Thursday, May 29, 2008 | 2 a.m.
It could have ended up just another Las Vegas story, a memory faded from disuse, forgotten by the hordes of residents coming and going, then finally falling victim to the wrecking ball.
Late last year there seemed an almost preternatural nudge to force the historic Fifth Street School into the waste bin of local history when a homeless person, cooking up some grub, started a fire that caused $250,000 in damage.
But the school survived the two-alarm fire. And unlike most other fixtures from Las Vegas’ too-short past, the school is about to be reborn.
Only within the past few weeks could you drive by and see the renewed vibrancy of the building, which has benefited from more than two years of renovation at a cost of $9.5 million.
When completed this fall, the school will house something unseen there since the late 1960s, when the school stopped operating to become a courthouse annex.
Students of all ages will be learning.
The Nevada School of the Arts, which provides musical instruction and art classes to very young students, will be housed there. The American Institute of Architects and the city’s Cultural Affairs Division also will have offices there.
Perhaps most striking, and definitely un-Vegas, will be the unique union of a governmental body and a school. In a city whose namesake university often bemoans the fact that it gets paltry attention from taxpayers and elected officials, a concerted effort to turn that around, even if in just a small way, is about to unfold.
With the Downtown Design Center of UNLV’s School of Architecture’s placement in the renovated school, it will be within a stone’s throw of city planners, developers and a bustling network of projects breaking ground.
“We’re going to be in the thick of things downtown,” said Robert Dorgan, director of the Downtown Design Center. “To actually use the city as our library and walk around projects as they’re being developed and to be in proximity to those decision-makers, it’s just a phenomenal opportunity.”
About 30 university students will have classes in the building each semester.
Dorgan cracks a smile as he talks about looking at 70-year-old decoration on the building in one moment, then looking left or right to the sharp contrast of the metal and concrete federal courthouse or other developments such as Juhl, a condo-lofts project soon to open a block or so away.
“For anybody in this town, to just stand in that courtyard and see all the historic details and then the skyscrapers around it, it’s an interesting experience,” he said.
On the second floor of UNLV’s School of Architecture, the walls are decorated with various student works, including one section of laminated, floor-to-ceiling designs for a Las Vegas amphitheater and a performing arts center. In a nearby room, the miniature foam and cardboard and toothpick models of these drawings, intricately detailed, sit amid heaps of materials at student work stations, empty for the summer.
When the Downtown Design Center moves downtown for good, these imaginative designs and sketches will move with it.
“This is going to be a highly public, highly visible classroom,” Dorgan said. “Students will be in kind of a fishbowl.”
Dorgan imagines a time when the students’ proximity to city decision-makers leads to more informed, perhaps better decisions.
“There are all kinds of planning decisions being made and I think this will be a great opportunity for city officials to see just what we can do to help that dialogue, to look in as an objective third party with no stake, and no constituency to play to,” he said. “I think it will be good for the city to know what UNLV can contribute.”
With classical music audible in the background, Mayor Oscar Goodman talks by phone about the Fifth Street School becoming an “intellectual marketplace.”
“I imagine it as the kind of place ... where Plato and Socrates would walk around and philosophize in the old days,” he said. “I think it will have that same kind of characteristic today.”
Although that image is worlds apart from the mayor’s frequent references to mobsters as joke material, it underlines that what’s about to start in the 72-year-old building is very far from the hackneyed images of Las Vegas.
Dorgan too is a believer in the school’s future, in the belief that he and his students are creating something that no other school in the state, maybe none in the country, will possess.
On a large table in one of the architectural school’s studios, Dorgan has laid out a massive black-and-white white aerial view of the Greater Las Vegas area. Inch by inch, he and his students have been cutting out colored pieces of wood to represent parts of the city.
Here’s a square that represents the Luxor. A long, thin piece of pine is Interstate 15, and so on.
When completed it will be laminated and covered, becoming a centerpiece table 18 feet long and 3 feet wide.
Close to the center will be a U-shaped piece of wood, one end of which will represent the place where Dorgan and his future students will try make a dent in the real landscape of Las Vegas.