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Chapter 3: Paradise Found

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"In Xanadu did Kubla Khan, a stately pleasure-dome decree; Where Alph, the sacred river ran through caverns measureless to man, down to a sunless sea."

This excerpt of the 18th century poem, "Kubla Khan", written by Samuel Taylor Coleridge was the inspiration for what would have become the very first themed mega-resort in Las Vegas.

In Coleridge's mind, Xanadu was a "dream place" and "a garden of delight" as conjured by Kubla Khan, the conquerer of China...and that was what the developers of the Xanadu Resort wanted to offer up to Las Vegas visitors.

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Map of the Las Vegas Strip, circa 1975

Photo Credit: UNLV Archives

In the mid-1970's the Vegas Strip was nothing like it is today.  It still held some of the feel of its early years with small casinos, big neon signs and low-rise hote complexes slotted in between golf courses and large tracts of undeveloped land.

 

Some properties were making steps toward expansion; the Aladdin and Caesars Palace were in the process of adding larger hotel towers and at the north end of Las Vegas Boulevard Circus Circus, Sahara and the Riviera were also "going vertical".

Elsewhere along the strip, developer Kirk Kerkorian had built two resorts that were literal game-changers for Las Vegas.  In 1969, he opened The International Hotel (which would later become the Las Vegas Hilton & The Westgate) and then in 1973, he opened the MGM Grand (which would later become Bally's).  These two resorts opened with over 2000 rooms each, giant casinos, massive showrooms, and amenities that were unmatched anywhere in Las Vegas.

This was the future of Las Vegas.

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The Las Vegas Hilton (L) and MGM Grand (R) designed by Kirk Kerkorian

Photo Credit: UNLV Archives

Xanadu Corporation, founded by Tandy McGinnis, had its sights set on a 48.6 acre plot of land at the very south end of the strip, on the southwest corner of Las Vegas Boulevard and Tropicana Ave.

Prior to Xanadu's planned development, the Tropicana had attempted to purchase the land with the intention of building a second hotel tower across the street from the original tower and then link the two with a pedestrian bridge over Las Vegas Boulevard.  Although they had received permits for the construction, they were unable to secure funding and the project ultimately failed.

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The Tropicana Hotel & Casino, circa mid-1970's

Photo Credit: UNLV Archives

As architect, Xanadu Corporation hired Martin Stern Jr. to design their incredible new resort.

Stern's fingerprints were all over Las Vegas, having previously worked on projects for the Sahara, the Sands, the Flamingo and the Mint Hotel.

By the late 1960's, Stern had established himself as one of the major resort architects in the country; in 1967 alone, he had NINE different Las Vegas hotel projects in production.  And in 1970, his firm had THIRTEEN projects in various stages of design or construction including the Stardust, El Dorado, Landmark, Aladdin, Harrah's and Circus Circus.

But it was with the International Hotel that Stern truly changed the Las Vegas landscape.  Just off the strip, next to the convention center, it was built as an overscaled, corporate block with its setting defined by its elaborate entrance, driveways & parking lots and not its location on the highway.  Inside, the resort featured a series of international restaurants as well as it's massive showroom which would later serve as Elvis Presley's Las Vegas home.

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The International Hotel under construction in Las Vegas, 1969

Photo Credit: Elvis Information Network

Stern's triform tower design for the International would eventually become the most imitated building on the strip, providing the model for The Bellagio, The Mirage, Mandalay Bay and Treasure Island.

Two years later, Stern would follow up with the MGM Grand, with its giant entry way befitting the Hollywood image that defined the hotel's theme.  With the MGM Grand, Stern developed another trademark design - towers where the top floors were wider than those below, which gave the luxury suites more panoramic views.  Inside, Stern went even further in creating what almost appeared to be a "micro city" with a labyrinth of interconnected casinos, restaurants and shops as well as the massive showrooms and theaters.

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MGM Grand Hotel, circa 1973

Photo Credit: ClassicLasVegas.com

With an estimated cost of $150 Million - or roughly $700 Million by today's standards - there were BIG plans for the new Xanadu resort.

As guests approached the porte cochere, they'd be greeted by the "Firefalls", cascading waters mixed with red-orange licks of dancing flames which would stretch across the length of the site.  Upon entering the Xanadu, they'd be inside the soaring atrium, over twenty stories high.  There were plans for pergolas and gazebos on the atrium deck, where guests could relax and take in the sights & sounds of the casino below. 

 

On the way to the restaurant area - which would feature everything from a Mongolian Barbecue steakhouse to a seafood restaurant with a giant aquarium wall - visitors would wander through a shopping district that would resemble an Asian "bazaar" comprised of small boutiques in tents, islands or kiosks with artists & artisans creating goods for sale.

A planned theater showroom would seat 1500 people and the convention space was designed to seat in excess of 3000 people with additional exhibit space in the reception hall.  Other meeting & convention facilities of various sizes and potentials were also in the works. 

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In February 1976, McGinnis and the Xanadu Corporation applied for and received their permits from the Clark County Planning Commission to begin construction on Xanadu - and almost immediately, found themselves in the middle of an argument with city officials over construction of a sewer line.

In the original real estate report, it was assumed that the city's existing lines could handle Xanadu with no issues but the city insisted that the builders pay for a new sewer line that could accommodate the project along with any future expansion.

Construction never began and the original building permits quietly lapsed.

Two years later, in March of 1978, McGinnis again applied for a county building permit with the intention of getting Xanadu going once again.  But almost as soon as he requested a hearing for his application, his representatives requested the hearing be postponed.

Xanadu died a very quiet death.

But just because Xanadu was never built, that doesn't mean its influence wasn't felt elsewhere around Las Vegas.  As the mega-resort trend took off, it's believed that several of the project's ideas were "borrowed" by other architects and integrated into their resorts.

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For example, the "Firefalls" that would have greeted guests are believed to have inspired the volcano & waterfalls out front of the Mirage, the same giant atrium & sloped walls can be found inside the pyramid at the Luxor, and a similar "Asiatic pleasure-dome" theme can be found inside areas of the Mandalay Bay and Mirage.

 

As for the planned site of Xanadu, its future owners had much better luck with the property.  The lot was eventually sold to Circus Circus Enterprises, the owners of the famed Circus Circus Hotel & Casino at the north end of the strip.  On June 19, 1990, they opened the medieval-themed Excalibur Hotel & Casino which, at the time of its opening, was the largest hotel in the world with approximately 4000 rooms.

 

Excalibur's success in that location led to further developments on that end of Las Vegas Boulevard with the later construction of the Luxor and Mandalay Bay Resorts.  

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Aerial view of south Las Vegas Boulevard with Excalibur (front), Luxor (middle) and Mandalay Bay (back)

Photo Credit: Mapio.net