By Andy Kirk and Courtney Mooney
Linking preservation with Las Vegas often invites not-so-polite responses from those who live in more long-established communities. Isn’t this the place that sells movie rights to demolition projects? Was there ever an “old” Vegas to preserve? Throw in “sustainability” and you’re lucky to get a blank stare or sad shake of the head.
Despite popular misconceptions, Las Vegas is a place with great potential for both preservation and sustainable design. Preservationists explored these two issues a few months ago in a sustainable preservation design charette developed to demonstrate the historic value and the “embodied energy” of the 1960s Bridger Building, one of the city’s most prominent mid-century buildings.
The charette was held November 30, 2012, in conjunction with the Preserve Nevada symposium, “Historic Preservation = Sustainability” sponsored by the City of Las Vegas, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and UNLV’s College of Liberal Arts and Urban Sustainability Initiative.
The symposium built on recent national interest in the revitalization of downtown Las Vegas as emerging “tech companies” look for distinctive urban architecture to feature their companies’ headquarters1. During the symposium, developers, government agencies, nonprofit organizations, and preservation experts discussed topics such as LEED criteria and opportunities for existing historic buildings and neighborhoods, federal historic tax credits, compatible green building materials for historic sites, and energy-efficient retrofits of buildings.
The charette was a way to provide a “hands on” design experience for local architects, developers, and students to expose them to the concepts of embodied energy, adaptive use, and sustainability as presented by national leaders.
The Bridger Building was constructed in 1964 for the Bank of Nevada by McNeil Construction. Later it housed Clark County government offices until they were moved to a new campus in 1995. In 1999 county commissioners voted to spend nearly $20 million to remove asbestos and renovating the structure. But after years of delay and debate, the plan was abandoned and the building slated for demolition. Not enough people were convinced that it was worth saving despite its very solid structure and potential for an innovative green remodel that would meet the growing need for downtown office space while preserving the mid-century vibe of a downtown now enjoying an enthusiastic revival.
Designed in the International style by Kent Attridge & Associates, the ten-story building has a large four-story base with a slimmer six-story tower above. It is constructed of reinforced concrete with a glass, steel, and an aluminum curtain wall. The front facade of the six-story tower perches on five concrete columns. Viewed from the north, the tower appears to float above the parking floors on six evenly spaced supports. The east and west tower facades consist of vertical rectangular panels painted a distinctly mid-century turquoise. Steel letters spelling, “Clark County Bridger Building” attached at the top of the east facade are the best-known feature of the structure.
Our charette team consisted of 50 local designers, architects, historic preservationists, students and developers, including Nevada senator and two-time governor, Richard H. Bryan, Patrice Frey, director of the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Sustainability Program, and Megan Davenport and Dace West of Denver Shared Spaces.
The team kicked off the charette by touring the Carson Building--a nearby “green” remodel of a mid-century office building. The Carson Building, which was constructed in 1965, provided inspiration to the team members as they began considering possibilities for the Bridger Building. The architectural style and construction of both buildings are similar--a modest concrete frame, mid-century modern office tower with a curtain wall and open floor plan. The Carson Building was rehabilitated from a Class C office building into a Class A LEED-certified facility in 2010 for a total of $11.4 million (approximately $74 per square foot after hazardous material abatement). The green-oriented renovations and modifications included the installation of new energy-efficient, dual pane windows on the building's exterior, substantial upgrades to the HVAC system, extensive modernization of the elevator system, and the installation of low-flow water fixtures and energy-efficient lighting systems throughout the building. The project was the first retrofit in Nevada to be awarded LEED Gold certification for Core & Shell, and received the USGBC Nevada Chapter Leadership Award, LEED Project Category.2
Charette participants were provided with images, plans, elevations, and historical information about the Bridger Building as well as information about the Carson Building project. Denver Shared Spaces, a partnership that completed a similar project in Colorado, offered insights and explained the environmental benefits of building reuse for previously abandoned structures in downtowns. The participants were divided into three groups, each with an equal share of architects, students, historic preservationists, and downtown enthusiasts. At the end of the day participants had several viable plans for green restoration that will force those in charge of the fate of this structure to think hard before they call in the wrecking ball. Three different plans for adaptive use were delivered to county and city government leaders, opening the door for serious discussions in the coming year. Plan one focused on developing partnerships between Clark County and private and nonprofit organizations to redevelop the building. Plan two called for a self-sustaining mix of uses that would include residential, professional office, grocery, childcare, and cultural and open space for recreation and gardening. Finally, plan three proposed a more boutique approach, mixing magnet and charter schools with medical uses, professional office, government use and some residential, and supported the argument for preservation with cost estimates.
The day ended with a visit to the newly hip East Fremont Street where participants toured thriving bars and restaurants and met the hardy breed of urban pioneers who are bringing a new urban sensibility to Las Vegas. Although many individuals may still scoff at the idea of preservation or sustainability in Vegas, we think that this weekend of thoughtful discussions about preservation and sustainable design generated meaningful insights for those confronting the common issues that all 21st-century American cities face.
1. Timothy Pratt, “What Happens in Brooklyn Moves to Vegas,” New York Times, October 19, 2012.
Andy Kirk is the director of Preserve Nevada and Professor of environmental history at UNLV.
Courtney Mooney is a Preserve Nevada board member and is the city preservation officer for the City of Las Vegas.