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Paradise Misplaced
History of the Xanadu
Introduction

      Countless executives have promoted  the Las Vegas Strip as the fantasy capital of the world, an Edenic oasis of the possible.  Looking down the Strip during the good times, it is easy to imagine that even the most chimerical design could be brought to life there.  But to succeed, casinos need to capture an elusive alchemy of skillful design, good location, superior organization, and aggressive marketing. This kind of magic is hard to find, as the forgotten husks of unbuilt casinos attest to. The ideas that don't get built are legion.

      Take, for example, the Xanadu Hotel and Casino.  In the mid-1970s, it seemed to be an idea whose time had arrived.  It was to be a 1730-room "International Class" Hotel and Casino located on the southwest corner of Tropicana and the Strip, the site of today's Excalibur.  Its builders proposed a vaguely Asiatic pleasure-dome theme that would be used to advantage by Donald Trump's Taj Mahal in Atlantic City, Steve Wynn's Mirage,  and Mandalay Bay, two lots down from the original Xanadu site.

Xanadu site, 1975
Xanadu site in 1975

      At the time, the Strip was primed for expansion.  Most existing properties were in the process of adding hotel towers or soon would be.  Two Martin Stern-designed and Kirk Kerkorian-built casinos, the International (later Las Vegas Hilton) and MGM Grand (later Bally's) had just raised the bar in casino/hotel design.  Whereas previous casinos had featured modest, low-slung motel wings or mid-rise hotel extensions, these two structures opened with over 2000 rooms and suites located in mammoth hotel towers.  These two projects boasted virtually every feature of what is today canonical casino resort construction: a single complex combining casino, dining, and entertainment facilities with a massive hotel.  It did not seem so illogical to build a third megalith on undeveloped land at the south end of the Strip.  But for many reasons, the Xanadu was destined to remain as illusory a fantasy as the reverie that inspired Coleridge's poem.

Planning the dream

   In 1975, Las Vegas Boulevard still retained something of the feel of the dusty desert roadway it had been in the 1950s, when small casinos visually dominated by their neon signage languished between golf courses and undeveloped land.  The Aladdin and Caesars Palace were adding hotel towers that, while impressive then, would be dwarfed by today's Strip giants.  The Flamingo Hilton had not yet morphed into the slabs of concrete and glass that today dominate the "four corners" of Flamingo Road and the Strip.  The Tropicana, Frontier, and Stardust were still glorified motel casinos lacking high-rise towers.  Circus Circus, Sahara and Riviera, though they had definite vertical presences, were smaller than they are today.  Patrons were happily plugging quarters into slot machines at the Dunes, Hacienda, and Sands, obviously unaware that within twenty-five years those properties would be replaced by the Bellagio, Mandalay Bay, and the Venetian, respectively.  Golf courses occupied much of the land where the MGM Grand and New York New York stand today.  The Strip of 1975 was still a strip of commercial development tailing southward from Las Vegas, aesthetically unremarkable and seemingly boundlessly spacious. 

     The property that the Xanadu corporation's directors had selected as of October 1975 was considered prime for hotel casino development.  In the mid 1970s, the shadow of Howard Hughes still froze the development of the Strip.  In the late 1960s, Hughes had purchased most of the vacant land along the Strip and, indeed, a sizeable portion of the available land in the Las Vegas Valley.  Hughes himself never planned to build much on the Strip, but that did not stop him from clutching his land purchases and effectively preventing new projects.    As a result, there was a de facto land shortage on the Strip, and land not controlled by the Hughes Corporation was at a premium.  

     The 48.6-acre site possessed fairly level terrain and no salient geographic characteristics.  At the time, it was owned by Howard Downes of Coral Gables, Florida.  In 1973, Tropicana had planned a twin-tower extension which would have been linked to the existing Trop by a Strip-spanning skywalk.  Tropicana was unable to securing adequate financing for the expansion and its county construction permit lapsed.  This would foreshadow the Xanadu's journey into obscurity.

