When the Aladdin came down in 1998, it left behind 50 million pounds of rubble.
After the fall of the Desert Inn, Wynn Las Vegas rose in its place.
The 166-room Bourbon Street Hotel & Casino was brought down in 2006
The 1995 Landmark implosion is featured in the film Mars Attacks
The Hacienda’s fiery blaze was part of a New Year’s Eve celebration in 1996
The 28-story Harmon may star in Las Vegas’s next implosion spectacle
by J. PATRICK COOLICAN | April 2, 2012 | Lifestyle
The Stardust imploded in a hail of fireworks in 2007
You would think massive explosions leading to the cinematic collapse of iconic hotels the size of small villages would be an exciting enough spectacle. Our lizard brains, after all, take pleasure in watching destruction. But this is Las Vegas, and there’s always room for more of everything: money, people, drink, food, fun—and the spectacular. So when Steve Wynn decided to bring down the Dunes to make way for Bellagio in 1993, he wasn’t satisfied with a mere implosion. He was ready to take it to the next level.
“Someone in the company said, ‘Movie studios will pay you to film this,’” recalls Alan Feldman, vice president at MGM Resorts International who was then a public relations man for Wynn. “It led to another conversation where someone said, ‘If you’re going to do a movie or a TV show, why not do it yourself?’” Wynn made the decision to turn the camera on the fall and rise of his new projects.
Treasure Island was opening as Wynn was bringing down the Dunes, and he zeroed in on the synergy: The pirate ship’s cannons would blow up the Dunes. In the movie that Wynn produced for NBC, a boy arrives in Vegas with his family. (Feldman notes the irony that Wynn and his people were “arguing vociferously that Las Vegas was a destination for adults, not families.”) The boy gets caught up in some shenanigans with the pirates and is trapped in the Dunes before being saved by the hero.
When the cannons blasted, “It was a deeply moving experience,” says Feldman, with perhaps a hint of facetiousness.
Mark Loizeaux, who co-owns Maryland-based Controlled Demolition Inc. with his brother, Doug, executed the implosion and has been bringing down buildings in Vegas ever since. Loizeaux says his daughter Stacey designed the operation that turned the Dunes into a “blazing Halloween pumpkin.”
But in today’s world of less costly renovations and revamps over complete re-dos, it is quite possible that the era of the implosion is over. One potential grand finale: the Harmon Hotel, which sits untouched at CityCenter, mired in wel-lpublicized lawsuits after the structural integrity of the building was called into serious question. The legal system will determine what is to be the fate of this unoccupied project. Even if the Harmon ends up coming down, its proximity to surrounding buildings has many concerned about safety. Plus, imploding the Harmon would mean admitting that the structure had been a failure. And in Vegas, implosions are supposed to embody progress as the Strip has continued to reinvent itself, like a conquering army that razes the old city to build a new one.
Between 1993 and 2007, 12 major hotels were brought down as Las Vegas shed itself of the old and embraced the new. In this city where entertainment is a mandate, implosions became local spectacles drawing thousands of onlookers, often energized with fireworks or New Year’s Eve-style celebrations. In other cities, an implosion might be a sign of urban decay. Here, it signaled the future—a bigger, more glittering resort to replace the aging desert showgirl from the post-war era. It was the perfect symbol for a city with an ambivalent attitude toward its rich history and a pattern of perpetual reinvention. In the 1995 Martin Scorsese film Casino, Robert De Niro’s character, Ace Rothstein, speaks for the past in a scene where moviegoers watch one legendary hotel after another crumble, “The town will never be the same.”
The implosions were truly creative acts. The Sands, one of the casinos where the Rat Pack starred in the original Oceans 11, came down in 1996 to make way for The Venetian Resort Hotel Casino. The Hacienda Hotel & Casino was imploded in a New Year’s Eve blowout at the end of 1996, with Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino rising up in its place at the south end of the Strip. The old Aladdin, which was built as the Tally-Ho in 1963, came down in 1998 and left behind an estimated 50 million pounds of rubble. It was replaced by the new Aladdin, which was later rebranded as Planet Hollywood Resort & Casino. The once mobbed-up Desert Inn made way for Wynn, the namesake of a casino boss who was by now something of a demolition aficionado. And the Boardwalk Hotel & Casino was imploded in 2006 to cede its place to CityCenter.
Even when a building was demolished without a dazzling replacement in the works, the destruction added to the city’s mystique. Controlled Demolition’s Loizeaux says imploding the slender Landmark, with its 31 stories and revolving restaurant on top, posed a significant engineering challenge in 1995. That implosion also became part of a movie: the somewhat forgettable Mars Attacks! “Las Vegas has done quite a public service for Hollywood in allowing what we call ‘progress’ to be filmed and become part of cinematic history,” says Gordon Absher of MGM Resorts.
