Yesterday I did the second in a two-part series of interviews with Sarno Award-winning casino architect Paul Steelman. After the jump, I'll talk about what I found most enlightening in the conversation.
There's a few reasons why I personally enjoyed spending a total of about two and a half hours asking open-ended questions and listening to Steelman's responses. First, he's an Atlantic City guy, and I'm always interested in hearing about anyone from my hometown. It's interesting how the city shapes people in different ways. As I'll get to in a while, one of the big differences between Las Vegas and Atlantic City is the sense of the past. Yes, everyone talks about the "good old days" here in Vegas, but it's different in Atlantic City. Things weren't just friendlier in the past: measured by any metric, the city was better off. Before the advent of casinos in the late 1970s, the city was looking back to a past where the buildings were newer, jobs easier to come by, and the city itself more attractive. I grew up surrounded by black and white photographs of the Boardwalk packed with people for the Easter Parade, feeling like it was just a fact of life that the city I was living in was somehow diminished from what I saw in those old pictures.
It's no wonder, I sometimes think, that I decided to study history.
And Paul Steelman, growing up as the son of an architect, turned to architecture. His first casino job was working on the renovation of Haddon Hall into Resorts International in 1977/78: the rebirth of Atlantic City. After joining the team building Steve Wynn's Golden Nugget, he left Atlantic City and moved to Las Vegas--a move that strikes a personal chord with me, since I made a similar move eleven years ago (time flies) to come to UNLV. I think that speaks to the missed opportunity Atlantic City had in the 1980s. For a few years everything was trending towards the city permanently knocking Las Vegas from its throne as casino king. From a revenue standpoint it did for many years. But the city never really became a center for human capital--management and design expertise--the way Las Vegas is. Yes, there are some consulting firms based in the area, and many casino manufacturers and architects have branch offices there. But companies like Harrah's and Aztar never considered moving their corporate headquarters there, even when their Atlantic City properties produced most of their revenues. You could argue that, with closer proximity to Wall Street and the Northeastern population center, Atlantic City would make a much better corporate HQ than Las Vegas for a national (or international) casino company. But it didn't happen, and that says something about the city.
One of the things I found most striking about Steelman was his keen understanding of the history of the Strip and his respect for the Strip as a great American roadway. It seems that some who have built on the Strip have mostly looked at it as a blank canvas that needs to be filled without regard to what's around it. Steelman's approach is the view the building within its context. I know that many people on here will agree with his thoughts about what's been done with Treasure Island--particularly the Starbucks/Margarita Bar out front--and it's fascinating to hear an explanation of the design reasons why it's a bad idea. Obviously, since my doctoral dissertation/first book was called Suburban Xanadu, I'm in complete agreement with him about the Strip's essentially suburban nature as a vacation destination.
If I had the money to commission it, I'd love to see a Paul Steelman master plan for the Las Vegas Strip.
Which brings me to Atlantic City. I got to see Steelman's master plan for the Inlet. It's incredible, and it's scaled to exactly what would suit the area. He's got some great ideas, including adding a cruise ship terminal and a hydrofoil service that would, in 80 minutes, take visitors from Manhattan to the Boardwalk.
Steelman's approach is one that I don't think anyone who didn't grow up hearing stories of the golden days of Atlantic City would take: that Atlantic City doesn't begin on the Boardwalk, it begins on the piers. He's put his money where his mouth is, buying one of the most historic piers in the city, the appropriately-named Steel Pier. You can read my Casino Connection article on the history of Steel Pier here. His plans for it are remarkable, drawing on the site's history in both aesthetic and operational ways. It's really going to be an incredible attraction that could make the entire city a more viable destination.
And a career that started in Atlantic City with the birth of casinos comes back--in a big way--to lend a hand when the city's at another crossroads. I think that's very appropriate.
If you haven't listened yet, you can access both Part I and Part II of the interview on the UNLV Gaming Podcast page. And if you want to look at some of Steelman's work, you can check out the Steelman Partners Projects page.