Center for Gaming Research
Paradise Misplaced
Tribute to Martin Stern, Jr.

Martin Stern, Jr., passed away in July 2001, but his designs have continued to inspire.  These photos and articles capture the essence of Stern's life and work.  To read Peter Michel's Stern retrospective, click here.

Stern at work
Stern in his drafting room

Martin Stern, 1917-2001

by David G. Schwartz

The gaming industry lost one of its visionaries this week when architect Martin Stern, Jr. passed away in Los Angeles.  A Beverly Hills-based architect whose designs defined the Strip from his 1953 low-rise addition to the Sahara to his 1973 2100-room MGM Grand (now Bally's) and beyond, Stern was an innovator whose designs for integrated casino/hotel/ convention complexes have become the industry paradigm.

The trajectory of Stern’s career is a microcosm of the Strip’s formative years.  His Strip debut, the supplementing of the Sahara’s low-rise rooms, came at a time when the Strip was a horizontal plane of desert punctuated by ground-hugging casino hotel complexes.  Composed of a casino, showroom, restaurant, and motel wings, these structures were visually dominated by their neon signs, an easy way for the prosaic-looking casinos to established brand identities. 

But the Strip did not remain low-rise for long, and Stern was in the advance guard of those who literally raised Las Vegas Boulevard.  Beginning with his 1959 high-rise hotel tower expansion for the Sahara, Stern proved equally adept at building vertically.  His circular tower addition for the Sands, which opened in 1967, redefined the casino and was a Strip landmark until its implosion to make way for the Venetian. 

Stern’s most enduring contribution to the Strip was his trailblazing fusion of convention hotel, casino space, and retail, seen first in 1969 in Kirk Kerkorian’s International (now the Las Vegas Hilton) and the in his original MGM Grand (now Bally’s Las Vegas), which opened in 1973.  These behemoths (both were billed as “the world’s largest resort hotel” when they opened) integrated high-rise hotel towers, parking garages, convention space, gaming, entertainment, and shopping for the first time.  These structurally-integrated designs supplanted the patchwork of older Strip casinos, which had grown by adding a showroom here or a hotel tower there.  And the International pioneered the tri-form, y-shaped design that has become a Strip trademark.  The  freshly-minted mega-resorts of the 1990s, from the Mirage to Paris, all used Stern’s basic ideas of casino design.  Stern applied his Strip designs to other locales, building similar casinos in Reno, Lake Tahoe, and Atlantic City.

One of Stern’s most unique projects was never realized.  The Xanadu was to have been a casino resort at the site of today’s Excalibur.  Basically a hollow step-pyramid with a towering atrium, it foresaw Luxor, and its combination of an integrated design and extended theming (it had a general Asiatic pleasure-dome motif) was remarkably prescient.  Though it was never built, it gives us an insight into the gifted vision of Martin Stern, Jr.

This article originally appeared in Las Vegas CityLife, August 1, 2001.

Las Vegas Hilton (International) Phase Two
LV Hilton, phase two expansion

MGM Grand, after its opening
MGM Grand, 1973
Martin Stern Jr. paved way for large integrated properties

by Dave Berns

An architect who was a key player in the transformation of Las Vegas casino design from a mix of disjointed elements to singularly incorporated concepts was buried Tuesday in Los Angeles. 

Martin Stern Jr. died Saturday and was buried after 10 a.m. services at the TaNaCH Chapel at Mt. Sinai Memorial Park & Mortuary. He lived in Malibu, Calif. Stern was 84.

"He was very important. His structurally integrated casino resort complex really has been the paradigm for most of the casinos built here in the past 25 years," said David Schwartz, coordinator of the Gaming Studies Research Center at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. 

"Before Stern, most of the casinos grew in pieces, started off as low-rise motels and added hotel towers. Stern really paved the way for the big integrated 1,000-room casino-hotel." 

Stern moved to Los Angeles from the East Coast in the 1930s to work as a sketch artist at movie studios, according to an article by Peter Michel, director of special collections at UNLV. 