The demolition of the 166-room Bourbon Street Hotel & Casino by Harrah’s in 2006, and the Stardust and the New Frontier in 2007, did not beget progress. Indeed, they could be seen as portentous symbols of the coming recession. Boyd Gaming destroyed the Stardust to build the multibillion-dollar resort Echelon, but halted construction in 2008. This left a concrete husk that is now the eyesore revelers at Encore Beach Club are treated to while lounging in their cabanas. The New Frontier was meant to become a hotel modeled after the Plaza in New York, but it remains an empty lot. And with that, the implosion- as-extravaganza era ended. Without financing or demand for a new mega-resort, there’s no need for an implosion any time soon, save perhaps the Harmon.
Loizeaux says his company has done thousands of implosions worldwide in its 65-year history, but there’s nothing quite like Vegas. “It’s 100 percent speed, pedal-to-the-metal all the time,” he says. In Vegas, he says, casino operators are consummate risk managers and data hounds, which makes sense if you consider their use of slight mathematical advantages to generate enormous profits. “What’s impressive in Vegas is the property owners’ understanding of time,” he says. “They know what a slot machine is making at 3 am on a Wednesday.”
Armed with this knowledge, plus other variables such as interest rates and current and projected room rates, they know when to take a building down and when to put another one up. Loizeaux marveled at Wynn’s reported decision to build a parking structure at the Wynn casino knowing he would take it down in just four years to make room for Encore. “It’s mindboggling,” Loizeaux says. “No place else on the planet do you see this kind of thinking. The speed and the commitment are just amazing.”
When there’s a need for speed, implosion is usually the best option. But how do you destroy a building? And how do you do it safely? “Gravity,” Loizeaux says. “If you pick up a pencil and let go of it, it’s going down. There are immutable laws of physics.”
The specifics are, of course, complex, but in broad terms, it’s simple: Use the smallest amount of explosives to eliminate the structure’s ability to carry its mass. Neil Opfer, an associate professor of construction management at UNLV, sums up the technique: “If we can weaken a building at critical junctures and put explosives in there to knock out the columns, we can have the building fall in on itself.” Loizeaux adds, “More important than the engineering is the experience. You can plan an operation down to the ‘T,’ but it depends on the guy holding the scalpel.”
Stacey Loizeaux further explains how “simple” the process is.
“The older structures in Las Vegas are very stout,” she says. “But the instant you force them to move, and get the supporting members out of plumb, they quite literally fall apart like a house of cards.”
The Loizeaux family may soon take on its most controversial Las Vegas demolition yet. The story of the Harmon is by now well known. When engineers discovered faulty construction in the Sir Norman Foster-designed, non-gaming hotel, MGM assessed the situation carefully before deciding that it would top off the building at 28 stories instead of the originally planned 49. As Las Vegas Sun reporter and critic Joe Brown wrote in 2009, “The incredible shrinking Harmon seems unfortunately fated to look like a stubby, squashed stepchild next to its soaring CityCenter siblings, the 61-story Aria Resort & Casino and the 57-story Vdara condo-hotel.”
The Harmon was an important element of CityCenter’s total design, standing as it does on the Strip, where it was to welcome visitors to a new kind of Las Vegas experience. Instead, it sits unfinished, mired in litigation between MGM and the general contractor of CityCenter, Tutor Perini Corporation. Clark County officials asked MGM for more information; a structural engineer told MGM the building would likely collapse in a strong earthquake; Tutor Perini wants a chance to fix it.
In a letter to Clark County development services detailing how it would fix the problem, MGM wrote: “In order to ensure the most responsive and expedient method of abatement and removal of potential structural hazards... the technical approach uses implosive demolition means for the removal of Harmon Tower.”
Cosmopolitan, this raises questions about safety. Experts say, however, that it can be done. “It’s just going to be much more exacting work,” Opfer says. “To protect Crystals, safety catch platforms may need to be built to help contain debris. Also, the building will fall more toward Las Vegas Boulevard and Harmon Avenue, necessitating closure of these streets during the implosion and immediately after to allow cleanup. It’s doable. They’ve taken down buildings with other technical challenges, and they can certainly do this.”
If history is a guide, this fallow period will pass in a few years and another building boom will resume. “If the economy were to change and money were available and people became confident in a new investment, we could see it again,” Feldman of MGM Resorts International says, knowing that a building boom could bring about the demolition of some historic hotels. “There are places that would be well-served by clearing out the land and starting anew. As long as we have change. That’s most important.”
PHOTOGRAPHY BY gene blevins/ la daily news/corbis (opener); JOHN GURZINSKI/AFP/GETTY IMAGES (alladin); ETHAN MILLER/GETTY IMAGES (BOURBON ST, harmon); R. MARSH STARKS/LAS VEGAS SUN (LANDMARK, HACIENDA); STEVE MARCUS/LAS VEGAS SUN (DESERT INN)