Architecture and art at The Smith Center in downtown Las Vegas

Painting in The Smith Center by Tim Bavington. Photo by Jennifer Whitehair

Innovation, craftsmanship and sustainability are key to the new performing arts center

By Renée LiButti

A unique facility that boasts unrivaled presentation capabilities, The Smith Center is a showcase work of both architecture and art. The $470 million complex opening on March 10 is the result of a harmonious combination of structural and fine art mastery with sustainable and technological innovation.

The Smith Center exterior

A total of 2,458 tons of Indiana limestone was used to construct The Smith Center. Photo by Jennifer Whitehair

Situated on a five-acre plot in downtown Las Vegas, The Smith Center provides three different performance venues: the elegant 2,050-seat Reynolds Hall for major concerts and touring productions, the stylishly urban 258-seat Cabaret Jazz theater for more intimate live music performances and the adaptive Troesh Studio Theater for rehearsals and special events. It also features the 1.7-acre Symphony Park, an outdoor area that will offer concerts and act as a hub for social interaction. Plenty of multifunctional office and campus space is available in the Boman Pavilion for art education and workshops as well.

“Our design team traveled to the greatest halls around the world to gain inspiration for this,” said Myron Martin, president and CEO of The Smith Center, regarding visits made in the United States to Carnegie Hall in New York City and the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco, as well as to places abroad like Teatro alla Scala in Milan, Théâtre des Champs-Élysées and Palais Garnier in Paris, and Teatro La Fenice in Venice. “We knew that we were building something for generations.”

Of course, constructing a world-class facility unique to Las Vegas was no easy task. David Schwarz of David M. Schwarz Architects struggled early on to find the appropriate themes and context for the project. Las Vegas is known for imitating the architecture of other places, so it took a great deal of brainstorming before his team discovered what they were looking for.

The Smith Center chandliers

A trio of 19-foot-tall, art deco-style chandeliers dominate the Grand Lobby of The Smith Center. Photo by Jennifer Whitehair

“The request was made to do something that was ‘of Las Vegas’ and ‘timeless,’” said Schwarz. “There’s very little that’s authentic to Las Vegas. We did a lot of thinking about what truly represented Las Vegas.”

So what was their breakthrough? Hoover Dam.

Although Las Vegas was founded in 1905, it wasn’t until that massive engineering endeavor in the 1930s when the city started to emerge. Thus, in erecting The Smith Center, high-quality materials were used, including 2,458 tons of Indiana limestone for the exterior and 4,000 tons of structural steel for the roof trusses and as a crown to the 170-foot, 47-bell carillon. The flooring consists of terrazzo, which had been utilized in the same way at Hoover Dam.

In addition, Schwarz discovered art deco was the significant design force during that period. Patrons of The Smith Center will be able to see its clean, streamlined forms in everything from the 19-foot-long chandeliers, wall lamps and light fixtures to the ornate seat aisle designs, rich wood-paneled walls and aluminum latticework.

There are other connections to Hoover Dam too. The Smith Center will strive to be a cornerstone of the revitalization occurring in downtown as well as a cultural beacon for the whole community. Plus, the dam was constructed during the height of the Great Depression, while The Smith Center came together during the worst recession since then.

The Smith Center aisles of seats

Decorative elements can be spotted on the aisle seating at The Smith Center. Photo by Jennifer Whitehair

“We’re thrilled because 3,600 skilled workers made their living building this place,” said Martin. “These chandeliers were built right here in Las Vegas. All of these custom lighting features were made in this city. We were proud to put people to work.”

The latest developments in acoustics and theater technology also had to be incorporated into The Smith Center, which added another layer of complexity to the project. Interestingly, the acousticians, Akusticks, were hired before all the architects to develop a plan to contend with noise from neighbors – like trains from the nearby station, helicopters from the University Medical Center and jets from Nellis Air Force Base. Ultimately, Reynolds Hall was created independently to have a sub-basement of concrete that is 36 inches thick and a roof that contains a 12-inch slab of concrete with an air gap and then another 10-inch layer of sound-deafening material.