After working for several noted architects, he established his own practice in the early 1950s, designing suburban housing tracts, apartment buildings, restaurants, bowling alleys, office buildings and the googie-style Ship's Coffee shops, which helped define L.A.'s drive-in culture, Michel wrote.

His first foray into Las Vegas came with a 1953 addition to the Sahara, where he designed tower and convention facility additions in 1959, 1967, 1977 and 1979.

During the 1960s, he designed new hotel towers for the Sands and Flamingo, but it was his design of the International Hotel, which opened in 1969 with a then-record 1,519 hotel rooms, that ushered in the era of the megaresort.

"Built for hotel mogul Kirk Kerkorian ... the International, a megalithic triform, (often repeated and now ubiquitous if not de rigeur on the Strip) was an overscaled smooth-sided corporate block in which the porte cochere and elaborate driveways and parking lots defined the setting, not the highway," Michel wrote.

Four years later, the Kerkorian-owned MGM Grand, which later became Bally's, opened with 2,100 rooms. 

"Inside, Stern developed and refined the interior labyrinth of the self-contained resort micro-city with craftily designed and interconnected casinos, restaurants and shops, and the enormous showrooms and theaters that Las Vegas headliners and burlesque extravaganzas now required," Michel wrote. 

"It was a different Las Vegas, a different show from Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra crooning in the Copa Room and slipping into the casino for some after-the-show relaxation at the tables." 

Stern also designed hotel-casinos in Reno, Lake Tahoe and Atlantic City, including Harrah's Lake Tahoe and the Showboat and Playboy hotel-casinos in Atlantic City. 

In 1996, Stern donated an estimated 15,000 casino design drawings to UNLV, drawings that he liked to say could be used to reconstruct his projects to the last detail.

"From the details of external ornamentation of stair rails, to the doodling of traffic patterns in parking lots, casino layouts, theater design, lighting and all those structures and functions of the modern mega-resort hotel ... there is much of the history of Las Vegas in the drawings of Martin Stern Jr.," Michel wrote. 

Stern is survived by his wife, Chantal; two sons and a daughter, four grandchildren and a sister.

This article originally appeared in the Las Vegas Review-Journal, July 31, 2001.

Sands Tower
Stern's Sands Tower
International Hotel
The International Hotel, Artist's Rendering
Stern in the military
Stern, during his WWII military service.
Stern in 1978
Stern in 1978, when the Xanadu was still being promoted. 
Martin Stern Jr.; Architect Shaped Vegas

by Myrna Oliver

Martin Stern Jr., the architect who in the mid-20th century designed a significant chunk of Las Vegas' skyline and such beloved Googie-style structures as Los Angeles' Ships coffee shops, has died. He was 84.

Stern died Saturday in Los Angeles, a spokesman for Mt. Sinai Mortuary confirmed Monday.

The architect, who moved to Los Angeles in the 1930s to work as a motion picture studio sketch artist, closed his architectural practice in 1996 and donated his more than 600 sets of drawings and plans for about 100 buildings to the University of Nevada at Las Vegas Library. But for nearly 50 years, Stern had churned out a variety of designs, ranging from tract houses to bowling alleys, office buildings, restaurants and casino resort hotels in Las Vegas, Reno, Lake Tahoe and Atlantic City.

"Much of the history of Las Vegas [is] in the drawings of Martin Stern Jr.," Peter Michel, UNLV director of special collections, wrote after receiving Stern's gift to the university.

In Los Angeles, Stern was probably best known for the three Ships coffee shops opened in 1956 and 1957 by the late Emmett Shipman, who got the nickname "Ships" when he served in the Navy.

The Ships at Wilshire Boulevard and Glendon Avenue in Westwood served hearty comfort food such as chicken pot pie and half-pound hamburgers 24 hours a day for 27 years. It was razed in 1984, despite protests by preservationists, and replaced by a 22-story office building.

Two other Ships, at 1016 La Cienega Blvd., Los Angeles, and at 10705 Washington Blvd., Culver City, also served the familiar fare and, as in Westwood, featured a toaster at each table. They closed in 1995. The Culver City Ships, an example of architecture once considered impossibly kitschy but now revered, is a Starbucks coffeehouse.

