Las Vegas, according to University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV) professor Janet White, is a “suburb with no ‘urb.’” It is a city with few urban areas and many suburban features crowded together. Andy Kirk, another professor at UNLV and director of Preserve Nevada, noted that Las Vegas grew from roughly 80,000 in the 1950s to approximately two million today. The growth of the city has deeply shaped its appearance. The Strip was formed, as Kirk noted, from a group of motels placed outside the city of Las Vegas designed to trap motorists before they got into the town to what is today a surreal atmosphere of large hotels and resorts.
Many individuals and architects have been involved in the design and look of Las Vegas, whether that has been for large construction projects like the Venetian (1999, built on the site of the Sands) or the iconic “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas” sign (1959). This sign, designed by Betty Willis (1924 – ) has become one of the more recognized emblems of the city, yet most do not know that it was created by a woman. As Anthea Hartig (Director, NTHP Western Office) noted, modern architecture and the architects of mid-century exist in a very gendered space. The role and contribution of what some called then “lady architects” is often overlooked.
The projects taken on by these architects included some showpieces of mid-century architecture in important settings. Chloethiel Woodard Smith (1910 – 1992), for example, designed several of the apartment complexes built as part of urban renewal in Washington, DC. These buildings, part of what was called the New Southwest, were designed to replace “blighted” older buildings with planned communities, some of which were racially integrated and included a mix of subsidized and unsubsidized housing. Like Willis’s sign, though, Smith’s contribution to the New Southwest (among other Washington locations) is not common knowledge.
In looking both at Washington and Las Vegas, I think we still see a skyline dominated by men; part of the ways in which preservation captures the past is also through highlighting the people behind the building. In this case, it means telling the story of a growing group of women who were also players in this literal field. Importantly, part of the mid-century was that this field began to have more players. Kirk Huffaker and the Utah Heritage Foundation are currently involved in forming an architectural family tree that will show the relationships between architects and their buildings. I think this is a great way to visually represent these relationships and to show the composition of the profession at mid-century.
I am curious to know what ways others have explored the social changes in the many professions behind the built environment (construction, planning, architecture, etc.).
Next stop: Los Angeles
Seth Tinkham is a self-employed grant writer and preservation planner located in Alexandria, Virginia. Prior to starting his own business, he worked for the citywide preservation organization in Washington, DC helping to plan activities related to modern architecture.
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