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Landscape architect who transformed the Strip dies in California

Updated July 26, 2021 - 1:48 pm

Donald Brinkerhoff, who brought joy to millions of Las Vegas visitors by transforming the once-gray median strip along Las Vegas Boulevard and enhancing resorts with lush landscapes, has died.

Brinkerhoff, a landscape architect who founded Lifescapes International Inc. with his wife, Barbara, was 90 when he died July 16 at his Newport Beach, California, home.

His fingerprints and influence are visible up and down the Strip from the tropical landscape at The Mirage, to the stately pines and fountains creating an old-world vibe at Bellagio and to Lifescapes’ latest project at Resorts World, which involved the planting of around 7,000 plants and trees, including the relocation of about 100 trees rescued from the old Stardust hotel grounds.

Brinkerhoff’s work began in earnest with his landscape design of The Mirage for Steve Wynn in 1989 and continued through his work on Resorts World Las Vegas with lead architect Paul Steelman, who said Brinkerhoff coined the terms “hardscape” and “softscape” in landscape architecture during his career.

‘In short, magnificent’

“Don’s contribution from The Mirage, Treasure Island, Bellagio, Wynn, Encore and China was critical,” former Wynn Resorts Chairman and CEO Steve Wynn said through a representative. “It was Don that dreamt up the detail of the front of The Mirage, and it was Don that introduced me to Mark Fuller with the idea of the fountain at the Bellagio.

“These creative contributions in addition to his stunning landscape design were a great responsibility that all of the great hotels enjoyed,” he said.

Brinkerhoff also designed the center median of the Strip with trees and plants.

The Las Vegas Beautification Project consisted of 4½ miles of streetscaping the landscape medians on what he considered the greatest midway in the world, now designated as a Nevada Scenic Highway. Seventy-six-thousand palms, shrubs, flowering foliage and ground cover were planted. Completed in 1996, more than 200 Strip frontage property owners unanimously approved the $13 million special improvement district project, which had no fiscal impact on individual Clark County taxpayers.

“I went to Don to beautify the Strip in the ’80s, and Don designed the whole center strip idea of trees to soften and provide warmth to the sharp-edged signage,” Wynn said.

“He was, in short, magnificent. I am grateful to have such sweet memories of this lovely man.”

‘Wonder-inducing landscape creations’

Brinkerhoff worked with nearly every major Strip developer throughout his career, and his hallmark was to plant “big trees.”

“Don Brinkerhoff was a visionary designer whose work includes many wonder-inducing landscape creations across the Las Vegas Strip,” said Bill Hornbuckle, CEO of MGM Resorts International, which houses much of the designer’s work.

“His expansive portfolio includes many of MGM Resorts’ most famous attractions including the Oasis at The Mirage as well as the Conservatory and Botanical Gardens at Bellagio Hotel &Casino. His work leaves a lasting imprint on the city and continues to bring joy to millions of visitors each year.”

Brinkerhoff’s firm also provided the floral work at Wynn Resorts Ltd.’s Encore in Las Vegas and Encore Boston Harbor in Massachusetts.

“Don shared our belief that the elements of nature — beautiful plants and flowers, natural light, the relaxing sight and sound of water — were essential for all people, and he helped us to make them key elements of the Wynn experience,” Wynn Resorts CEO Matt Maddox said. “Although he will be missed, his vision lives throughout all of our resorts.”

Alan Feldman, a distinguished fellow in responsible gaming at UNLV’s International Gaming Institute, worked with Brinkerhoff during his time with Mirage Resorts and later with MGM Resorts International.

A family man

“Beyond his worldwide reputation as one of the best landscape architects, he was always, first and foremost, a family man,” Feldman said. “The entire Brinkerhoff family was engaged in the work, and their talent as a group was remarkable.”

Julie Brinkerhoff-Jacobs, a daughter who serves as president and chief financial officer of Lifescapes, said her parents’ penchant for travel inspired many of the ideas for their projects and noted her family lived in several locations around the world before settling in at Newport Beach.

Feldman said Brinkerhoff was unflappable, even when clients changed their minds about designs in mid-project.

“Don, as the patriarch, set the tone: collaborative, even-tempered, funny, just a wonderful colleague. He was unflappable as well. Even as his client’s views changed and designs that had been approved were altered, he adapted and offered new solutions that were even better than the originals.

“His work on The Mirage helped to usher in the age of the modern integrated resort not only in Las Vegas, but around the world. Fortunately, that work, in addition to Treasure Island and Bellagio, will stand as legacies to his memory.”

Brinkerhoff won several awards throughout his career. He was honored in 2001 by the California Homebuilding Foundation, was named a Fellow of the American Society of Landscape Architects and was the first architect to be inducted into the California Building Industry Hall of Fame and, in 2016, the American Gaming Association Hall of Fame.

Resorts World work

One of Brinkerhoff’s last projects was the recently opened Resorts World, which he worked on with lead architect Steelman.

“Las Vegas was very fortunate that Don visited Vegas in 1986 to interview for the design of The Mirage,” Steelman said. “That day changed Las Vegas and casino entertainment forever and shaped the beautiful suburban look of our very urbanized city.”

Steelman called Brinkerhoff the first landscape architect who viewed landscape as more than nature — as also entertainment.

“Don was also a lover of all the arts and music,” he said. “His passion for art was clearly demonstrated in his landscape designs throughout the world.”

Steelman said he was present when Brinkerhoff got The Mirage contract.

“While the other competitors offered unique solutions, they were based on the desert Southwest. Don’s design was the only one to view landscape as escapism. He was the only landscape architect who conceived that the design concepts casinos used for years could be placed in landscape.

“Steve Wynn was very taken by Don’s presentation, and Don stayed in Vegas for several days building a model with thousands of small model trees. Of course, Steve followed this design vision with every subsequent project with Don. Bellagio, Treasure Island, Wynn, Encore, Beau Rivage, Wynn Macau, Wynn Palace. Don also designed the garden waterfront scheme that preceded the Fremont Street Experience.”

Brinkerhoff is survived by three children, son, Martin Brinkerhoff of Laguna Beach, California; and daughters Julie Brinkerhoff-Jacobs of Corona del Mar, California; and Karen Hedstrom of Newport Beach. He was preceded in death by daughter Christie Dunbar three weeks before he died and by his wife and business partner, Barbara, who died in December 2014.

A celebration of life for Brinkerhoff is scheduled for Aug. 6 in Newport Beach.

Contact Richard N. Velotta at rvelotta@reviewjournal.com or 702-477-3893. Follow @RickVelotta on Twitter.

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