Monday, June 26, 2017 | 2 a.m.
It was Station Casinos’ flagship property when it opened in 1997, a resort that easily could have been built on the Strip instead of in suburban Henderson.
Sunset Station, now celebrating its 20th anniversary, marked a turning point for the company, a key phase between its 1976 origin in a small casino and bingo hall (now Palace Station) in central Las Vegas to its more luxe resorts built in the 2000s on the valley’s perimeter (Green Valley Ranch and Red Rock Resort).
Prior to Sunset, locals casinos could be quite basic and feel like warehouses filled with slot machines. Station designed the property with few long rectangular lines, and the casino popped with unique shapes, color and detail.
Restaurant entrances and the environs of the food court echoed the tiled roofs and columned walls of Spanish villages, and the ceiling was painted as a blue sky filled with puffy clouds. The lighting, in turn, created an illusion overhead of midday, twilight and nighttime glows.
And in place of a standard block crowded with barstools, the casino’s central bar was an eruption of fluid, organic shapes filled with tile inlay and punctuated by multicolored stained-glass light fixtures. The Gaudi Bar was the casino’s focal point, its name and design inspired by Spanish avant-garde architect Antoni Gaudi.
When it opened, Sunset was unique among locals casinos throughout Southern Nevada.
“Sunset was the crown jewel when it was built and represents the turning of a corner at that time,” said Tony Lucas, a former Station employee who now is a professor of gaming at UNLV’s William F. Harrah College of Hotel Administration.
Station Casinos property history
• 1976 — Palace Station
• 1994 — Boulder Station
• 1995 — Texas Station
• 1996 — Barley's Casino
• 1997 — Sunset Station
• 1998 — Wild Wild West (acquisition)
• 2000 — Santa Fe Station (acquisition)
• 2001 — Green Valley Ranch, Fiesta Henderson (acquisition) and Fiesta Rancho (acquisition)
• 2003 — Wildfire
• 2004 — Gold Rush and Magic Star (renamed Wildfire in June 2008)
• 2005 — Green's Supper Club
• 2006 — Lake Mead Lounge, Renata's Sunset Lanes (renamed Wildfire in June 2008) and Red Rock Resort
• 2011 — Gun Lake Casino
• 2013 — Wildfire Anthem (acquisition), Wildfire Valley View (acquisition) and Graton Resort & Casino
• 2016 — The Palms
It was the fifth casino built by the Fertittas, the family behind Station Casinos. Their initial venture, the 41-year-old Palace Station, is considered one of the first locals casinos in Southern Nevada, and it was the Fertittas’ sole focus until their company went public in 1993.
After that, Station opened a new property each year until Sunset was built. The first, Boulder Station, opened in August 1994. Texas Station debuted in July 1995. And the smaller Barley’s Casino opened in January 1996.
The root of them all, Palace Station was built largely under the direction of Fertitta patriarch Frank Fertitta Jr.
Station spokeswoman Lori Nelson said his influence also was felt in the look and feel of Boulder and Texas stations, even though he retired in the early 1990s.
Sunset, Nelson said, was more the product of Frank Jr.’s sons, Frank and Lorenzo, who learned the business from their father. The brothers had traveled through Europe and brought those influences home with them.
The casino’s rich atmosphere was aimed at a customer base that had grown beyond the traditional locals market, Nelson said. Station discovered that employees at other casinos were recommending their properties to tourists as less crowded, more affordable alternatives to the Strip.
So while Sunset was built to be a locals place, it also was meant to appeal to tourists and consider their needs, with 450 rooms as well as meeting and convention space.
It served as a springboard to the next two Station-built properties, which set the tone for the company’s brand of luxury.
“That transition from Sunset, to four years later Green Valley Ranch and then four years after that Red Rock, really was the next evolution of the luxury resort (neighborhood) district,” Nelson said.
Lucas agreed with Nelson’s assessment. “The late ’90s really was a discovery period that defined the capacity of the locals market. And every time (the Fertittas) built a new property, it got a little nicer.”
Station was able to evolve, observers say, because it monitored the valley’s growth and strategically purchased property, matching resorts to the character of the neighborhoods.
“The newer product that developed over the past 10 years tended to be in more affluent portions of the valley. It was where newer housing developments were opening up,” said Brian Gordon, a principal with research firm Applied Analysis. “With the (valley’s) rapid population growth, we’ve seen changing demographics and seen consumer patterns shift as well. Sunset Station was positioned when Green Valley was expanding at a rapid pace, and in an area where the who’s who of Southern Nevada were living.”
The grand opening party for the $198 million property was attended by 3,000 guests, including local luminaries — then-Gov. Bob Miller; Claudine Williams, the first woman to run a Strip casino; casino construction pioneer Kitty Rodman; then-UNLV basketball coach Bill Bayno; Kenny Guinn (who became governor), Lorraine Hunt (who became lieutenant governor), the Tiberti construction family and many others.
More than 100 of the casino’s employees have been working there since it opened. Here are a few memories and milestones from two decades of Sunset Station:
• In 1998, the casino announced a $45 million expansion to add 20,000 square feet, 11 movie screens, a steakhouse, a food court, meeting rooms and a parking garage.
• In 2005, it opened a bowling alley called Strike Zone that featured 72 lanes and cost $25 million to build.
• In 2016, it renovated its tower and upgraded many of its suites and rooms.
• The casino once had a spokes-character named Soleil, and it tried out “pedal and play” slot machines.
• Sunset has hosted notable performers, including breakout Las Vegas band Imagine Dragons and other national headliners including The Monkees, Gladys Knight, Patti LaBelle, Jamie Foxx, Morris Day and the Time, Toby Keith, Keith Urban, Styx, Dave Koz, The Doobie Brothers, Foreigner, Merle Haggard, Pat Benatar, Joan Jett, Tears for Fears, ZZ Top and Willie Nelson.