“All of the speakers you see make this a great room for amplified sound,” said Martin, talking from a box in Reynolds Hall. “But the reason that it’s great is partly because of these little [ante] rooms. When you go to concerts in certain kinds of venues, you get that kind of echo – a reverberating, off-putting sound. The acoustician made sure we didn’t get that here. When we are in amplified mode, all of these doors on the boxed tier – the inside doors, not the outer ones – are open. We push a button, and they all open automatically. All of the energy from the band is then funneled into the ante rooms. They are all sound and light locked, so the sound gets trapped in those rooms and avoids all that mess of echo. ”

The "Winged Genius" sculpture at The Smith Center

Artist Benjamin Victor was commissioned to create the "Winged Genius" bronze sculpture in the Grand Lobby, which was inspired by Hoover Dam. Photo by Jennifer Whitehair

Great care was also taken to make the facility eco-friendly. In fact, The Smith Center is the first performing arts center of its size and scope to be Silver LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certified. Among its sustainable features are energy-efficient windows, water-wise restroom fixtures and water-efficient landscaping. Natural lighting and recyclable materials were used when possible.

Although many of the structural and high-tech feats of the building may not catch a visitor’s eye, the artwork will. A variety of different pieces were commissioned and are on display throughout the premises.

A bronze sculpture that is the centerpiece of the Grand Lobby was cast by Benjamin Victor. It was inspired by Oskar Hansen’s “Winged Figures of the Republic,” a pair of stone carvings that can be seen in a sitting position on the Nevada side of Hoover Dam. Dubbed the “Winged Genius,” Victor’s 19-foot-tall, 2,000-pound figure appears solo, while standing up and moving forward – to symbolize progress.

Tim Bavington, known for his paintings based on music, was also hired to make two signature pieces, both of which are based on composer Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man.”

“Every color represents a note in the composition,” said Bavington. “The height is determined by the dynamics of the music and how they’re [the notes] are played. It’s an abstract interpretation of the score.”

Outdoor artwork at The Smith Center

Symphony Park at The Smith Center is home to Tim Bavington's outdoor sculputure based on Aaron Copland's composition "Fanfare for the Common Man." Photo by Jennifer Whitehair

The outdoor installation, an array of multicolored columns pointing into the sky, serves as a backdrop and frames the outdoor stage at Symphony Park. There will be accent lighting on it at night. Located on the second floor of Reynolds Hall is a large painting with similar vertical bands of color translating Copland’s aural melodies and base lines into a visual experience.

Other distinctive aesthetics at The Smith Center include an outdoor bronze statue of Mr. and Mrs. Smith (located in Symphony Park) by William Behrends, four distinctive paintings reflecting the Southwest (located in Boman Pavilion) by Ed Mell and two eight-foot wall pieces derived from an assortment of musical instruments (located on the upper level of Reynolds Hall) by David Ryan.

More than 18 years in the works, The Smith Center, which broke ground in May 2009, is finally completed. Grand opening events are also well under way. The push to create the highest-quality facility, with every detail painstakingly considered, has come to an end. Time will tell if it lives up to the goals of being “elegant,” “tasteful” and “lasting.”

And according to Martin, “Now it’s the job of the public to come in and see what we’ve done.”


I’m a Las Vegas native. By profession, I write at Mostly about the city’s hotels, but on other topics – gaming and transportation – too. I really love staying at hotels. And the ones here are among the biggest and best in the world. Some key things I’ve learned: Resort fees are inescapable (frustrating but true), a friendly attitude at the front desk may score you a great view and over-the-top room amenities – bath butlers, Japanese tea service, menus with “intimate” items – do exist. What else should you know about me? Well, I’m comfortable at a blackjack table. And I like eating late-night pancakes in hotel coffee shops. A lot. Follow Renee on Google+.