Leon Whiteson, who wrote about architecture for The Times, noted in a 1988 article that the Westwood Ships, with its distinctive orange color scheme and boomerang trusses that resembled a rocket ship ready to blast off, "was recognized by architectural historians and local residents as a masterpiece of the flamboyant Googie-style design."

Whiteson in a 1990 article explained the style as a "wonderfully weird" blend of Frank Lloyd Wright, Bauhaus Modernism and Las Vegas neon jazzed up by Space Age images.

"Coffee shop designers were clearly gifted," he wrote, listing Stern "among others [who] created a popular architecture that was purely American in its confidence in a techno future unencumbered by history or elite (read European) notions of taste."

When Stern made his original foray into Las Vegas in 1953, that city, like Los Angeles, shaped architecture according to the vast spaces available. The result in the gambling mecca was low-rise, wide-flung wings of rooms surrounding great outdoor swimming pools. Stern's first project was a low-rise room addition for the Sahara Hotel.

But that would soon change, and Stern was largely responsible. He designed the Sahara's first skyscraper (14 stories) in 1959, its convention facility in 1967, a 342-room high-rise addition in 1977 and another 625-room high-rise addition in 1979.

In the mid-1960s, Stern also created a new expansion tower for the Sands Hotel, moving some of its original two-story structures to provide the space. That high-rise project, according to Michel, signaled an end to the low-slung and rambling early hotels for a higher skyline along the Las Vegas Strip.

In the same period, Stern also lifted downtown Las Vegas skyward with a 26-story building for the Mint Hotel, and signaled a major change in the city's architecture by designing the megalithic triform International Hotel (later the Las Vegas Hilton) near the Convention Center.

Stern followed that with the MGM Grand Hotel in 1971 (later Bally's), the last of his Strip monuments. He continued, however, to redesign and expand the Sahara, the Riviera and the El Rancho hotels well into the 1980s.

In Reno and Tahoe, he designed Harrah's and the MGM Grand among others, and for Atlantic City the Showboat and Playboy properties.

Michel wrote that one of Stern's most fascinating projects was never built: the proposed Las Vegas resort Xanadu, planned by Donald Trump for the site where the Excalibur was later constructed. Trump's financing fell through, and Stern's innovative mastaba-shaped complex with a vast atrium and step-back rooms (presaging the later Luxor Hotel) was confined to his architectural drawings now housed at UNLV.

Stern is survived by his wife, Chantal; three sons and one daughter; a sister; and four grandchildren.

This article originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times, August 1, 2001.
Copyright, 2001, Los Angeles Times. Reprinted by Permission.

Ships, Los Angeles
Ships Coffee Shop







Martin Stern
Stern in his later years.

Martin Stern
by Daily Telegraph Staff

MARTIN STERN, the architect who has died aged 84, designed futuristic coffee shops in Los Angeles before transforming the architectural landscape of Las Vegas, Nevada, with high-rise hotels.

Working at Beverly Hills, California, during the 1950s, Stern created some of the finest examples of the kitsch architectural style known as "googie", that took its inspiration from space age imagery and motor car design. Notable among these were the three Ships drive-in coffee shops that opened in 1956 and 1957 in the Los Angeles area, each featuring a toaster on every table.

The Ships Coffee Shop in Westwood, with its distinctive orange interior and boomerang trusses, looked like a rocket about to be launched. But though it won widespread admiration, and despite campaigns to preserve it, it was demolished in 1984 to make way for an office block.

In the late-1960s, the entrepreneur Kirk Kerkorian approached Stern and announced that he wanted to build a hotel in Las Vegas. When Stern asked what kind of hotel the developer had in mind, Kerkorian's reply was "a big one".

The result, completed in 1969, was the International, whose tri-form 30-floor tower contained 1,519 rooms and became the most imitated building on the Las Vegas strip: it provided the model for the Bellagio, Treasure Island, Mirage and Mandalay Bay, among other hotels.

