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Midcentury Las Vegas’ under-appreciated architect Hugh Taylor gets a second look

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The work of an everyman designer who shaped the desert city’s residential architecture is under appraisal

Hugh Taylor Rendering
A Hugh Taylor rendering for an unknown project in his archives
All images and photos via the Nevada Preservation Foundation

As an architect working in mid-century Las Vegas, Hugh Taylor found that payment wasn’t always by the books.

While working for big-name developer and casino owner Wilbur Clark in the late ’50s, the designer once approached him for payment while he was sitting inside the Desert Inn, the famed southwestern-themed casino which Taylor designer and Clark owned.

Clark said he’d take care of Taylor and, without missing a beat, wrote “Pay Hugh Taylor $10,000” on a napkin, and instructed the architect to ask for money at the cashier’s desk. Taylor did as he was told.

That Friday afternoon, he found himself walking out of the Desert Inn with a pile of cash, a stack of bills he had to sit on at home until the banks re-opened Monday morning.

Hugh Taylor isn’t a household name in Vegas, nor is he one of the big names of American modernism. But the under-recognized designer, who passed away in 2015, helped shape residential design in the desert city just as it was beginning to bloom, putting his stamp on dozens of commercial buildings and hundreds of homes in developments like Paradise Palms and Beverly Green.

Hugh Taylor
A young Hugh Taylor, sitting in front of the then-unfinished Desert Inn

“If you’ve lived in Las Vegas for any amount of time, you have either worked, shopped or gone to school in a building that he helped design,” Kris Shepherd, chair of the UNLV College of Fine Arts advisory board, told Vegas Seven.

Few of Taylor’s experiences mirrored the moment he was paid out in a casino, since most of his jobs were for clients of much more modest means. That’s why a current effort to unearth his complete story may provide a new view of Taylor’s true legacy.

The layers of Taylor’s story—and his influence—are just beginning to be unraveled by the Nevada Preservation Foundation. Founded by Heidi Swank, the new preservation group recently came into possession of Taylor’s archives—sketches, photos, and writings covering 5,000 buildings and more than 1,000 projects—and finished a lengthy oral history interview with the late architect before he died. They hope that when they finish analyzing his records, a fuller picture of his life and work will emerge.

Desert Inn Las Vegas rendering
A rendering of the Desert Inn from the Hugh Taylor archives

Taylor’s design for the Desert Inn, a bellwether building that helped usher in the more flashy, neon-drenched Vegas to which most Americans are accustomed, was his most high-profile project. But his true legacy may be helping slowly ushering in modern architectural style, however gradually, to this desert town via a series of extensive residential projects.

There wasn’t a type of home or a project he wouldn’t work on, from commercial projects such as the Sunrise Hospital and Country Club Towers and custom homes for local celebrities, such as businessman Sid Bliss, to tract homes and modest dwellings for everyday Las Vegans (his archives include plans for a chicken coop and a community building for a trailer park).

Desert Inn Las Vegas
The lobby of the Desert Inn in 1959

“I think of Hugh as a working architect,” says Heidi Swank, executive director and founder of the Nevada Preservation Foundation. “While his designs weren’t necessarily amazingly innovative, he followed modernist trends, such as butterfly roofs, and created these really amazing, modest, and comfortable homes for the masses.”

Taylor’s fondness for residential work, and his commitment to designing homes for all, may have come in part from his upbringing: Born in Utah (his great-great-grandfather was John Taylor, an early leader of the Mormon church), Hugh moved to Los Angeles when he was two after his parents divorced. His mother struggled to support the family, so Taylor spent some of his early years living in a boys’ home.

“He was good at designing homes that were comfortable for people who didn’t have a lot of money,” says Swank.”

Taylor became an architect without any official schooling, channeling inner drive as well as a lucky streak befitting someone who makes it in Vegas. He began work as a draftsman—he took classes in high school, along with a few classes at USC, though he never obtained a degree—and in his early ‘20s, was working on apartment building in Los Angeles.