       When the Xanadu was proposed, the south Strip was effectively underdeveloped; the Aladdin, the Marina, on the site of today's MGM Grand, the Tropicana, and the Hacienda were the only sizeable properties south of the "four corners" of Flamingo Road and the Strip, and even they were for the most part undersized.  Tellingly, there were more golf courses (two) than high-rise hotel towers on this part of the Strip in early 1975.  Real estate appraiser Gary Kent summarized the condition of the site in a report which can be read here.

     The proposed architect, Martin Stern Jr., helped to redefine the casino resort for the corporate era.   His designs for the International and MGM Grand would set the standard for casino design into the next century, both in Las Vegas and in other jurisdictions.  As self-contained suburban entities, casino resorts can be essentially plunked down anywhere, be it along a formerly obscure Nevada highway or a once vibrant seaside resort.  Stern's integrated designs, which combined gaming and entertainment facilities with large hotel towers and parking garages, were anticipated in earlier high-rise Strip casinos but were adapted to the new realities of the gaming industry.  Earlier casinos could sprawl their motel wings across acres of erstwhile desert and allow their guests to park in spacious lots which fronted the properties.  With land prices on the Strip rising and undeveloped land becoming more scarce, the next generation of casino resort required a more compact footprint.  Las Vegas's new prominence as a convention center dramatically increased the number of visitors needing hotel rooms; hence the rapid turn towards high-rise hotel towers.  Stern was able to integrate these new elements into a single unified whole. 

Final Fantasy

     Although they articulated a clear vision of their project in their October 1975 prospectus, the Xanadu's planners were unable to actually build their casino.  They applied for and received a Clark County Planning Commission permit in February 1976, but almost immediately became ensnared in an argument with Las Vegas municipal authorities over construction of a new sewage line.  In the Kent report, it was assumed that existing utilities could absorb the Xanadu, but the city insisted that the Xanadu's builders pay for the installation of a new sewer line that would accommodate  their project and future expansion.    Construction never started, and the county building permit quietly lapsed.

       In March 1978, Tandy McGinnis, the majority owner of the project, again applied for a county building permit, but almost as soon as he requested a hearing, his representatives asked that it be postponed.  By this time, the Xanadu was no longer a novelty; the newspaper account of the postponement stuck the project with the "often-proposed" prefix.  Like an "oft-injured"  NHL checking-line forward or a  "journeyman" reliever in an expansion-bloated MLB, the Xanadu was acquiring a reputation as a perennial also-ran.

      But it would be difficult to argue that the project was entirely a bad idea.  The Xanadu was either the most pirated concept in casino design since the Flamingo brought Caribbean motifs to the Strip or merely ahead of its time.  Many of its elements popped up in later casinos.  For example, the "firefalls" that would have greeted visitors might have inspired the Mirage's frontage, with its rolling waterfalls and a spouting simulated volcano.  The big atrium concept was used to advantage in the Luxor, right next to the Xanadu's proposed site.  Donald Trump's Taj Mahal Casino Resort in Atlantic City boasts a "Xanadu Theatre" and an loosely "oriental exotic" theme that seems close to the one articulated in by the Xanadu's planners.  

     The site's eventual owners had better luck than the Xanadu Corporation.  The Excalibur opened on June 19, 1990, as a 4032-room casino hotel.  It was Circus Circus's first Las Vegas development outside of its flagship casino on the north Strip and paved the way for Circus's development of a "miracle mile" spanning the Excalibur, Luxor, Mandalay Bay, and possibly beyond.  The success of these developments saw Circus Circus Enterprises transformed into the Mandalay Resort Group, a national casino gaming operator.   Although the Xanadu's planners were unable to convert their prospects into assets, the site they selected was undoubtedly a winner.

     It would be easy to consign the Xanadu to historical footnote status.  But the Xanadu was more than a mistimed idea or failed development project; it was the future.  Within less than twenty years of the Xanadu's failed development, the Strip would be a congested nexus of casino development set amidst a growing suburban sprawl.  By that time, casino resorts double the Xanadu's size  would be built, and those that tripled its bulk would be proposed.  Martin Stern's conception of casino design as elaborated in the Xanadu would flourish in many jurisdictions.  The Xanadu was a prescient though ill-starred fantasy.

Excalibur Hotel and Casino
Same view, 1991: the Excalibur

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Last modified Wednesday, 02-Dec-2009 11:24:26 PST