Southern Nevada is a place of contrasts. Much of the region is uninhabited, yet nearly twothirds of Nevada's population live in the Las Vegas metropolitan area. Though Las Vegas is the region's economic and political center, small mining and farming towns, with their own strong identities, are scattered throughout the southern part of the state. In a state dominated by the federal government, southern Nevada has the greatest federal presence in military installations, defense-related sites, and reclamation projects. Tourism, focused on Las Vegas and to a lesser extent on a number of border towns near Arizona and California, has become the biggest industry.
The lack of adequate water supplies prevented much settlement in the region until the construction of Hoover Dam in the 1930s. Unlike the northern part of the state, southern Nevada could not support extensive ranching, as the native vegetation of creosote and Joshua trees provided poor forage. Farming was also difficult except in the region's few valleys fed by creeks or rivers, such as the Muddy and Virgin river valleys, where Mormon settlers managed to establish a few small, well-planned agricultural communities in the late nineteenth century.
The mountains around the Las Vegas Valley, however, contained a variety of minerals that supported a small mining industry. To the north and northeast, the Pahranagat Valley and the hills along the Meadow Valley Wash experienced nineteenth-century mining booms. At the turn of the twentieth century, a few gold mines led to the establishment of the towns of Goodsprings and Searchlight, southwest and southeast of Las Vegas respectively. Though mining in these areas ended decades ago, the towns survive. Other mines in the region continue to produce limestone, gypsum, and dolomite.
Development for tourism was ideally suited to an area with few natural resources to exploit. The legalization of gambling, roughly coinciding with the completion of Hoover Dam, provided tourist attractions and inexpensive water and electricity to supply a growing city. Like the Mormons before them, hotel and club owners from Los Angeles colonized southern Nevada, building the first casino resorts on the edges of Las Vegas. These glamorous complexes set the standard for the casinos of today.
Southern Nevada's seemingly barren landscape has produced some of the nation's strangest architecture. By most definitions, this part of the state had, and still has, little to offer in the way of regional or indigenous architecture. Although archaeologists excavated some of the extensive Anasazi pueblo ruins in the Muddy and Virgin river valleys in the 1920s and 1930s, these structures rarely influenced local architecture of the interwar period. By contrast, the federal government's numerous projects during the Great Depression, includeing Hoover Dam and the construction of many buildings by the Works Progress Administration (WPA), Public Works Administration (PWA), Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), and National Youth Administration (NYA) in the Las Vegas area and in the agricultural communities to the northeast, shaped architecture somewhat by providing some of the best local examples of traditional and modern styles. Later government projects have left Nevada with an odd architectural legacy in the form of exploded or irradiated buildings, bridges, bunkers, and other structures on the Nevada Test Site, the location of atmospheric and underground testing from 1951 to 1992. In addition, Nevada may soon become home to the nation's only permanent high-level nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain.
Certainly the widest-known and greatest manifestations of Nevada's unusual architecture take form in the casinos on the Las Vegas Strip. In the open spaces of the desert, these buildings have grown to enormous proportions, with thousands of hotel rooms and thousands of square feet of casino space. The lack of a long regional tradition of architecture, combined with little regulation and an economy driven by tourism, has pushed casinos toward increaseingly fanciful displays, taking on such forms as medieval castles, Roman forums, and even entire cities, competing with one another to attract ever more tourists. This architecture seems to have had little direct influence elsewhere in the state, except in towns where gambling supports the economy. Border towns, including Laughlin, Mesquite, Stateline (also known as Primm), and Jean, have mastered the Strip look, erecting large, shiny casinos with huge parking lots and garages to capitalize on their locations. Casino architecture has also influenced development in other places where gambling has been legalized, such as Atlantic City, riverfronts along the Mississippi, and some Native American reservations. More significant, Las Vegas and the Strip, focused on the automobile, have provided a model for strip development across the country, a trend that continues unabated.
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