La Concha Crush

Progress eats another landmark

Stacy Willis

Under a Thunder Down Under billboard, a red excavator—one of those big earth-moving machines with a giant, fanged scoop on it—is trashing La Concha Motel. It started in the back. The two-story creme and mauve building is collapsing under the bites of the machine. It's loud: windows are crashing, lumber is popping, concrete blocks and stucco are crumbling, the excavator is roaring.

Tourists don't seem to take note—they just keep strolling by on the Strip. It's noon. Traffic to the Riviera next door doesn't slow down. An older man—a snowbird resident in the nearby apartments—walks up, takes a gander, and asks, "I wonder where all the hookers are going to go?" He's been breakfasting across the parking lot at McDonalds for years and says he's made a sport of watching prostitutes leave La Concha at sun-up. This questionable tribute aside, it appears that the flattening of an old Strip hotel isn't much of a spectacle. In fact, La Concha's front office is still open despite the back half of the building being annihilated: Rose is still answering calls to the front desk, and a gentleman is booking rental cars. A woman who seems somewhat jittery and strung out, dressed in a tank top and threadbare sweat pants that hang quite a bit lower than her red thong, fights with the vending machine. The car agent jokes, "We love this place so much, we're going with it."

La Concha was built in 1959. It was designed by famed Los Angeles architect Paul Revere Williams. The office interior is a throwback—there's a brown vinyl couch whose arms are worn to the cotton and wood inside; there's an old gray refrigerated drinking fountain; worn red paisley carpet; and a tile mosaic that says La Concha on the bright green wall behind the front desk. It's a little grungy and a lot intriguing. And it's nearly history.

A few very-well-dressed people begin to congregate outside—a woman in a black fur, a man with slick- backed hair wearing a full-length blue wool overcoat. Owner and developer Lorenzo Doumani—son of former Tropicana owner Ed Doumani—is there, in a black leather jacket, watching the destruction with a little grin. The excavator takes another bite; a bathtub tumbles out of the wreckage. The plan is to spare the office for another six months, to knock down just the hotel-room buildings right now, and then unveil the plans for whatever new Strip hot spot will be built here once the lot is wiped clean.

"It's going to be turned into a very, very unique, upscale—well, we'll be having a press conference in January," Doumani says. "But let's just say it's going to change this end of the Strip." Word is, it'll be a 400-room hotel that will focus more on luxury than gambling.

The excavator crushes another 20-foot chunk of the old hotel. They're getting pretty close now, two balconies away from the office.

Inside, Rose is finishing up some last-minute tidying at the front desk. Helga, another old-time worker, had gone to the nine-story tower at the back of the property to shoot last-minute photos and she returns now, as the excavator is nearing the office, and she is in tears.

Rose says, "It's always sad when renovation costs more than knocking it down." A man comes into the office and starts laying white hotel towels over the desks to protect them from dust. A TV crew comes and takes a shot, goes. Finally, the excavator gets within 50 feet of the famous curvy, conch shell architecture of the front office. Rock and dirt has spilled into the empty pool. A construction foreman comes through and says, "We don't want anybody in the building now."

Everyone goes outside. A light rain has begun to fall. The whole group takes refuge under the eave of the adjacent building, in front of a beauty salon and an Asian Bar-B-Q. Shopkeepers and restuarateurs come out to watch. The excavator bites into the last few rooms, rips the roof off, sends furniture tumbling and glass spraying and lumber cracking.

A rogue two-by-four takes what seems to be the lone defensive move: It shoots toward the excavator, hits the driver's window and smashes the glass. The little crowd under the eave gasps. There's a moment, however brief, where the inevitability of progress, the so-routine-it's-barely noteworthy destruction of old Vegas, the unflinching force of bigger/better—flinches: Is he hurt? Will the excavator stop? Is there, maybe, a little more time left for the La Concha, if only minutes?

But the machine operator is unfazed. He drives on, directs the machine's giant arm above the next bit of the building and crushes it.

On this afternoon, rain coming down pretty easily now, what's left in the end is just the famous shell-shaped front. Nothing stands behind it. Its yard is full of crushed lumber and blue striped mattresses, tumbled furniture and mounds of mortar and glass. The lonely little curvy office looks a little like a miniature Sydney Opera House—set on a tornado-ransacked stretch of Kansas.

Soon enough, it will look like a snazzy new piece of Las Vegas.

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