If you’ve visited Vegas anytime since 2009, you’ve likely seen the empty hotel. It doesn’t have any signage; instead, it is often swaddled in ads, like the world’s priciest billboard — a bloated Cirque du Soleil-wrapped blue whale hovering over the Strip for four lonely years. Now a court ruling is finally putting the doomed hotel out of its misery without it ever having opened.
The building in question is — or was supposed to be — the Harmon Hotel, one of the eight properties that make up CityCenter, the $US8.5 billion entertainment complex that opened in 2009. CityCenter offered the antithesis of the Strip’s spectacle: There was only one casino in the entire complex, it was LEED-certified design, there was no pseudo-European theme. The buildings were designed by and populated with works from some of the biggest names in architecture and art. It was a sophisticated, urbane take on the Vegas experience. And a pricey one: At the time it was built, City Center was the largest privately funded real-estate development in U.S. history.
Partly because of that hefty price tag, CityCenter was also plagued with problems. It opened in the depths of the recession in December of 2009, when Vegas was suffering from a 14 per cent unemployment rate. The project itself teetered on bankruptcy until a Hail Mary investment from a Dubai-based developer allowed the crews to finish construction.
Well, almost every building got finished: The Harmon never quite made it.
My photos of the almost-completed (or so we thought) Harmon Hotel in 2009
The Harmon was designed by British architect Norman Foster, one of seven starchitects tapped to work on these modern towers — which were meant to feel unique from each other, like an actual city skyline. It was originally planned to be 49 stories of hotel rooms and luxury residences, some of which were already sold long before work on the tower had a started. But in 2008, after 15 stories were built, inspectors discovered a serious problem with the building’s structural integrity: The rebar had been installed improperly, and the building’s height was slashed to 25 stories. Construction continued, and a new opening was planned for 2010. That was, until an engineering report determined that the building was likely to collapse in a major earthquake. Work ceased indefinitely.
So why tear it down now? Although MGM Resorts (which owns CityCenter) had announced its plans to demolish the hotel as far back as 2010, and the county approved the razing request last year, the developers have been embroiled in legal battles as well as disputes about the best way to take the hotel down. Don’t expect a huge Vegas-style implosion. According to Architectural Record, The Harmon will be dismantled floor-by-floor over the next year. The demolition will cost $US11.5 million.
I remember visiting CityCenter for the opening in 2009, and even with all the glitz and fanfare, it was unsettling to see the most visible portion of the complex looming above, unfinished. But it wasn’t that unusual, as I would come to discover. The real estate boom meant that developers flooded the city with rooms, leading to accusations that hoteliers were overbuilding the market. The following recession was paired with a spike in construction costs and many ambitious developments could never scrape together the cash to get the job done.
Vegas remains filled with plenty of empty, incomplete structures — you can count the motionless cranes from your hotel room.
The confident Cosmopolitan with the lopped-off Harmon next door. Photo by Cygnusloop99
But I think, especially in the Harmon’s case, the biggest threat was right next door. I remember touring around the Harmon and hearing the buzzy PR-speak about how this would be the sleek, exclusive boutique hotel that would change the Strip — all while I was intrigued by an interesting building I was watching going up on the adjacent parcel. Breathing onto the back of the Harmon’s unfinished neck was another slender, blue-glass tower that soared to the full height the Harmon was once supposed to achieve. It was similar in looks but even more similar in spirit: The Cosmopolitan was also an urban-themed, design-focused hotel.
Five years later, The Cosmopolitan has managed to not only steal the spotlight from the Harmon, it has cultivated a personality and following that the bland CityCenter properties — for all their star power — never managed to attain. The Harmon was doomed early on by its faulty rebar, but perhaps its ultra-successful neighbour was the real kiss of death. [ArchRecord]
Top image by Mikerussell