Paul Revere Williams’s iconic La Concha Motel lobby in Las Vegas was carefully separated into pieces and reconstructed at the site of the Neon Museum, where it will again serve as an entry point. © The Neon Museum
The iconic, triple-arched lobby of the La Concha Motel in Las Vegas was disassembled, moved, and rebuilt to serve as the entrance to an outdoor museum of the city’s famous neon signs
January 29, 2013—“Las Vegas is a city that likes to reinvent itself,” says Shane Swerdlow, a historic preservation planner with Chattel Architecture, Planning & Preservation, of Sherman Oaks, California. “That usually means demolishing buildings that may not be that old.”
In recent years, however, Sin City has begun to pay much closer attention to its historical landmarks. An old Mission Revival schoolhouse in downtown was transformed into a cultural center. A federal courthouse and post office became a mob museum. And last October, the curvy concrete lobby of the 1961 La Concha Motel—a Strip mainstay for decades—was finally reopened as the new face of the Neon Museum.
The La Concha is noteworthy on at least two fronts. For one, its architect, Paul Revere Williams, F.AIA, is one of the most important African American architects of the last century. Known for his eclectic revival-style mansions in Beverly Hills, Williams also designed the Beverly Hills Hotel and the Los Angeles Courthouse, and was part of the design team behind the iconic, swooping Theme Building at Los Angeles International Airport.
Moreover the lobby of the La Concha—a 4 in. thick shell-shaped structure composed of three parabolic arches—is a prime example of the midcentury style known as Googie, the curvy, fanciful variant of modernism that brought a space-age vernacular to such humble joints as coffee shops, diners, and bowling alleys.
“It really emphasizes the notion of building as sign,” Swerdlow says. “It serves the function of being both a building and sign.”
Signs, of course, are hardwired into the architectural DNA of resort cities like Las Vegas. “People are developing an increased appreciation for roadside architecture,” Swerdlow continues. “In Las Vegas it’s not very common; that’s part of why this particular building is so significant.”
The building dates from 1961, but like so much of the city’s built environment, it faced demolition when the hotel closed in 2003. By 2005, efforts in Vegas’s fledging preservation community were in full swing to save the building from demolition, by relocating it a few miles north to the Neon Museum, an outdoor collection of old neon signs. (The museum now owns more than 150 of them.) The La Concha lobby might conceivably be repurposed as a museum visitor center, preservationists believed—if it could be moved.
The interior furnishings, including the welcome desk, were carefully
chosen and constructed in keeping with the La Concha’s Googie
style of architecture. © The Neon Museum
Torrance, California-based Melvyn Green and Associates was brought in to determine how to take the iconic building apart. Melvyn Green, P.E., S.E., F.ASCE, the firm’s chief engineer, recalls that preservationists and city officials in Las Vegas “thought we could lift it with a helicopter, but helicopters can’t lift a gazillion pounds of concrete.” It was too big to put on the back of a truck and move up the street. It was too tall to transport by rail. Which left him with one option: “How can we cut it up?”
Because of its unusual shape and the way stresses were distributed throughout the structure, deciding where to cut the shell apart was critical. Green couldn’t cut it near the shell’s sharp bends. The building might respond with—as the engineer puts it rather nontechnically—a “twang,” meaning it couldn’t really be reassembled again.
On the other hand, if his team cut the shell along its almost flat surfaces between the curves, the moment would be sufficiently low to handle and permit reassembly. So they put in braces to keep the building from unhinging, literally drew dotted lines on the exterior, and then cut the shell into eight 28 ft tall pieces. These were loaded onto flatbed trucks and transported up Las Vegas Boulevard—at night—to the neon “boneyard” about a mile north of downtown.
Reassembly of the La Concha shell began in 2008. To put the shell back together, workers had to reposition the pieces, then strip the concrete back 1 ft from each edge, leaving a 2 ft gap where the pieces joined. Clamping devices held the pieces in place while reinforcing steel was coupled together, and then the gaps were refilled with concrete.
In 2008, the project received an $800,000 National Scenic Byways Grant from the U.S. Department of the Interior to help pay for restoration. Workers built a new foundation and a 3,400 sq ft addition behind the shell to house restrooms and office space. In total, the new center cost about $1.8 million, paid for with a combination of state, local, and federal grants, as well as community fundraising.
Inside, Westar Architectural Group of Las Vegas, the architecture firm in charge of the rehabilitation, worked with Chattel to find interior fixtures and furnishings that were compatible with the original interiors. For inspiration, they were able to find lots of ephemera: photos, matchbox covers, postcards, and even ashtrays bearing the La Concha logo. Light fixtures and carpet were sourced with an eye toward matching the original finishings. The lobby also features a curving front desk that is a close descendent of the original (though it has been designed to meet modern building codes).
Pat Klenk, AIA, LEED-AP BD+C, the president of Westar, has worked in Las Vegas for 35 years. The La Concha project is evidence, he says, that “the city is finally confronting its own history. It’s realizing its own maturation, just in terms of what is of value culturally. The whole museum in itself is so much the identity of Las Vegas.”
Danielle Kelly, the museum’s executive director, notes that the initial process of saving the building was a “pivotal moment in preservation in Las Vegas. That was really one of the first organized efforts by a wide scope of members of the community to work together to save a piece of Las Vegas history.”
She adds that the reopening of the La Concha shell as the museum’s visitor center grants the institution “a permanence that only architecture can.” Confusion about the museum’s status during the years of the rehab—when visitors would see the boneyard of signs behind the vacant, shuttered lobby building—is long gone. “The psychology of having the building is huge,” she says. “It means we are permanent. We’re going to be there a long time.”