The Las Vegas of today has changed drastically since the early twentieth century. Once just a stop on an overland mail route in the middle of Las Vegas Valley, the city has become one of the world's most famous entertainment centers. With its huge casinos, growing suburbs, and automobile traffic, it is hard to believe that Las Vegas began as a railroad town. Little trace of this beginning remains, but a careful examination of the layout reveals the city's debt to the railroad.
Before European and American explorers entered the Las Vegas Valley, the Anasazi and later the Southern Paiute inhabited the land. An oasis, fed by a spring known as Big Springs or Las Vegas Springs, provided some sustenance in the harsh desert environment. Until the 1850s, only a few American explorers had passed through the valley, among them Jedediah Smith, John C. Frémont, and Kit Carson. Increased traffic began after April 1854, when Congress established a monthly mail route from Salt Lake City to San Diego and appropriated funds to construct a military road from Salt Lake to the California border. A year later, Brigham Young sent Mormon missionaries to settle the area; they constructed an adobe fort about four miles east of Big Springs, near the Las Vegas Creek. Part of this fort remains today. The Mormons managed to eke out an existence but left Nevada in 1857, when Brigham Young called back all western colonists to Utah. The natural springs provided enough water for a few families to ranch in the area, but not enough for a larger settlement.
The growth of Salt Lake City and Los Angeles was crucial to the development of Las Vegas. Salt Lake City was approximately 400 miles to the northeast, Los Angeles about 270 miles to the southwest. By 1902 Senator William Clark of Montana had acquired rights-of-way for his proposed San Pedro, Los Angeles, and Salt Lake City Railroad linking the main Union Pacific line in Utah to southern California. Its location roughly midway between the two cities made Las Vegas an ideal site for a railroad division point where crews and equipment could be changed. The railroad also exploited the available water sources by pumping water from underground aquifers, which supplied steam locomotives and a small townsite.
In 1905 Clark's railroad auctioned lots, and the town of Las Vegas was born. Its nucleus grew out of the grid of Clark's townsite, now bounded by the railroad, Stewart Avenue, Maryland Parkway, and Charleston Avenue. The railroad itself was aligned northeast to southwest, straight across the valley floor. Las Vegas Boulevard, completed in 1931—the major highway in the city until the construction of I-15 to the west—runs parallel to the railroad. Known alternately as Route 91, the Los Angeles Highway, and now the Strip, this road runs through downtown, then south to the airport.
The next boom occurred with the construction of Hoover (Boulder) Dam from 1931 to 1935. Although the federal government chose to build Boulder City to house workers near the dam site twenty-four miles away, Las Vegas prospered with the influx of funds and workers coming to the town for entertainment. In addition to the immediate economic benefits of construction, the dam ultimately permitted the widespread urbanization of the region by making substantial amounts of subsidized water available to Nevada and the neighboring states of California and Arizona.
Although Hoover Dam had a huge impact on the growth of the region, the legalization of gambling in 1931 had an even greater effect on Las Vegas itself during the rest of the twentieth century. Nevada and, more significantly, California entrepreneurs soon marketed gambling to tourists who came to see the dam. Downtown hotels quickly converted space into casinos, but the most important developments took place out of town, along the Los Angeles Highway. Here emerged a new form of architecture, following roadside motel and coffee shop prototypes. Over the years the land along the highway, which became known as the Strip in the 1940s, filled up with resorts that reached to ever greater architectural lengths to attract gamblers.
Beginning in the 1930s, the Los Angeles Highway brought traffic from California, encouraging increased development along the road south of downtown Las Vegas. This growth continued throughout the decade, accelerating after World War II to turn Las Vegas into a world-class tourist destination. Other factors encouraged this expansion. First, casino owners outside the city limits (Sahara Avenue on the south) could take advantage of more permissive county ordinances. Second, casinos along the highway could attract motorists from California before they reached downtown. Casino architecture played to the road very early in the development of Las Vegas. Although the railroad continued to bring many tourists and new residents to the city during World War II, the growing importance of the highway, rather than the railroad, shaped the look and layout of Las Vegas and the Strip. From the 1930s to the 1970s, casinos along the Strip had plenty of open desert land on which to build sprawling, motel-inspired complexes. Downtown casinos, on the other hand, developed in a more urbanized landscape within walking distance of the depot and thus followed the more traditional model of the hotel. The differences in development of the two areas are still apparent today; Strip casinos have continued to grow to enormous sizes and to adopt extraordinary appearances, whereas downtown casinos have grown taller but remained smaller overall.
Las Vegas continues to be the ultimate boom town. From only 945 inhabitants in 1910, the city has grown exponentially during most of the twentieth century. The population of the Las Vegas metropolitan area surpassed one million in 1995. The city continues to stretch toward the edges of the valley as more and more tract housing developments and planned communities such as Summerlin take up the remaining open space. Summerlin, encompassing nearly thirty-six square miles in Clark County, is expected to reach a population of about 160,000 residents in the early twenty-first century. Designed to be self-contained, it includes golf courses, shopping centers, community centers, and casinos. When completed, Summerlin will comprise thirty distinct villages. Intended to create a sense of community, they will be differentiated in terms of size, population, and housing type and price range, among other features. This form of development for meticulously planned growth has become typical in Las Vegas and surrounding cities.
Though limitations loom, such as lack of an adequate water supply and large blocks of undevelopable federal and tribal land, prospects for continued growth appear, for now, to be unrestricted. The federal government has continued to assist the city's growth through land exchanges, opening more public land to private development. The federal government, usually through the Bureau of Land Management, sells land to be developed in southern Nevada and buys private land elsewhere in the state, which then comes under the management of a federal agency, usually the Bureau of Land Management or the U.S. Forest Service. The newly privatized land provides new open space to be used for residential subdivisions and shopping centers. This form of development parallels that along Las Vegas Boulevard, where large empty lots have been filled by ever larger casinos. Thus the hunger for more open space continues to be fed, an outcome of the still pervasive myth of the frontier.
Nevertheless, the increased population density in the region has forced Las Vegas and surrounding Clark County to consider the social, economic, and cultural needs of residents. The construction of schools, libraries, museums, and government buildings has changed the character of this former desert outpost. These buildings have allowed architecture in Las Vegas to take a different course—supplementing the architecture of entertainment with one of community that requires building a visible civic presence. Las Vegas's role as a city rather than just a resort destination now requires it to confront the problems of rapid growth and limited resources. It remains to be seen if the community will successfully manage growth and merge touristic interests with those of residents. Some positive developments on the cultural front include the construction of a new fine arts museum, as part of the Sahara West Library branch, and a neon museum downtown.
With the exception of the casinos and some recent public and private buildings, little of Las Vegas's architecture can be considered exceptional, let alone at the leading edge. Over the years, many of its most acclaimed structures have been designed by architects from outside Nevada. However, the current climate of growth and prosperity has given local architects the opportunity to design more appealing and innovative structures, so that the architectural community is now thriving.
Though growth is rapidly filling the valley, undeveloped areas can still be found only fifteen miles outside the city. Numerous state parks and national recreation areas offer opportunities for the public to enjoy southern Nevada's mountains and deserts. The vernacular buildings in these locations respond to the natural environment in a way that few structures in Las Vegas do.
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