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October 25, 2014

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The Strip:

Harmon tower set to fall — with a whimper

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Leila Navidi

The Harmon at CityCenter in Las Vegas on Thursday, Oct. 27, 2011.

The Harmon - Oct. 2011

The Harmon at CityCenter in Las Vegas on Thursday, Oct. 27, 2011. Launch slideshow »

One by one, the grand old dames of the Strip outlived their charms — the Dunes, Stardust and Aladdin — and down they came, thanks to some well-rigged dynamite, in a booming flash of bravado and showmanship that became this city’s staple — the implosion.

But not the Harmon. The troubled hotel and condominium tower once envisioned as an anchor to the gleaming CityCenter complex will be dismantled slowly, tediously, floor by floor. In Sin City parlance, the flawed edifice is like an aspiring showgirl given the old vaudevillian hook before even stepping on stage.

Never opened, the half-built husk sits empty, shrink-wrapped in ads, kept intact as evidence in a high-stakes trial this fall to determine who’s responsible for the major design and construction defects experts say could topple the building in a major earthquake.

Clark County District Judge Elizabeth Gonzalez has ordered that after opposing lawyers collect what evidence they can, the ill-fated project will be demolished. This time, the bitter end won’t come in a blaze of smoke and glory, but hidden from the gaze of curious eyes — a mistake the city wants to quickly forget.

“We don’t have a problem in Vegas with taking things down and building them anew. In fact, we’re known for it,” said Mark Hall-Patton, administrator of the Clark County Museum, which recently featured an exhibit of imploded casino hotels called “Lost Vegas.” “But the Harmon is something different.”

Like a boxer’s smile, the gleaming Strip has its gap teeth, the legacies of pricey projects gone bust. Amid the shining towers of chance are the reminders of economic failure, like the unfinished condo high-rise between the Venetian and the Palazzo resorts. The building went into mothballs during the recent economic slowdown and is now covered with a million-dollar tarp to make it look finished and inviting.

And there’s the Echelon, located just across Las Vegas Boulevard from the Wynn and Encore casinos. Financial problems halted the 3,889-room resort in 2009.

New Malaysian-based owners plan to erect a $4 billion complex on the site by 2017. For now, the unfinished Echelon sits abandoned.

Yet perhaps there is no greater bruise to this resort town’s ego than the Harmon. Co-owned by MGM Resorts International, the building was once seen as the 49-floor centerpiece of the $8.5 billion CityCenter, the largest private commercial development in U.S. history. The project includes the Aria, Vdara and Mandarin Oriental towers.

But in 2008 — a year before CityCenter’s opening — inspectors halted the Harmon’s construction at 26 stories because of faulty steel reinforcement columns that are the support spine for each floor.

The move set off a volley of lawsuits between design engineers and contractors to determine how such a supposed jewel could become a civic safety hazard. Calling the Harmon a “monument of construction defects,” CityCenter officials insisted the building should be destroyed, reasoning that the tower could collapse in a strong earthquake — and predicted a 50 percent chance of such a temblor within 30 years.

After granting the request to dismantle the building, Judge Gonzalez delayed the demolition date, ruling that for now the Harmon would stay up as a towering Exhibit A in the upcoming trial. The building is encased in a shimmering skin and appears normal to Strip passers-by, while the inside sits empty.

For many, the Harmon’s legacy will be tied to professional neglect. In 2009, the Las Vegas Sun exposed serious safety flaws at the CityCenter and other Las Vegas construction sites and how safety regulators had failed to prevent accidents that killed 12 workers in 18 months — a rate of one every six weeks.

Half of those deaths took place at the CityCenter site, but none was specifically tied to the Harmon.

Clark County officials say the era’s flawed projects taught the city a hard lesson.

“It’s indicative of how fast the city was growing back then and the pressure everyone was under to do things even faster,” said county Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani, whose district includes CityCenter. “We were working 24/7, cutting corners. What resulted is the nation’s highest rate of construction deaths and a Harmon that’s now just one giant billboard.”

So, once the trial is done, why not just implode the grand hotel that never was? For one, the building is conjoined with other structures, making its demolition a more delicate affair.

But there’s another.

“The era of the big boom as performance piece is over,” Hall-Patton said. “Implosions became too big — middle-of-the-night spectacles that were just over the top. They were victims of their own success.”

But what a show it was.

The vintage hotels came shuddering down, collapsing amid roiling columns of dust as news cameras recorded the orchestrated events from various angles. First the old Dunes was imploded in 1993 to make way for the Bellagio, with volleys fired from a pirate ship at Treasure Island that appeared to set off the explosion.

Two years later, the Landmark toppled as a Hollywood film crew shot scenes for the movie “Mars Attacks!” followed in 1996 by the Sands — preceded by a fireworks display — and later the Hacienda. The Aladdin, where Elvis married Priscilla in 1967, fell in 1998, and two years later, time ran out on El Rancho.

The Desert Inn, once home to Howard Hughes, tumbled in 2001 to pave way for the Wynn. The Stardust fell in 2007, and among the last implosions was the New Frontier hotel later that year.

“They were events for the nation’s evening news,” Hall-Patton said.

The Harmon will see no such fanfare.

“They want it to come down in a controlled fashion rather than having it slop down to its side,” he said. “There’s no room for error. It’s not going to be easy to get it down without harming something on its side.”

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