The interior of the International was decked out in white marble, with chandeliers imported from Czechoslovakia. Cary Grant and Natalie Wood attended the opening party, where they were entertained by Barbara Streisand and Elvis Presley.

In 1970 Kerkorian sold the International and the Flamingo, which he also owned, to the Hilton Corporation, to raise funds for an even more flamboyant hotel. Once again he employed Stern, who was by then adept at integrating a plethora of functions into a single building - which he would think of as a miniature city - while taking economic factors into consideration.

Like the International before it, the MGM Grand (now Bally's Las Vegas) was billed as "the world's largest resort hotel"; at its opening in 1973 it boasted 2,100 rooms, 25 bars - employing 70 bartenders and 150 cocktail waitresses - restaurants, a shopping mall, a spa, showrooms, theatres and casinos, one of which was flanked by 44 marble statues.

To accommodate the anticipated fleets of limousines, Stern built an enormous eight-lane porte cochere, with balustrades and railings scaled to make it feel even larger, and a statue made of 800 tons of marble imported from Italy.

Martin Stern Jr was born in New York on April 9 1917, the son of a salesman. After school, he moved to the West coast of America to study Architecture at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. After graduating, he worked for a time as a sketch artist for a Hollywood film studio.

As an officer in the American army from 1943, Stern participated in the Allied invasion of France, and in 1944 worked on the construction of shelters for combat troops in Belgium, locating lumber and reopening seven sawmills. The following year he served as a military governor for the Stadtkreis and Landkreis districts of Germany.

Back in California after the war, Stern continued his work for the army, making regular trips to San Francisco to design army camps throughout America. At the same time, he set up his own practice at Beverly Hills, designing flats, houses, restaurants, bowling alleys, and office buildings, as well as the Ships coffee shops.

In 1953, Stern was commissioned to design his first project in Las Vegas - a low-rise extension for the Sahara Hotel. At that time, accommodation for visitors was mostly limited to sprawling two-storey motel wings, arranged around pools and attached to casinos. With bright neon signs as their only distinctive feature, the casinos sat between golf courses and undeveloped tracts, and space was not in short supply.

But with rising land prices and the growing popularity of Las Vegas as a conference centre during the late 1950s and early 1960s, Stern was soon asked to design corporate high-rise resorts that were to transform the city.

In 1959, the Sahara Hotel asked him to build a 14-storey high-rise extension, and in 1964, he built the cylindrical Sands Hotel, where the Venetian now stands. Howard Hughes bought the property in 1967 and when Stern was told his building was due to be demolished, his reply was: "Oh well, it wasn't much of a tower."

There followed further commissions from the Sahara - a new conference centre (1967), a 342-room addition (1977) and 625-room addition (1979) - as well as a glass-encased restaurant for the Flamingo Hotel in 1967. The following year he designed a 26-storey tower for the Mint Hotel in downtown Las Vegas.

However, of some 300 projects that Stern designed in the course of his career, around 200 were never built. Outstanding among these is his spectacular design for Xanadu hotel, a hollow step-pyramid with a towering atrium and an Asiatic theme. Planned by Donald Trump on the site of the present-day Excalibur Hotel, it was never built after an argument with the municipal authorities, who required that the developers build a new sewer line.

Stern was also prolific outside Las Vegas, designing resorts in Lake Tahoe, Reno, Hawaii and Atlantic City; in the latter he was responsible for the Showboat Hotel and Casino. The Marriott hotel in Scottsdale, Arizona (1959) included three swimming pools, an executive golf course, a ballroom and enormous dining rooms, where banquets were held with names like "Cowboy Steakfry", "Mexican Fiesta" and "Hawaiian Luau".

Stern was devastated when, in 1980, a fire broke out at the MGM Grand, killing 85 people. The disaster was a catalyst for the enactment of the Hotel and Motel Fire Safety Act of 1990. Cary Grant was the first to book a suite when the MGM Grand reopened eight months later.

Stern had two sons from his first marriage. He married secondly, in 1967, Chantal Maspey. They had a son and a daughter.

This article originally appeared in the London Daily Telegraph, September 8, 2001.

For more information on Martin Stern, Jr., see:

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