ironically, the nature of midcentury modernism downplays its own splendor, Hess says. "It is meant to be simple, straightforward, representative of modern materials in a clean and simple way, so a building which tried to be modest can look to be very simple in today's eyes, but that shouldn't keep us from understanding what it is all about."

Stratton blames some of the criticism of the aesthetics of the building on the university for its presentation of the structure.

"The landscaping is literally trash, a hodgepodge of trees and xeriscape and no xeriscape," she says, adding that it "radically detracts" from and hides the building's critical elements. The bold red letters that replaced the building's original Neutra font are, to Stratton, the equivalent of "putting clown makeup on a model."

"It really could be a stellar building, a midcentury modern community gem."

The building is featured in the Atomic Age Alliance's architectural guide to midcentury modernism in Las Vegas. So is the nearby Flora Dungan Humanities Building. Both structures were designed by Zick and Sharp, the architects responsible for some of Las Vegas' greatest buildings, including the old Mint hotel and casino.

Although Hess appreciates the architectural integrity of Maude Frazier Hall, he also knows the reality.

In January, the University of California-Irvine tore down a Frank Gehry building to create space for a larger structure.

"It is in the nature of universities to tear down and build bigger," Hess says. "Unfortunately that conflicts with a university's role of preserving knowledge, architecture and culture. They completely overlook the historic dimensions of these buildings."

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