Las Vegas Sun

November 16, 2018

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Paving the way for public art

Architect Jeffrey Rhoads started the trend of decorating highway bridges in the Las Vegas area


Steve Marcus

Jeffrey Rhoads, considered the godfather of public art on bridges and other infrastructure in Southern Nevada, kneels beside cutouts used to create Native American-style petroglyphs in concrete. Rhoads’ work inspired the state Transportation Department to welcome such decorations on road projects.

Click to enlarge photo

A cyclist crosses a bridge Wednesday at Sahara Avenue and Interstate 215. The bridge is among the first five built with decoration, back when planners were skeptical and the contractor had to put up money to cover the extra cost.

Jeffrey Rhoads has, in a small way, bettered the lives of nearly every driver in Clark County.

Hundreds of thousands of drivers, very few of whom know Rhoads’ name, see his work or the work he has inspired.

It’s not every man who can leave his mark on dozens of freeway overpasses, at least not without using a can of spray paint and attracting police attention.

You may have seen Rhoads’ bridges in Summerlin or North Las Vegas. The bridges in Summerlin are decorated, in shallow relief, with faux Native American petroglyphs. The bridges in North Las Vegas have symbols of flight, such as hot air balloons and B-2 stealth bombers.

And then there are the bridge decorations that Rhoads had nothing to do with, animal statues at freeway intersections or the decoration along U.S. 95’s sound walls leading into downtown, whatever that’s supposed to be about (Rhoads isn’t sure himself). Rhoads can be considered godfather to these decorations, as his own work inspired the Nevada Transportation Department to allow for decorations as a matter of policy.

Rhoads is reluctant to take credit for the decorating trend, but if you draw him out he’ll admit that no one was paying much attention to public works beautification in Las Vegas before he persuaded his bosses at the Howard Hughes Corp. to do so, along with the skeptical planning officials who then insisted Hughes put up the initial money.

The first five bridges built with decoration were the Las Vegas Beltway overpasses at Desert Inn Road, Sahara Avenue, Charleston Boulevard, Summerlin Parkway and Hualapai Way. After Rhoads added his decorative flourishes to several bridges, the powers that be were convinced that adding art to bridges was not only pretty, but safe and cheap — less than 1 percent of a project’s cost, just foam cutouts to put impressions into the concrete, and little paint.

“The challenge was: How do we take a freeway with a power line along it and do something that makes it more attractive, something that wasn’t just gray concrete bridges?” Rhoads says.

Adding art to public projects is a tradition as old as the Hoover Dam and the Golden Gate Bridge. Older, even. “It’s not a particularly original idea, it’s just that no one was doing it here,” Rhoads says.

The chance to uplift and shape the civic environment is what brought Rhoads, an architect trained at the University of California, Berkeley, and MIT, to Las Vegas. He could connect with a boomtown creating its own identity. He spent his childhood collecting 19th-century relics, whiskey bottles and such, from the mud around the West’s first great boomtown, San Francisco. Today, he works out of his home office in Summerlin, in front of a window display of those old bottles.

This is the time, he says, for business and philanthropic leaders and ordinary Las Vegans to sit down and, in a serious way, think about what kind of city they want to live in and how to create it. Think of it as, well, a bridge to the future. Do it in a formal process, draw up a plan and hold politicians accountable to it. Rhoads is serious about it. He devotes part of his work time, pro bono, to getting such a planning process under way.

Imagine, Rhoads says, what we could do with a little foresight.

The urge to redefine an entire city is, for Rhoads, not too different from the urge to decorate bridges.

“Public works is not just about moving cars or sewage,” Rhoads says. “It’s about uplifting the civic and cultural environment.”

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