The Classical Heritage in Neon Lights: Las Vegas, Nevada

By Reed, Nancy B. | Journal of American & Comparative Cultures, Spring 2001 | Go to article overview

The Classical Heritage in Neon Lights: Las Vegas, Nevada


Reed, Nancy B., Journal of American & Comparative Cultures


Introduction

Our classical heritage can be found today in a variety of elements which constitute the fabric of popular culture. Several recent films are noteworthy for their obvious use of classical themes and subjects while literary examples often rely on classical illusions in a more subtle manner. One of the more striking and easily observed means of acknowledging a tradition can be found in architecture, taking the viewer back to the Greek and Roman world, back even to the world of the ancient Egyptians. Revivals of classical designs in American architecture can certainly be found from the Colonial period onward, with places like Thomas Jefferson's home in Monticello or Union Station in Washington, DC. The focus in this study, however, is upon a more recent resurgence in the use of classical motifs, a resurgence which borders on the whimsy due to its location rather than to any overt attempts to be particularly fanciful. The use of the term culture in connection with Las Vegas, Nevada, might seem to some an oxymoron but there is probably no better place to seek popular culture than to look to that oasis in the Mojave desert and to consider in some detail what elements of antiquity await the unsuspecting tourist.

Las Vegas itself emerged in the mid-19th century as a stop on the stage mail route between Salt Lake City and San Diego. A spring here refreshed travelers weary from crossing the Mojave Desert. The name means "the meadows" and these did, indeed, provide a stark contrast to the barren landscape. Later, the city grew because of the San Pedro, Los Angeles, and Salt Lake City Railroad. Now, of course, the city is famous for gambling but that did not come into Nevada until 1931 as a response to provide some form of entertainment for workers during the construction of Hoover Dam (Paher 157).

While Las Vegas is renown today for its fabulous hotels and casinos, the first hotel is recognized to have been a modest thirty-room canvas-- topped structure built in 1905 to house those coming to bid on a land auction (Paher 79). The newer luxury hotels often have over 3,000 rooms each. For the New Year's Eve celebration of the year 2000, the town was able to boast a capacity of 120.000 rooms.

The concept of a western frontier town changed in 1946 when Bugsy Siegel built the Flamingo Hotel as a fashionable, sophisticated resort hotel. Other resort hotels followed, still often with the western or frontier theme, such as the Desert Inn. However, the change was underway which would alter this five-mile stretch of mostly barren desert, turning it into the Las Vegas Strip. To some, this has become "the neon Valhalla" (Sehlinger 2).

When we consider the classical heritage used in the post modern atmosphere of Las Vegas, we have to face a completely different interpretation of architecture. This is, to be sure, due to Las Vegas itself with its fantasy-world backdrop. A sense of historic style is present but completely lacking is a sense of historic space (Venturi and Brown 75). Juxtapositions abound: of ancient Egyptian motifs and medieval castles; of sedate classical statues and glittering signs advertising equally glittering casinos. An equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius outside Caesars Palace points to the Barbary Coast casino, not only across the street but across a chasm of time and imagination.

Although this study concentrates upon the elements of ancient and classical art, we must take a moment to acknowledge three other noteworthy casinos. The Monte Carlo, for instance, which opened in 1996, is modeled after the Place du Casino in Monte Carlo, Monaco. It is a resort in the Belle Epoque style, designed by J. L. Charles Garnier who also designed the Paris Opera House. As one author has stated, "If the Monte Carlo fails as a resort, the building will be a perfect place to relocate the Nevada State Capitol" (Sehlinger 109).

The casino Paris treats visitors to a 50-story half scale version of the Eiffel Tower, a glimpse of the Paris Opera House, Louvre, Arc du Triomphe, and Hotel de Ville. …

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