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Accidental Oasis
Unfulfilled plans leave Vegas' new performing arts center isolated in the desert.
An evening view of the Smith Center.
Steve Hall / HedrichBlessing

The $470 million Smith Center for the Performing Arts currently stands a lonely building on the outskirts of Las Vegas. Opened to the public on March 10 in the middle of 61 acres of undeveloped land, the complex is on the site of an abandoned rail yard a few blocks west of Downtown Las Vegas and was intended as the centerpiece of former Mayor Oscar Goodman’s scheme to build a new civic center in the same neighborhood as City Hall and the “Fremont Street Experience” outdoor mall. But the remainder of the city’s plans went bust along with the local housing market, and now the Smith Center stands as a reminder of unrealized civic aspirations.

The donors and politicians who envisioned the project challenged David M. Schwarz Architects (DMSAS) to design a building both indigenous to Las Vegas and timeless. In response to that problematic assignment (what architecture could possibly be considered indigenous to Las Vegas?) DMSAS found inspiration from the Hoover Dam, located 45 minutes east of Las Vegas. “The Hoover Dam is the most singular piece of architecture in this neighborhood,” said DMSAS principal David Schwarz, but the Smith Center’s references to the dam do not reach the level of imitation. According to Schwartz, the Smith Center is not a “series of quotes”—rather it’s an homage to a rich period of Las Vegas’ history. Workers building the dam in the 1930s came to Las Vegas with money to spend and impulses to satiate, quickly establishing the city as the entertainment destination it remains today.

Classic Art-Deco detailing continues on the interior of the Smith Center.

The Smith Center’s art deco styling—although a sticking point for those with modernist design sensibilities—is confidently executed by Schwartz’s firm. A 170-foot carillon tower rising above the center provides a picturesque symbol of good civic intentions. In the interior, marble and terrazzo finishes surround visitors in retro luxury. The illusion of the 1930s is never fully complete, however, given the prominent use of stucco in the exterior details.

The center includes three performance spaces in two buildings: Reynolds Hall, a 2,050-seat multi-purpose space; Boman Pavilion, which houses a 300-seat cabaret and jazz venue; and the 250-seat Troesh Studio Theater. The Smith Center’s two buildings and central courtyard also offer a full program of reconfigurable spaces for banquets and community gatherings.

As Schwartz notes, the room’s acoustics was the primary concern: “No one cares how it looks, but they care how it sounds,” he said. The floor beneath each row of seats in the upper balcony is uniquely bulged or sloped to maintain sight lines from every seat in the room. The contours of the ceiling, manipulated to trap certain pitches while repelling others, fan out in patterns befitting the art deco motif.

The Smith Center opens with a full performance schedule including Broadway shows, the Las Vegas Philharmonic, and the Nevada Ballet Theatre. A children’s museum on-site has also recently opened. But despite the project’s successes, too much of the story is now told by the massive empty lots that surround it on every side—the remainder of the city’s unrealized development plan. No Beaux Arts street frontages, subway portals, or pedestrian streetscapes will guide culture-seeking residents to the complex. Given the surrounding desolation, the Smith Center mostly resembles a high-water mark on the desert landscape, where the civic aspirations of Las Vegas’ locals finally lost momentum.

James Brasuell