Original La Concha Motel postcard. Date and photographer unknown.
They say what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas, but when it has come to keeping the city’s glittering architectural history in place in recent decades, that adage has often been overlooked. So the October opening of the 1961 La Concha Motel’s dramatic lobby as part of the city’s Neon Museum after years of preservation efforts is an especially remarkable triumph.
“Las Vegas is a city that has historically tried to reinvent itself and it still does, but that has often involved demolition of buildings, often very young buildings,” says Shane Swerdlow of Chattel, Inc., the historic preservation firm that consulted on the project. “It’s neat that this is a building from the 1960s in Las Vegas. It’s an excellent example of Googie style and it’s something that’s being celebrated.”
The celebration is a long time in the making. With its unusual thin-shell concrete arches tucked beside the Riviera Hotel, the La Concha Motel, a fixture of midcentury Las Vegas that once hosted celebrities like Ronald Reagan, was designed by Paul Revere Williams, the first African-American member of the American Institute of Architects.
Thin-shelled concrete buildings are rare in the United States, structural engineer Mel Green says, because their construction is so labor intensive. “People want to do boxes because they can just put up concrete block or wood studs or other simple things,” Green says. “Here, you’ve got these curves and these scallops, so the wood that forms each part of the curve so you can pour the concrete had to be placed carefully to get the shape.”
Original La Concha Motel lobby. Date and photographer unknown.
In 2003, owner Lorenzo Doumani announced plans to demolish the motel but, recognizing its unique historic design, sought out options for moving the shell-shaped lobby. To drum up support, groups such as the Historic Preservation Commission of the City of Las Vegas, the Preservation Association of Clark County, and the Nevada State Historic Preservation Office worked together to find a solution. The National Trust for Historic Preservation provided funds for a relocation study. Preserve Nevada even designated the La Concha as one of its 11 Most Endangered Historic Places in 2004.
Eventually, the Neon Museum, an organization that since 1996 has been collecting the discarded glowing signs Las Vegas is famous for, stepped forward to use the La Concha lobby as its new visitors center and the entryway to its collection. But how would the museum get the heavy concrete structure the few miles down the road to its new site?
In this case, it was the lobby’s size that complicated the answer to that question. The structure’s 28-foot height prevented it from fitting under the bridges that spanned roadways or rail lines, according to Green.
After some structural analysis, crews cut the La Concha into eight pieces, set the pieces on trucks, and moved them to the Neon Museum’s space in 2006 -- during a rare Las Vegas snowfall, Green remembers. The building was reassembled the following year.
The restored La Concha lobby in its new home at the Neon Museum.
“It was like holding up the pieces of a puzzle in the air with shoring or scaffolding, and then jacking it into position, putting in new foundations, and tying the pieces together,” Green says.
The project received federal funding and a National Scenic Byways grant, among others, and the rehabilitated lobby, along with an era-appropriate addition to house the museum’s administrative offices, welcomed its first visitors in the fall. Using historic photographs, Swerdlow and his team chose fixtures and finishes for the restored lobby that reflected the space’s original décor.
“When you enter the lobby, you are sort of stepping back in time to 1961 and experiencing that Las Vegas,” Swerdlow says. “It’s exciting for me that people are increasingly drawn to Midcentury Modern architecture.”
The Neon Boneyard at the Las Vegas Neon Museum with the original La Concha sign in the background.
For Executive Director Danielle Kelly and her staff at the Neon Museum, preserving a historic midcentury building as their visitors center is perfectly aligned with the organization’s mission. The La Concha’s distinctive arches, a bold example of the Googie concept of “building as sign,” fit right in next to the more than 150 glowing relics of the Golden Nugget, the Stardust, and the La Concha itself that adorn the museum’s outdoor exhibition space.
“This is a wonderful thing in the evolution of this project and people’s trust in us and what we’re doing, so I think it only bodes well for continuing to expand our relationship with the community,” Kelly says. “It’s a part of Las Vegas I don’t think people even realized people cared about or were interested in and now it’s here and can be experienced everyday… Even young cities have stories and preservation should be, and can be, a significant part of a city, no matter how old it is.”