At the time, developer Clark, who would be a pivotal player in the mid-century growth of Las Vegas, was working on the Desert Inn. After his first-choice architect, Wayne McAllister, dropped out of the gig in 1951, he needed a new architect, and fast. He was given Taylor’s name though a friend in Vegas and, despite the 25-year-old’s lack of experience, decided to bring the young Taylor to Nevada to finish the job.

Hugh Taylor
Hugh Taylor served in Korea during the early ‘50s

Taylor took full advantage of the opportunity, and moved to Vegas immediately; he told Swank that he was given such a tight deadline to finish Clark’s project that he never actually drew formal blueprints, instead sketching plans piecemeal on whatever surface was available, including two-by-fours.

“The Desert Inn was pretty revolutionary and refined,” says Swank. “it was pretty classy, and got away from the Western theme that was prevalent in a lot of Vegas buildings at the time.”

Torn down to make way for the Wynn in 2000, the Desert Inn was an opulent symbol of the city when it opened in 1950, just the fifth casino on the strip. From its trademark sign in the shape of a Joshua tree cactus, to the "half ranch house, half nightclub” design with redwood and sandstone accents, it was an evolutionary link between the city’s frontier past and nightclub-and-neon future.

Hugh Taylor blueprint
Taylor’s plans for a private home for Harry James and Betty Grable

In addition to establishing Taylor’s name, the Desert Inn also established a working relationship with arguably the area’s biggest developer. One of Taylor’s most famous projects was designing homes for the since-demolished Desert Inn Estates, a massive Wilbur Clark housing development that overlooked a prestigious golf course. Celebrities lived within the complex: Elizabeth Taylor and Eddie Fisher briefly spent time in a Taylor-designed home.

Only one of Taylor’s designs from this development remain, the famous Morelli House, built in 1959 by Antonio Morelli, orchestra conductor and musical director for the Sands Hotel and Casino Copa Showroom.

Once located on 52 Country Club Drive, it’s since been moved to a corner in downtown Las Vegas, where it’s preserved by the Junior League of Las Vegas, which uses the space as its headquarters and provides tours. The home’s horizontal lines, glass walls, open plan (which united the living and dining rooms), and spacious communal kitchen (where a bar folds down out of the wall) was perfect for entertaining, and showcased midcentury optimism and style.

“It was such a welcoming, comfortable home,” says Swank. “One of the things that I love about it is this massive wall of windows on the back wall, with this motorized curtain.”

Taylor worked until retiring in the early ’80s, before the current population boom that has truly reshaped modern Vegas. In a way, his work bridged the gap. Many of his homes showcased modernist elements and features, but unlike the work of a contemporary such as Eichler, Taylor’s homes still touched on Western idioms, including so-called “Cinderella” ranches with peaked roofs and ornamental shutters, that harkened back to the state’s past (Vegas still considered itself the last remnant of the old West, perched on the frontier).

Many famous architects would work in Vegas during Taylor’s career—such as Palmer & Krisel, who designed homes in the Paradise Palms development—and many more would come later. But, as one of the few home-grown talents in Vegas during that era, Taylor was able to better channel the city’s unique style. Swank calls him a “sponge,” able to absorb different styles from different influences.

“You can follow the waves of homes he and others did, spreading out from the center of the city, decade by decade,” Swank says.

Wilbur Clark
Wilbur Clark and his wife Toni Clark in their home in Desert Inn Estates

Swank says that his remaining projects, which have now aged past the half-century mark, are now hitting that prime age for rediscovery and appreciation. The Nevada Preservation Foundation is still reckoning with Taylor’s legacy, and completing a full account and analysis of his lengthy archives. Taylor was far from an architectural celebrity; after retiring in the ’80s, he traveled the country with his wife and enjoyed a relaxed life in the city he helped to design, in his own small way.

“In Vegas, so much is overwhelmed by the Strip,” says Swank. “To Taylor, that part of the job, the fame, wasn’t as important. He just wanted to make houses for people. That was its own reward.”