Las Vegas has a 100-year history of attracting unconventional, strongly independent individuals. This city was built by those who have dared to dream beyond the ordinary and dared to risk everything on their ideas and abilities. The architects and design professionals who have chosen Las Vegas as their home clearly exhibit these attributes in abundance. So it is something of a miracle that in 1956 a handful of maverick-type architects joined together to establish the Las Vegas Chapter of the American Institute of Architects. It is even more amazing that today, 60 years later, the Chapter is still a vital entity in the community with over 500 architects and design professionals who proudly proclaim membership in AIA Las Vegas.
While 1956 is the official year the Chapter was established, the story actually begins many years earlier. Back in 1939 in Reno architects who were already practicing in Reno and Las Vegas, joined together to form the Nevada State Association of Architects. This group recognized the growing need for a regulatory body and their sole stated purpose was “establishing laws to protect the profession and raise the standard of architecture in Nevada.”
The NSAA worked diligently for ten years to set in place a state architectural registration law and to establish a regulatory body. They enlisted the help of the AIA and NCARB to support their efforts and they even ran newspaper ads in order to increase public awareness and support for their effort across the state. Finally, in 1949 after many failed attempts in Carson City, and thanks to the persistent labors of the architects and the full-time lobbying efforts of an architect named Graham Erskine, AB70, “An Act To Regulate The Practice Of Architecture In Nevada” was passed and the Nevada State Board of Architecture was established.
Governor Pittman appointed the first state board members, all of whom were architects and included Leman Ferris, Russell Mills and Edward Parsons (all from Reno) and Aloysius McDonald and Walter Zick from Las Vegas. They held their first meeting on July 31, 1949, where they elected officers, determined the criteria for licensure and set about issuing license to architects. The following is a list of the first 29 architects who held the first licenses in the state.
With the Nevada State Board of Architecture in place and their mission accomplished the NSAA faded out of existence and the architects turned their attention to formally establishing the American Institute of Architects in Nevada. In 1949 former members of the NSAA group enlisted the help of AIA members from other states and petitioned the national AIA headquarters to Charter a Nevada chapter. The charter was granted immediately and the Nevada Chapter AIA was born.
With only five AIA members the first chapter lunch meeting was held at the Riverside Hotel Casino in Reno and each was assigned to an officer position. They then adopted the unofficial name of “Nevada AIA - The All Saints”. Within a few months Harris Sharp and Walter Zick and other AIA members from Las Vegas joined the Nevada Chapter. To accommodate the distance between the two cities the sporadic member meetings were held half way between the two cities in Tonopah. This soon proved to be too much of a geographic challenge, and by 1954 the Nevada AIA became the AIA Reno Chapter, and the architects in Las Vegas requested a Charter from the Institute to establish the AIA Las Vegas Chapter.
The Las Vegas Chapter was officially established on January 6th, 1956 and Walter F. Zick, AIA was elected the first president. Since there were only a few architects practicing in Las Vegas at that time, -- Harris Sharp, Elmo Bruner, Aloysius McDonald, Ed Kendricks, and maybe a few others -- they all joined AIA and took turns holding the highest office.
George Tate, AIA, then a youngster to the group, recalls, “AIA meetings were interesting in those days, usually more social than business. At the end of my term…and “my turn” as president, which is how it was done in those days, we still had a couple of hundred dollars in the kitty, so at Pat Porcarello’s motion we had a big bash at the Coach and Four Restaurant.”
Since those early days Las Vegas and AIA members have benefited from a long list of architect-leaders who have taken on the role of President, Directors of the Board and Committee Chairs who have served the Chapter and the community well. Through all the years since 1956 the main objectives of the AIA Las Vegas Chapter has remained the same – To uphold the Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct, to protect the profession, raise the quality of architecture and safeguard the health, safety and welfare of the public.
Throughout the 1960’s Las Vegas was booming and architects were busy building this most unusual city. It was the heyday of neon and kitch design. The “young turks” who were trying to get licensed and established in Las Vegas at that time included George Tate, Julio Lucchesi, Ed Hendricks, Jack Knighton, Jack Belcher, Jim McDaniels, Jim Little, Gerald Moffitt and Robert A. Fielden.
In 1968 the Chapter undertook a major civic project. The city was growing rapidly and the Chapter was asked to develop a master plan the downtown area. It included an in-depth study and a scale model, which was presented to Mayor Gregson at the old city hall. The plan was to develop the vacant land west of Main Street, with Ogden and Carson streets extended under the railroad tracks and making a big loop inside the vacant land, which would become a green area and government center. (Where the Government Center sits today, and where today we’re still discussing the future of the sixty-one acres.) Where the Plaza Hotel now stands was to be a pivotal structure; a model interchange utilizing the railroad to deliver passengers from out-of-town and also to serve to move people to and from Henderson and Boulder City on the already existing tracks. (The germ of an idea for today’s monorail system.) In 1969 AIA Las Vegas published this lengthy plan, which is entitled “A Checklist for Cities”, and it was also published in its entirety in a series of Sunday supplements in the newspaper. The ideas and the solutions provided by the architects in this publication are just as relevant today as when it was printed in 1969 and Las Vegas is still addressing many of the same issues that our architects were dealing with over forty years ago. The April 2006 edition of the Chapter’s magazine, Architecture Las Vegas, provides an interesting comparison of the Checklist and the current re-development of downtown. Copies of the original Checklist for Cities are also available through the AIA Las Vegas office.
At about this time the AIA national organization became more active in supporting local chapters. The Grassroots program was formed and AIA helped subsidize the president-elects to attend the leadership sessions.
