Situated on a waterfront site in the rolling hills of southeastern Connecticut and within two hours drive of twenty million gambling-age adults, the Mohegan Tribal Nation’s Mohegan Sun is one of the largest casinos in the world, and second only in the region to the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation’s Foxwoods in nearby Ledyard, Connecticut. Both casinos’ explosive growth are a result of their location halfway between the major population centers of the Northeast megalopolis: Boston and New York. The legalization of gaming on federally-recognized tribal lands in 1988 led to the proliferation of casinos nationwide. Locally, the Mohegans gained political support in the 1990s as a result of massive layoffs in the then defense-based economy of southeastern Connecticut. Some viewed potential casino jobs as the region’s immediate economic savior.
Located on the ancestral home of the Mohegan Tribe, the site once housed the United Nuclear Corporation (UNC; decommissioned in 1990), which assembled nuclear fuel components for submarines built down river in Groton. In 1995, the Mohegan Tribe purchased and remediated the land, once a Superfund site, to build the casino complex. In its first phase (1995–1996), anchored by the Casino of the Earth, forty percent of the existing 650,000-square-foot UNC facility was demolished, while the remaining sixty percent was incorporated into the 630,000-square-foot complex, designed by Brennan Beer Gorman with interiors by the Rockwell Group.
While the exteriors maintained the existing industrial aluminum cladding of the UNC facility, the interior expressed the land and culture of the Mohegan people. Stone partitions referenced the area's rocky soil, while faux log trellises and hide-strewn canopies evoked traditional Mohegan building types (wigwams and longhouses). Organized in a circular plan, the Casino of the Earth was divided into four sections, representing the four seasons. Imagery, colors, and Mohegan cosmological symbols associated with each season are the decorative themes for the space and serve as orienting devices.
While the first phase was designed to represent the tribe's past in a literal way, the second phase (1999–2002), anchored by the Casino of the Sky, interprets the tribe’s modern history and future in a more abstract architectural vocabulary: large curved laminated wood trusses, for example, reference the local forests and frame a 90-foot-high, two-story retail corridor connecting the old and new casinos. This so-called “life trail” alludes to the Mohegan’s southward migration to the region many centuries ago. A landmark along the trail is a 55-foot-high simulation of the Taughannick Falls, an infamous obstacle in the tribe’s migration. The life trail continues to the Wombi Rock. Derived from the Mohegan word for white, Wombi Rock is an interior-lit crystalline form composed of 12,000 onyx panels quarried in Pakistan, Iran, and Mexico. White quartz played a key role in Mohegan ceremonies and is traditionally believed to carry life forces and spirits. The Wombi Rock is animated in a different sense, housing a bar, dance floor, and lounge on three levels set under the world's largest planetarium, 150 feet in diameter. The interior illustrates the challenges of meeting the demands for cultural preservation and promotion on the one hand, with commercial theming and marketing on the other, a tension evident in many Native American gaming facilities.
The Casino of the Sky was only part of the second phase’s 4 million square feet. Led by Kohn Pedersen Fox (KPF), who coordinated the work of thirty-nine teams of architects/engineers, the Sunburst expansion was completed in only three years. KPF also led the 480-foot-high hotel tower’s design, whose angled glass forms were inspired by quartz crystals. A response to the constraints of the woodland and water-bound 240-acre site, the 36-story tower also affords views of the surroundings while its reflective curtain wall literally mirrors the Mohegan Tribe’s reverence for the surrounding nature. The tower is a landmark of the region and one of the complex’s most marketed images. The site is primarily accessed via car and bus, and is connected to the interstate by high-speed infrastructure serving patrons, which can number over 40,000 a day.
When Mohegan Sun completed its Sunburst expansion in 2002, the complex claimed many superlatives: the second largest casino in the Western Hemisphere, the fourth tallest tower in the state, and reportedly the largest private construction project east of the Mississippi. Its size was staggering: stretching longer than the Crystal Palace, its 4.9 million square feet included 300,000 square feet of gaming areas, a 10,000-seat arena, a 1,200-room hotel, 100,000 square feet of meeting and function spaces, and 175,000 square feet of retail and dining. Expansion plans include a “Downtown District,” which would house a cinema, a bowling alley, and additional retail, though future competition from casino proposals in nearby states have questioned the viability of Mohegan’s expansion plans.
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