A history of landmarks never built

Editor’s Note: Nevada 150 is a yearlong series highlighting the people, places and things that make up the history of the state.

For every casino resort idea that became reality and turned Las Vegas into a worldwide destination, it seems there are a few that never opened or even saw a shovel hit the ground.

Projects themed after Elvis Presley, the World Wrestling Federation (now the WWE), Rolling Stone magazine and Harley-Davidson were promoted to investors. Station Casinos publicly discussed a $10 billion, CityCenter-type development on 110 acres, less than a year before its 2009 bankruptcy. Fontainebleau got all the way to the penthouse before financing collapsed. There are too many to mention, but a few stand out.

“There’s a history of such over-the-top-projects that (Clark County) commissioners tend to look favorably on things because in the past people have suggested things that have seemed outrageous and they’ve made them happen,” said David G. Schwartz, director of UNLV’s Center for Gaming Research.

Reno and Atlantic City also have seen interesting casino projects pitched but never built, Schwartz said, but no other gaming destination holds a candle to Las Vegas. Big gambles and broken dreams seem to be part of the community’s fabric.

Dream on the desert

Even in the city’s early years, successful hoteliers and hopeful developers arrived with dreams to turn this stretch of desert into a resort area similar to ones in other railroad towns such as Santa Fe, N.M., or Palm Springs, Calif.

Larry Gragg, chairman of the history and political science department at Missouri University of Science and Technology in Rolla, Mo., said the 1920s and 1930s saw the first wave of developers pitching ideas, some before casinos were legalized.

“The thinking was Las Vegas has the same attributes as Palm Springs and Santa Fe, it ought to work,” said Gragg, who is researching resorts in early Las Vegas.

In 1936, a group started promoting El Sonador on a plot of land where the unfinished Fontainebleau stands. The Spanish-style resort, promoted by a group from San Diego, promised 100 to 150 rooms, a casino, tennis courts, stables, a large fountain and a pool.

El Sonador’s backers incorporated in January 1936, released a 17-page prospectus and turned to the railroad for potential backing, Gragg said. The railroad had already placed its investment money elsewhere.

“The Union Pacific decided to put a lot of money into the development of Sun Valley in Idaho, and they put about $1 million into that,” he said. “The only thing they offered El Sonador was advertising.”

While the idea survived nearly three years, funding never came and the project died, a recurring theme during the years.

“People come to town and throw an idea out, and if people don’t pick up on it in Las Vegas, they would go on their way,” Gragg said.

Ahead of its time

One of Schwartz’s favorite projects that never was is the Xanadu because a lot of its elements appeared in later resorts.

The idea of a big central atrium wound up in the Luxor, and the building’s step shape is similar to the Showboat in Atlantic City. Xanadu also proposed the first parking garage at a Strip resort.

“Some of the ideas keep on resurfacing,” Schwartz said. “It was interesting because of the degree of integration.”

Martin Stern Jr. had the credentials for the proposed Xanadu at the corner of Tropicana Avenue and Las Vegas Boulevard, where the Excalibur stands today. In 1975, the land was still vacant. Stern had designed the International, now Westgate Las Vegas, and the original MGM Grand, now Bally’s. So when he pursued the 1,730-room Xanadu project, it zipped right through the county approval process.

But that part of the Strip’s infrastructure was not prepared. While the resort would have had fewer rooms than the International (1,966) or MGM Grand (1,756), the project ultimately faltered because the sewer lines in the area could not accommodate it. Las Vegas officials wanted the builders to pay for the installation of a new line. The developers insisted it wasn’t needed.

The project lives on, in a fashion, on a website maintained by the Center for Gaming Research. “Paradise Misplaced: The Xanadu Hotel Casino” (at gaming.unlv.edu/Xanadu/) features renderings, historical documents and analysis, including the economic feasibility study done for the resort.

Pyramid pipe dream

In the late 1980s, a group of investors and developers pitched a project that would have brought an Egyptian theme to the desert a few years before the 1993 opening of the Luxor.

The rise-and-fall of Pharaoh’s Kingdom happened seemingly overnight, not long before one of its developers ran afoul of the feds.

In September 1988, gaming executive Frank Gambella and out-of-state developer Anthony Silano pitched the 710-acre project east of Las Vegas Boulevard at Pebble Road.

The proposal called for 10 hotels anchored by a 5,000-room tower, a massive casino, an 80-acre theme park, an 18-hole golf course and 700 villas for permanent residents. In a strange twist, plans also included a senior community and hospital, and actor Jack Klugman had signed on to direct a repertory theater that would bear his name.

Two 400-foot towers and 120-story glass pyramids would shadow the development.

In the end, the resort was buried by its own $1.6 billion price tag. Despite the claims by Gambella, a former Golden Nugget and Dunes marketing executive, that the project was a done deal, it never passed the planning stage.

In a Feb. 27, 1991, article, Review-Journal columnist John L. Smith wrote that “Silano was the so-called brain behind the pyramid pipe dream. When the project fizzled soon after it was announced, few familiar with Silano were shocked.”

