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Jennifer Robison

Architect of Vegas icons Bellagio and Fremont Street Experience has died

10 February 2015

LAS VEGAS -- Jon Jerde, the architect who created some of Southern Nevada’s best-known attractions and helped steer the city away from its reliance on gambling, died Monday at his Los Angeles home following a long illness. He was 75.

Jerde was founder and chairman of the Jerde Partnership, a design studio based in Venice, Calif.

With casino mogul Steve Wynn, Jerde refashioned Treasure Island into a family destination and designed Bellagio. He also drew up plans for downtown’s Fremont Street Experience.

“Jon Jerde was a warm and delightful friend and gifted architect,” Wynn said in a statement. “My colleagues and I had the pleasure of collaborating with him on the design of Bellagio and, in addition, Elaine Wynn and I joined with he and his wife, Janice, in the design of our Shadow Creek home. That residence reflected the elegance and the warmth of Jon’s creativity. We will all miss him.”

Jerde was an Illinois native who moved with his family to Long Beach, Calif., in 1952, at age 12. He studied engineering at the University of California, Los Angeles, paying his way as a fraternity cook, before transferring to the University of Southern California’s architecture school on funding arranged by its dean.

But it was a traveling fellowship in Europe in 1966 that forged Jerde’s “place-making” philosophy, which emphasized entertainment and shopping as creators of community.

It was an idea Jerde deployed in Las Vegas starting in 1993, when Wynn enlisted the architect to transform Treasure Island into the Strip’s first “family” resort. The duo drew up plans for a lake, pirate-themed entertainment and retail, as well as the city’s first Cirque du Soleil show, “Mystère.”

The Strip’s modern-day megaresort boom was four years old at that point, and the city of Las Vegas, aiming to recapture some of the market share it lost to the resort corridor, retained Jerde to design a show concept for Downtown Las Vegas. His plan, the Fremont Street Experience, opened in 1995.

But Jerde’s most ambitious — and best-known — local project was Bellagio, the Italian-themed hotel-casino he designed with Wynn. The property debuted in 1998 as the first in a wave of openings that would include Paris Las Vegas, Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino and The Venetian Resort-Hotel-Casino.

Bellagio set the tone for much of the resort development that would follow. Its Via Bellagio shopping arcade was, at the time, the most upscale retail corridor on the Strip, with stores including Chanel, Tiffany & Co., Prada and Hermés. The resort also brought the Maccioni family, founders of New York’s famed Le Cirque and Osteria del Circo restaurants, in a high-profile bid to up the ante on fine dining along the Strip. And its dancing fountains would become a national icon, landing distinction in 2013 as America’s No. 1 landmark in a study by TripAdvisor.

Today, the Wynn-Jerde strategy is embraced market-wide: Nearly two-thirds — 63.3 percent — of casino revenue on the Strip in fiscal 2014 came from non-gaming attractions such as shopping, dining and entertainment, according to the Nevada State Gaming Control Board.

Jerde’s local projects also have indelible places in American pop culture. Bellagio’s fountains close out the movie “Ocean’s Eleven,” while Treasure Island appears in flyover scenes on the CBS TV show “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.” Plus, Jerde is almost certainly the only architect on the planet with two projects referenced in one movie scene: In 2004’s “Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story,” a character named Steve the Pirate is walking near the Fremont Street Experience when someone drives by and tells him to “go back to the Treasure Island.”

Beyond Las Vegas, Jerde designed Horton Plaza in San Diego; City Walk at Universal Studio; and Canal City Hakata in Fukuoka, Japan, a 1996 project that helped Jerde land honors as Newsweek’s “Designer of the Decade” in the early 2000s.

Jerde is survived by his wife, architect Janice Ambry Jerde; five children; and four grandchildren.

The family plans a memorial service at a later date. To honor Jerde’s memory, the family said contributions may be made to the UCLA Foundation to support the work of Dr. David Reuben of the UCLA Alzheimer’s & Dementia Care Program; to Ancient Egypt Research Associates in Boston; or to the Jon Adams Jerde, FAIA, Endowment at the University of Southern California’s School of Architecture.