Sunday, July 22, 2007 | 1:16 a.m.
Only in Vegas could interest in a pyramid wane because it's getting old.
The black and bold Luxor opened in 1993 as an architectural tour de force - the tallest structure on the Strip, attracting camera-toting tourists as well as design intellectuals who would write books and teach college courses discussing the building's commercial and psychological appeal.
It wasn't the first themed hotel in Las Vegas (its closest neighbor: a medieval castle), but was still an instant icon, what with a 10-story sphinx guarding the entrance and the Earth's strongest flashlight beaming into space from the pyramid's apex.
Inside, the Egyptian theme was executed to extreme and comical limits even by Las Vegas standards. Talking mechanical camels greeted guests entering a cavernous atrium accented with statues of pharaohs, images of King Tut and bazaars selling papyrus artwork and scarab-beetle jewelry. Tour guides gave commentary along the faux Nile River as miniature barges carried guests down a slow-moving water ride - past blackjack and craps tables.
And then, as Las Vegas cooled on architectural themes, the Luxor seemed as stale as yesterday's mummy.
So now they're throwing millions of dollars into a major renovation. The goal: take the Egypt out of the pyramid to make it even more compelling for today's tourists.
Over the next year, new Luxor will look decidedly more contemporary - or at least less Egyptian. Think video images projected on sheets of falling water, candle-lit lounges framed by (real) aspens and low-light chandeliers.
"This probably has the greatest potential to move the needle because if you deconstruct the Egyptian theme, it's really just a great piece of contemporary architecture as well as an enduring shape," said John Schadler, whose marketing firm will assist in the transformation. "Think of the pyramids in Egypt and how long they've been looked upon as great mysterious monuments."
So you can't just implode a perfectly good pyramid. You have to give the interior new life.
"People are attracted to the pyramid because it is unique. But it's the overall experience that matters more than looking at a faux King Tut statue," said Tom McCartney, Luxor's executive vice president. To sit in Nefertiti's Lounge with only a statue of the Egyptian queen to distinguish it from other bars is a concept past its prime, he said.
It was time, he said, to evolve.
Unlike the slew of recent resorts built for a wealthier clientele, the Luxor was built by the owners of Circus Circus for budget-conscious tourists, including families. There was enough to keep mom and the kids busy while dad gambled.
But the Luxor, pinched by a changing marketplace, has shed its family-friendly roots - removing an arcade as well as shows and rides invoking the treasures of ancient Egypt, in favor of a topless revue and a show by the salty-mouthed comedian Carrot Top.
In recent years it has experienced a renaissance of sorts as a place where Mandalay Bay convention-goers can land a cheaper room. The Luxor ran at 98 percent occupancy last year while operating profit rose 66 percent, one of the best improvements of the Strip's major hotels. Two thousand more rooms, in two towers, have been built alongside the Luxor, because it's not easy adding a wing to a pyramid.
Although the shape is inefficient as a hotel for other reasons- and its slanted sides bake in the sun - there is much to gawk at inside. The hotel rooms cling to the slanting walls like honeycomb, each floor cantilevered above the one below it. Riding inclinating elevators and looking down into what was the world's biggest atrium is a highlight of being a Luxor guest.
But architecture aside, the Luxor has had a hard time holding its nighttime audience. Many guests queue up at the taxi stand at 6 and don't return until they're ready for bed, turning the pyramid at night into ... well, almost a tomb.
Thus, the need to reenergize the pyramid's night life by introducing an eclectic mix of new restaurants, lounges and a Cirque du Soleil-produced show built around illusionist Criss Angel.
The venues emphasize spectacle, such as Aurora, a lobby lounge with tableside mixologists and glittering overhead glass tubes; LAX, a clone of the celebrity-rich nightclub in Los Angeles; Noir, a candle-lit bar with an outdoor entrance, French dessert carts and a secret passageway for VIPs, and CatHouse, a tapas restaurant and lounge inspired by a 19th century bordello.
Which leaves the question, what do lingerie-wearing servers, a seductive magician and celebrity-chic restaurants have to do with a pyramid?
A lot, in fact, Schadler says.
The pyramid shape appeals to customers emotionally in a way that the Strip's more standard-looking structures, and those constrained by less-alluring themes, cannot, he said.
In research polls, customers associate pyramids with "mystery and intrigue," Schadler said. "They're maybe a bit dark, in a sexy way."
In a town where sex appeal is no longer a sideshow but the main attraction, this subtle psychology has big implications for the Luxor's future.
By stripping the pyramid of its kitschy icons and replacing loudly themed restaurants and stores with those bearing stylish, hushed ambience, the pyramid "isn't a symbol of Egypt but a symbol of "sexiness, of nightlife," he said.
The Luxor is so iconic that it even transcends its identity as a Las Vegas tourist attraction. Many Americans, ignorant of ancient history, associate the name with a hotel rather than the Egyptian city alongside the Nile.
Like the real Luxor, the faux version is a global destination, with at least 20 percent of guests from foreign countries.
For MGM Mirage, the enthusiasm for this project is palpable.
Not too many pyramids, after all, get make-overs.