By 1992, the man Gambella had called “another Steve Wynn,” despite his complete lack of gaming experience, had pleaded guilty in New Orleans to federal conspiracy charges. Silano’s fundraising efforts for Pharaoh’s Kingdom caught the attention of authorities, including financial support from then-Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos.

In 1997, Silano described to a Los Angeles federal court how he and associates hacked Marcos’ Switzerland bank accounts in search of assets following the former dictator’s death in 1989.

Gambella would eventually watch as the Luxor was built, a project he told the Review-Journal in late 1991 made him want to “put my foot right through the television.”

No iceberg needed

Buoyed by the worldwide success of a silver-screen love story framed by the deaths of more than 1,500 people, a Titanic-themed resort was floated by casino owner and failed mayoral candidate Bob Stupak.

His 15-story Titanic would set sail on a stretch of Las Vegas Boulevard where the Thunderbird, now the Aruba Hotel and Club, sat south of Charleston Boulevard.

But it wasn’t an iceberg that sank the idea. Vocal opposition from residents of the historic John S. Park neighborhood prompted the Las Vegas City Council to vote down a zone change for Stupak in May 1999.

And even if the neighbors had not torpedoed the $400 million ship, Stupak also faced a lawsuit from a developer who claimed to own the “Titanic Hotel &Casino” trademark.

Undeterred, Stupak promptly announced another ill-fated scheme: a $20 million plan to restore the Moulin Rouge, the historic property on West Bonanza Road that was the first integrated casino-hotel in Las Vegas. That never happened either, but the casino mogul who died in September 2009 did leave his mark on the valley’s skyline with the Stratosphere.

Reaching for the Moon

What’s a better way to shoot for the moon in Las Vegas than to shop a resort-casino resort to developers based on the actual moon.

One of the more bizarrely themed projects ever touted was the $5 billion, 10,000-room Moon Resort and Casino planned for 250 acres at, well, the creator never said where.

British Columbia resident Michael Henderson unveiled his lunar dreams in 2002 in hopes of attracting investors but was quickly grounded.

Some of the project’s promotional material still lingers online, evoking “a technological and environmental masterpiece that will transport guests to the Earth’s closest celestial partner.”

Plans called for moon buggy rides, an International Space Station and a terrestrial biosphere. The centerpiece would have been a 350-foot-tall multi-floor casino inside a replica of the moon.

And with each ensuing announcement, the dream grew grander. By May 2003, Henderson said Moon would have 50 restaurants, 10 permanent live shows and television and movie production studios. “People are now beginning to understand the Moon is realistic and will definitely happen in the near future,” the release stated.

Schwartz said projects are often announced by developers hoping to attract investors. “That definitely factors into it. It’s a lot easier to raise money if you can say, ‘Hey, it’s already been announced, it’s already been approved,’ than if it’s just an idea you have and keep to yourself.”

Moon never even made it to the launch pad. All that seemed to get built was a really nice model and an Internet landing site for the project, which still exists at moonworldresorts.com.

No crown to fit

While Moon arrived as a concept without a developer, some developers fade in and out of the Las Vegas landscape and leave nothing behind but a trail of failed projects.

Christopher Milam is one such developer.

While Milam was most recently connected to a controversial 2012 Henderson stadium and arena complex deal that ended in a lawsuit, the Texas businessman had already tried and failed to launch an even bigger project.

Six years earlier, he proposed the $5 billion Crown Las Vegas, a casino with a 5,000-room, 1,064-foot hotel tower on the then-vacant Wet ‘n Wild site next to the recently opened SLS Las Vegas (formerly the Sahara). His original request was for a 1,888-foot tower, but airspace concerns from McCarran International Airport, Nellis Air Force Base and the Federal Aviation Administration got more than 800 feet trimmed from what would have been the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere.

Even the scaled-down tower would have rivaled the height of the Stratosphere, less than a mile north on Las Vegas Boulevard.

While Crown Las Vegas was Milam’s brainchild, he was able to lure Australia’s richest man to the project: billionaire James Packer of Publishing and Broadcasting Ltd., who has long tried to get into the Las Vegas casino industry, so far without success.

In May 2007, Packer paid $22.5 million for a 37.5 percent stake in the project. Ten months later, Packer was out, and Milam was trying to refinance another deal for the land, which he never owned.

Dreams continue

Schwartz said grand development dreams are still being dreamt for Las Vegas. Recently a group of Russian investors proposed building a second Strip with 30 to 40 hotel-casinos.

“They actually approached me to do an economic analysis to say this wouldn’t harm the existing properties,” Schwartz said. “That was definitely one of the more over-the-top ones. Of course, they didn’t have the land to build it on.”

Schwartz admitted that he’s not sure if the group was serious or if it was some type of satire.

In Vegas, sometimes it’s hard to tell.

Contact reporter Arnold M. Knightly at aknightly@reviewjournal.com or 702-477-3882. Find him on Twitter: @KnightlyGrind

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