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Architect of Dunes Hotel remembers vintage Vegas

CHICAGO -- There was a time -- before Siegfried and Roy, before the Mirage and the MGM Grand and the newly opened Luxor -- when a man from Peoria could take his wife to Las Vegas and run into Eleanor Powell or Frank Sinatra in an elevator. That time is coming to an end and one of its landmarks, the Dunes Hotel, is going with it when a wrecking ball hits this week.

Developers are making way for bigger, newer, glitzier gambling dens, where tourists may not remember the hotel that was once the star of the Strip. But architect Milton M. Schwartz remembers.

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The Dunes began, appropriately, as a gamble. Legend has it that trucker Jake Gottlieb won the deed to the ramshackle 200-room hotel in a craps game.

He immediately flew to Chicago to see the up-and-coming Schwartz, who had just won an award for construting the tallest reinforced concrete structure in the United States.

Slapping the deed to the Dunes on his desk, Gottlieb said: 'I won this last night in a craps game. What'll it take for you to build a hotel there for me?'

Little did he know it would take a decade.

Schwartz started making twice-weekly flight to Vegas in a TWA four- motored prop plane, juggling a drafting board on his knees and designing a showplace.

'In the beginning, Mr. Gottlieb had a great feeling for bringing in the men to gamble, and he felt to do that he had to bring in strippers,' Schwartz said. 'So I started to design around them.

'Each woman would hold an umbrella over her head that had flashlights shining down on her,' he recalled. 'We'd cover the umbrellas with cheesecloth and she would be silhouetted underneath. The guys all went crazy, and the gambling started, and the place had begun to make money.'

Though he was only 29 when he started work on the Dunes, Schwartz was hardly inexperienced. In addition to the award-winning Executive House, he built several Chicago apartment buildings, including the one he still lives in today.

The Dunes may have been more fantasy than function, but it was a solid piece of architecture. Through the years Schwartz's assistants included Stanley Tigerman and Neil Frankel, now the head of Perkins & Will's New York office.

Schwartz calls the Dunes his labor of love, but he started his affair with Vegas across town at the Desert Inn in 1953, when he and his wife were on their honeymoon.

'It's amazing,' he said with a laugh. 'I never thought I'd spend the next 10 years there.'NEWLN: moreNEWLN:ccccqqe

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