Iconic Landmarks for Vegas

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Nearly every famous city in the world has an iconic landmark. 

Paris has the Eiffel Tower. London has Buckingham Palace. Cairo has the Pyramids. San Francisco the Golden Gate Bridge. New York the Statue of Liberty and Los Angeles the “Hollywood” sign on the hillside.

What will be the single most instantly recognizable landmark for our famous city a quarter of a century from now? Will it be the beautiful, elegantly designed and nearly completed black and glistening Allegiant Stadium on the South end of the Strip? It’s possible, but as rapidly as Las Vegas evolves, it could be a historic building or sign that is yet to be created.

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Many years ago, the waving Vegas Vic sign that first fronted the Pioneer Club downtown in 1951 told people immediately that they were welcome to kick up their boots in Las Vegas. Certainly the “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas” sign designed by Betty Willis will always rank in the top three or four of our most recognizable landmarks. It was installed in 1959 for a measly $4,000. 

Willis never copyrighted the logo or profited from the sign directly. “It’s my gift to the city,” she said on many occasions. Although she later acknowledged that “I should have made a buck out of it. Everybody else has.”

To this day, you can’t drive down the south end of the Strip without seeing dozens of cars parked on the median protecting the sign, with distinctly happy and occasionally over-hydrated visitors glamming it up for those all-important selfies that they can put online and announce to their fans that they are rocking their socks off in Las Vegas.

One would imagine when the Landmark Hotel was built in the 1960s, the original owners felt the poor-man’s Space Needle would live up to its name, but that never happened. The tower was imploded in 1995. With apologies to Joni Mitchell, they paved paradise and put up a parking lot, providing easier access to the Las Vegas Convention Center.

In 1981, amid much controversy, the then very urban-looking UNLV campus took a bold step when the school enlisted internationally famous Swedish artist Claes Oldenburg to design a pop-art sculpture, which would sit beside Artemus Ham Hall and the Judy Bayley Theatre.  

After much study and thought, Oldenburg came up with a 38-foot, 74,000-pound design called “Flashlight.” It features 24 fluted, painted steel segments radiating from a central core. If you gaze at its “on” switch, you’ll see the silhouettes of Sunrise and Frenchman mountains, towering east of Las Vegas. The Flashlight’s ribbed segments suggest a cactus standing sentinel in the desert.   

The original budget for the creation was $70,000, which was underwritten by a Reno banker and a matching grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. But Oldenburg eventually needed another $25,000 to complete the sculpture, which he raised through the sale of drawings and maquettes, because, he said, “I really want it to turn out right.”

Many in the arts community back then felt like the Flashlight should become THE symbol for Las Vegas. Others less cerebral and sensitive thought it was an eyesore and a waste of money. To each his own.

In 1989, the exploding volcano fronting the newly opened Mirage Resort captured the attention of the world and made the cover of TIME magazine. Steve Wynn knew he needed a Wow feature to draw visitors to his ambitious project, and it worked. He repeated the winning strategy when he front the Bellagio in 1998 with the “Fountains” or “Dancing Waters,” as they are sometimes called, and a backing soundtrack of Sinatra and Andrea Bocelli.

Although it’s hard to miss the Stratosphere (or the Strat as it’s now called) in any skyscape of Las Vegas, I doubt that it will ever achieve iconic status.

I did my own decidedly unscientific polling of long-time Las Vegans over which symbol most clearly defined our city. Five out of six poll-takers, including two family members, chose Betty Willis’ sign. The only dissenter chose the Gold and Silver Pawn Shop. But that voter was only 12 years old, so his vote didn’t carry much weight.  

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About the Author

Jack Sheehan

Vegas Vibe columnist Jack Sheehan has lived in Las Vegas since 1976 and writes about the city for Gaming Today. He is the author of 28 books, over 1,000 magazine articles, and has sold four screenplays.

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