In 1969 AIA Las Vegas was selected to host the Western Mountain Region Conference in Las Vegas and asked Reno architects to help co-host the event. The conference was very successful and profits from this event were used to help fund future legislative events and scholarships for Nevada students attending architectural schools in other states.
During the 1970’s the Chapter’s leadership recognized the importance of establishing a School of Architecture at the new University of Nevada, Las Vegas campus. AIA members organized to lobby for an architecture studies program. Led by Julio Lucchesi, AIA their efforts to secure funding for the establishment of the School of Architecture at UNLV were successful. The program began slowly but has grown and expanded to a fully accredited six year curriculum. Julio Lucchesi’s son, Ray Lucchesi, AIA, was the programs’ first full-time faculty member. Through his efforts local casino owner J. Kell Houssels donated his home (Houssels House) to UNLV. The house was moved to the campus and used to house the School of Architecture for many years. Ray Lucchesi, AIA also secured the alliance between the AIA Las Vegas Chapter and the school, and arranged for the Chapter’s first permanent home inside the Houssels House on the UNLV campus. AIA Las Vegas has provided a strong communication bridge and support between the professional community and the school and students since that time. The location of the AIA Chapter within the school and the strong relationship with the local architects as professors, advisors and mentors was instrumental in the School receiving their first NAAB accreditation and every accreditation since then.
1975, the year that Hartley Alexander, AIA was President, was a milestone for the practice of architecture in the State of Nevada. That year a group of draftsmen adopted the title of “Building Designer”, and retained a lobbyist named Mahlon Brown Jr. for the purpose of having the legislature pass a modification to Chapter 623 which would allow them to design all residential structures and any one-story commercial building.
The Las Vegas Chapter wad discouraged by the efforts of the AIA Nevada lobbyist that year, and as a chapter they retained Joe Foley, Jim McDaniel’s brother-in-law, to represent architect’s interests to lobby against the provisions as hoped for by the“Building Designer” group.
The current law which permits licensing as a “Residential Designer” with restrictions on the size of project is a compromise result due to these efforts by our chapter and the lobbying efforts of Mr. Foley. There were many members of the Chapter who contributed to this effort: to name a few there were James McDaniel, Errol Hill, Bill Simpson, Art Cambeiro, Gary Guy Wilson and Ralph Bond.
Throughout the 1970’s and 80’s the Chapter maintained a significant position within the community. Many of the AIA members were selected to serve on key state and local committees and have served the public across the state. The Chapter established numerous community outreach programs including “Search for Shelter”, “Christmas in April”, “Box City” and many others.
In 1971 the AIA Las Vegas Chapter began working with the Southern Nevada Homebuilders Association to establish a High School Design Awards program. Through this program talented high school students are recognized, rewarded and encouraged to continue in a career path that will bring them to architecture as design professionals. By 1988 the AIA Las Vegas Chapter took over the program and has built an eighteen year history with this program. Many of the recipients of AIA High School Design Awards have gone on to attend the UNLV School of Architecture, to be recognized with AIA scholarships, to be mentored by AIA architects and to complete their internship and ARE exams while working for AIA member firms. Many are now successful practicing architects in Las Vegas.
The AIA Las Vegas Chapter was un-staffed from its inception until the early 1980’s. At this time the Architect’s Wives League was established and became an extremely influential force in Southern Nevada. It was the Architect’s Wives League that provided the organization and administration for many of the programs. They organized and supported numerous volunteer efforts in the community and they also served as members of other prestigious local groups and advisory committees. They organized and executed the annual AIA Las Vegas Golf Tournament (now the longest continuously running Golf Tournament in Southern Nevada) and other fund-raisers. Profits from their activities were used to fund additional scholarships and eventually provided the basis for the AIA Las Vegas Scholarship Endowment Fund that we have today. The AIA Las Vegas Endowment Fund provides over $10,000.00 in scholarships and educational awards annually to architecture students at UNLV.
In 1987 a formalized state-wide design awards program was established. The Chapter has honored significant architectural design and service to the organization through this program since then. The close relationship with the School of Architecture has allowed us to establish an archive of these award recipients. The archive including submittal binders, boards and online listings is available through the UNLV Architecture Studies Library.
By 1994 the Las Vegas Chapter was still active however it had less than 80 members and an operations budget that did not allow for participation in many of the regional and national AIA programs. Member participation had fallen off and records had not been kept up to date. Due to inactivity, the membership records were almost non-existent. The office was a small closet on the top floor of Houssels House and there was no equipment, no working computer, no systems, no organization. The Chapter had been without assistance for many months. Many memberships had lapsed and there was no established means of communication with those wanted to remain active in the Chapter. The chapter needed a full time director who could energize it and organize the membership to a larger participation in the community.
March of 1994, President Jon Rappel, AIA interviewed Randy Lavigne, a free- lance writer who was looking for part-time employment. She was hired as part-time Executive Secretary for the small, nearly dormant, Chapter.
That was twelve years ago and with Randy’s direction, the strong leadership of AIA Las Vegas Presidents and Board Members and a re-energized membership, the AIA Las Vegas Chapter has grown, expanded and become one of the most active and respected components in the American Institute of Architects. With a current membership of 516 and an annual budget of $700,000.00 + the Las Vegas Chapter provides an abundance of programs that are educational, altruistic, social and supportive for AIA members, for the UNLV School of Architecture and for the Las Vegas community.
In 2005, the AIA Las Vegas Chapter hosted the largest and most successful AIA National Convention and Design Exposition in the history of the Institute. In doing this AIA Las Vegas has proven once again that the wild, unconventional spirit of the architects who established the Chapter is alive and thriving, and that today’s AIA Las Vegas architects and design professionals still dare to dream beyond the ordinary….and they turn those dreams into reality.