- The Magazine
- Current Issue
- Events & Shows
- Web Extras
- Yellow Pages
Las Vegas women’s organization saves a historic home and builds a better community.
Photo: Alan Goya (all)
In the 1950s and ’60s, Frank, Dean, Joey, and Sammy ruled the Strip—drinking, singing, and burning themselves indelibly into the American psyche as icons of the ultimate cool. Central to that image are swooping, low-rise casinos featuring intimate lounges that gently blend the boundaries between customer and performer, making for a homey and personal experience.
The entertainers’ offstage personas were equally slick. We all imagine the Rat Pack relaxing in sleek living rooms opening to luxurious pools where Frank and friends shared cocktails and rehashed that evening’s performances.
One of the homes in which they congregated was that of Antonio and Helen Morelli. Antonio was the orchestra conductor and music director for the Sands Hotel during the Rat Pack’s heyday. Celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2009, the Morelli House is a testament to a gone-but-not-forgotten era in Las Vegas history. Its classic block façade, bold horizontal lines, open ceilings, and flying entry embody the fundamental tenets of midcentury modern architecture. “American cities in the West, suburban metropolises, look completely different than 19th-century cities like New York or Boston,” says architect and 20th-century historian Alan Hess. “They have their own aesthetic and own architecture. Las Vegas is one of the greatest examples of how 20th-century architecture was translated into urban design.”
Before the building boom of the 1990s, most of Las Vegas’ architecture belonged to that period. “It took those ideas to a bolder, purer form on the Strip than any other city in the 20th century,” Hess says. While most of the midcentury modern casinos have followed the Rat Pack into the hereafter, Morelli’s iconic home is one of the few that has been rescued.
On the Eve of Destruction
When the Desert Inn was bulldozed to make way for Wynn Las Vegas, the custom midcentury modern homes built in the Desert Inn Country Club Estates along the golf course were also slated for demolition. At the same time, the Junior League of Las Vegas, one of the city’s most active philanthropic organizations, was in need of a permanent home.
The Junior League had a history of rescuing historic buildings in a city that has made a habit of imploding them, most notably helping to restore and move the Beckley House. On the brink of moving the Whitehead House—a down-on-its-luck estate home built in 1929—onto an acquired property across the street from the historic Las Vegas High School, the building burned to the ground. Through grants and donations, the Junior League had committed to restoring a historic residence that was now unsalvageable. Despite the fact that the Junior League had spent a good chunk on the vacant land, the Nevada Commission on Cultural Affairs asked the group to return the grant money unless it could find another historical property to move and restore.
When Steve Wynn heard of the problem, he had the Molasky Group, which had been contracted to purchase and demolish the Desert Inn Country Club Estate homes, contact the Junior League regarding the Morelli House. Built in 1959, it had been cited by the UNLV School of Architecture as the house most worthy of preserving. Because of its pier and beam construction, it was most likely to survive a move in good shape. Furthermore, it was a classic example of mid-century modern design with its layout, finishes, and mostly original appliances. The Junior League was delighted.
Resurrection and Redemption
“It still had the original carpet, so we replaced that,” says Dedee Nave, chairman of the Junior League’s Endowment Board of Trustees. The Junior League also fixed plumbing and electrical problems, restored the linoleum flooring, refinished the cabinets, and replaced fixtures. The house was placed on the Nevada Register of Historical Places in 2002, the City of Las Vegas Historical Register in 2007, and could land on the National Register in 2009, which would make for a great 50th birthday present.
The Junior League, which was founded in 1946 and goes by the motto, “Women Building a Better Community,” is involved in everything from the arts, to Las Vegas’ history, to its children. It hosts a monthly Birthday Closet for homeless children at a local elementary school, creates picnic baskets for foster-care children, and gathers blankets for homeless teens. The Junior League also raises thousands of dollars annually for educational grants awarded to teachers for innovative classroom projects. Plans are in the works to build a new public park for children in an at-risk neighborhood.
Now firmly established in their present home, the Junior League members scour garage sales and second-hand shops for decorative midcentury household items and era clothing to wear during home tours and planned events. “I just picked this up last week at a yard sale,” says Nave, holding up a fanciful glass bowl.
“Very little is left of what was one of the greatest collections of 20th-century urbanism in the country,” Hess says. “I give a lot of credit to the Junior League in putting their money where their mouths were. There were a lot of other good houses at the Desert Inn site that were of equal value, and we now only have one.
Experience Morelli and His Music
On April 2, the Junior League of Las Vegas will host a special presentation, “Morelli and His Music,” to flesh out the man and the culture that gave rise to the mid-century modern lifestyle embodied in the Morelli House. Antonio Morelli was a classically trained musician who organized the first pops concert in Vegas and established the Antonio Morelli Friends of Music Scholarships to help Las Vegas students get the training they need to enter the music profession.
Starting at 7 p.m. at the Las Vegas Academy High School auditorium, the event focuses on Morelli’s music and life during his time in Vegas, the mid-1950s to the mid-’70s, highlighted by a panel discussion with musicians recruited by Frank Leone of the Musicians Union who worked with Morelli during his time at the Sands Hotel: Arno Marsh, Ted Synder, Jimmy Mulidore, Ken Hanlon, and Leone. The veteran musicians will join the Las Vegas Academy High School Jazz Band to intersperse the discussion with musical selections from Morelli’s salad days at the Copa Room.
Audience members will receive a CD including period recordings as archived and produced by the Arnold Shaw Popular Music Research Center and a multimedia DVD of Helen Morelli’s 1976 oral history of her experiences, illustrated by photos contributed by the Las Vegas News Bureau and the Junior League. After the lecture and concert, the audience will tour the Morelli House.