Flamboyant Las Vegas developer Bob Stupak died of leukemia late last month, at the age of 67. In a lifetime of ups and downs—he famously won a million-dollar Super Bowl bet, was nearly killed in a motorcycle crash—his Vegas legacy rests on his magnum opus, the Stratosphere.
It’s been with us since 1996. It’s the tallest structure in town—the tallest structure west of the Mississippi—at 1,149 feet (just 100 feet shorter than the Empire State Building, if you’re keeping score). It was Stupak’s dream, and though it caught on fire during construction and went bankrupt soon after it opened, it remains the unlikely visual heart of the entire city.
From the sky, from a distance, the Stratosphere is a great tower. It holds down the center of the Valley. Its slender form may not be quite as awe-inspiring as the CN Tower in Toronto, but dammit, it’s got the bowlegged Space Needle beat. It is a majestic presence in the city.
- The Stratosphere
- 2000 Las Vegas Blvd S.
From the ground, up close, well, sure, the Stratosphere is a mess. Well, not a mess, but a purposefully lackluster building: The hotel section is stacked around the tower in pieces like a wayward house of cards; inside, the hotel screams “cheap.” When’s the last time anyone you know was in there?
True, one can say this about other casinos in the area, but somehow it’s different with the Stratosphere. The cheap casinos Downtown are supposed to be cheap—that’s their charm. The cheap casinos in the heart of the Strip elicit either a strange kind of sympathy (as if they are lost pets looking for their owners) or are just easily ignored amidst brighter lights.
The Stratosphere is different because it sits in the middle of Naked City, that forlorn, down-at-heel section of the city between the Strip and Downtown, lined with cheap apartment blocks and reputedly named for the showgirls and strippers who used to live therein. Just blocks from Las Vegas Boulevard, the area is devoid of people on a weekday afternoon, but not of character. It’s the empty Jack Daniel’s barrels that have been turned into seats. The smell of oil and rubber. It’s the murals in the alley. It’s the Dumpsters on the street. It’s the sight of an old pay phone with a “Local Calls 25c” sign. It’s the used-auto dealers. The giant piles of cinder blocks and pallets. It’s the shuttered art deco apartment complex with the empty, sky-blue swimming pool. It’s a tall, rust-addled motel vacancy sign. It’s crooked fences, barbed wire, splintered wood. And the cars up on blocks everywhere.
Maybe what’s best about this stretch of town is how thoroughly uniconic it is. How regular. There are a few art galleries, a couple of restaurants. But mostly ordinary, working-class businesses. It’s about as close to the Strip as you can get and still feel the place is real, not a fantasy. Maybe it’s low praise for a showman like Stupak, but what amazes is not how much the Stratosphere stands out in this low-key stretch of town, but how much it fits in