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Exhibit Highlight: Mid-Century Modern Las Vegas

By Su Kim Chung on March 15, 2016 5:28 PM | Permalink

UNLV Libraries latest exhibit highlights the sleek lines of Mid-Century modern design and showcases its influence in architecture, fashion, and decorative arts with an emphasis on how it shaped the look of Las Vegas in the 1950s and 1960s. The exhibit draws from UNLV Libraries Special Collections, the Nevada State Museum, and private collections. Exhibit curator Peter Michel provides some highlights of the exhibit in the sections excerpted below. To view the entire exhibit visit the 1st floor of Lied Library where it will be on display until August 31, 2016. Additional Mid-Century Modern Las Vegas material can also be viewed in the Special Collections exhibit "From Tract House To Bauhaus The Modern House In Mid-Century Las Vegas" which is on the 3rd floor. 

Mid-Century Las Vegas: An Exhibit
According to historian Hal Rothman Las Vegas is the first Post-Modern City. But it could also be said that Las Vegas was the first Modern City, that is, the first city defined by the Mid-Century Modern styles that prevailed when much of the city was built, and when what was built gave Las Vegas that distinctive look that made it an icon of popular American culture. During the 1950’s, architecture, cars, and gadget design took on a curiously spaceflight-inspired aesthetic. Manufacturers built vehicles with ornamental tailfins. Upswept roofs and parabolas cropped up on buildings. Logos incorporated starbursts and satellite shapes, while parallelograms, wings, and free-form boomerangs became the motel sign shapes du jour.

The space-like redesign of the New Frontier Hotel and Casino with its rocket-like pylon, and a new logo, “Out of this World.” April 1955.  Manis Collection 

It was the age of the Atomic Bomb, being tested just north of the city and promoted as a tourist attraction, and Sputnik, rockets, and flying saucers. These cultural tropes created a style of design from flying saucer hats, atomic dishes, futuristic furniture, and an explosion of pastel colors for everything from dishes and toasters to toilets.

Mid-century Modern is an architectural, interior, product and graphic design that generally describes mid-20th century developments in modern design, architecture and urban development from roughly 1933 to 1965. The term, employed as a style descriptor as early as the mid-1950s, was reaffirmed in 1983 by Cara Greenberg in the title of her book, Mid-Century Modern: Furniture of the 1950s, celebrating the verve, imagination and the occasional pure zaniness of the period. It is that imagination, that aesthetic that we explore in this exhibit, the look of Mid-Century Las Vegas – the First Modern City.

A City on the Highway
Of all the defining features of Las Vegas from neon to spectacle architecture, the one most often overlooked is the car. Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown in their seminal cultural study of Las Vegas architecture Learning From Las Vegas had much to say about commercial strip buildings as ducks or decorated sheds or architecture as signage, but as they drove up and down the Strip with their cohort of Yale architecture students, what they failed to notice was their car, or the other cars, or how the Strip and its iconic hotels were defined more by those cars, driveways and parking lots than by their architectural theory. And anyone today who drives up, down or across Las Vegas Boulevard would be less aware of the gigantic pulsating media displays or singing fountains than they are of the cars, backed up behind stop lights, trying to pull into or out of driveways and parking garages. The Strip is still defined by the car.

Advertisement for Las Vegas Oldsmobile dealer James Cashman, ca. 1950s.

The early Strip was a series of drive-in motels, gas stations, and restaurants as it still is as one drives north of Sahara. The new sleek modern hotels with their low slung buildings and jutting porte cochères with a curving drive were designed to be driven up to, in one of Detroit’s new sleek chrome encrusted rocket-styled cars, preferably the ubiquitous white Cadillac convertible which appeared in so many hotel publicity and promotional photos. It was Modern, it was Chic.

Highway 91, the Sands Hotel, ca. 1957, Sands Hotel Collection 

The Flamingo Hotel, c. 1955. The late 1940’s California look of Bugsy Siegel’s original Flamingo Hotel was swept away in 1953 by the sweep of modern glass and glowing stylized columns stretching toward the new “Pink Champagne” tower. Manis Collection.

Mid-Century Fashion
In 1947 Paris fashion designer Christian Dior introduced the “New Look”. Featuring rounded shoulders, a cinched waist, and a very full skirt, the New Look celebrated ultra-femininity and opulence in women’s fashions. After years of war-time military and civilian uniforms, restrictions and shortages, Dior offered not just a new look but a new outlook. The “New Look” swept a post-war America re-discovering Parisian fashion.

Fanny’s was the premier local women’s clothing store where Las Vegas women shopped for the latest fashion designs being showcased in national and local magazines . “Fanny” was Mrs. Fanny Soss who with her husband Maury owned and managed stores at three locations in Las Vegas, at the Flamingo and Last Frontier Hotels and at 211 Fremont Street. Fashion shows were a regular event at the Strip hotels, where Fanny’s, Bonnie Best, The Clothes Horse, Opal’s and other clothiers showed their exclusive designer fashions from New York and Los Angeles.


A photo of Fanny’s Fremont Street shop window. Fanny’s Dress Shop Photo Collection


Fashion advertisement from Fanny’s in Magazine Las Vegas, 1954

Fashion advertisement for Ronzone's of Las Vegas, ca. 1950s

Mid-Century Modern Las Vegas will be on exhibit in Lied Library, 1st floor, from March 15 - August 31, 2016

Content provided by Peter Michel, Special Collections Curator. For more information about the exhibit contact him at