Creating Exotic Themes in Las Vegas

Thomas G. Dolan

May 2006

Everyone likes to get to a new market first and capitalize on it so it becomes a specialty niche. This is what the Orange, Calif.–based Raymond Group has accomplished with its imaginative theme work for casinos, hotels and restaurants in Las Vegas.

To start with a little corporate background, Travis Winsor, CEO, relates that Raymond, still a family held company, was started 70 years ago in Los Angeles as a lath and plaster business by George M. Raymond. In about 1980 it moved to Orange. In about 1985, Raymond acquired a second outlet in the San Francisco Bay Area. The Las Vegas office was opened in 1994 and one in San Diego in 2003.

Although each of the four offices differ somewhat in terms of geographical location and market demand, the one with the unique focus is in Las Vegas. "We started with the exterior façade of the MGM Theme Park,” says Kim Lorch, vice president, theme construction. "We hired a number of people for millwork and put this together with framing, drywall, plaster and painting, in a cottage industry called theming.”

The entire package is put together, beginning with the conceptual phase with the owner and general contractor, and then moves to the budgeting and shop drawings. About 15 people are involved simply in the drawing, which, says Lorch, "is a big part of what we offer. We draw the project, engineer the structure, provide all of the framing, drywall, plaster and paint, and then the ornamentation.”

Ah, Paris

Here are some key Raymond projects as detailed by the pres­ident and area manager for the Las Vegas operations, Larry Huiner.

At the Paris Casino Resort, Raymond was responsible for the con­struction of 98 unique interior façades (125,000 square feet) to replicate elements of historic buildings and structures in Paris, France. These façades, constructed under a "sky ceiling” (140,000 square feet), created a themed environment of Paris streets at dusk.

The design assist contract required more than 10,000 man­-hours of CAD engineering to develop a coordinated set of shop drawings that detailed secondary steel, light gauge framing, substrates of drywall and plaster, cast materials, millwork, ornamental plaster, stone and tile, decorative metal, signage and special finishes. Numerous hours were spent with MPE trades and consultants to integrate their requirements into façades, ceilings, columns and artificial trees to minimize the appearance of these elements.

"While the façade construction required a lot of teamwork and coordination between all of the finish trades, one of the more unique efforts was developing crews of plasterers to complete the ornamental plaster work,” Huiner says. "Plaster was used to replicate limestone blocks, arches, cornices and groins with carving, texturing and shaping techniques rarely seen on other projects.”

Caesar’s Conquest

The Forum Shops at Caesar’s Palace – Phase 3 is where Raymond was responsible for the design assist and construction of the exterior façades at the Forum Shops on Las Vegas Boulevard that replicated historic elements unique to Roman architecture. Over a 15 month period the company completed the engineering and construction of 100,000 square feet of highly themed exterior façades and 200,000 square feet of simpler EIFS façades.

The project involved the development of structural steel and light gauge framing systems to support partially freestand­ing facades that were up to 100 feet tall. The façade designs involved projections 6 to 8 feet from face of façade due to the large scale of the architectural details. Often these projected elements were glass fiber reinforced concrete components that required special framing for support, since each section weighed up to 600 pounds.

"Another challenge brought about by the depth of the projections and the weight of the components was that in some cases scaffold­ing was of limited value,” Huiner says. "The scaffold was erec­ted after the framing was completed and was used for sheathing and plastering the base walls. Then the scaffolding was removed and the cast and foam elements were applied and finished using cranes and boom lifts.” The base walls were EIFS plaster with a highly troweled fin­ish to simulate the look of old plaster. The façades were painted and then scenically aged with several wash colors to provide a degree of variation to the finish.

One of the unique features of the facades was the use of faux marble painting on 24 feet high exterior column shafts, Huiner explains. The column substrate was smooth GFRC that was filled, sanded and primed to achieve a very smooth painting surface. Artists painted the multicolored marble murals, and then painters applied automotive clear coat lacquer to protect the painting from UV and physical damage as well as providing a gloss finish. This process involved more than an hour of labor per square foot of column surface.

Not Wastin’ Away

Rick Poliquin, senior project manager, had the following comments about another Raymond project, the Margaritaville Restaurant on Las Vegas Boulevard: "This restaurant is heavy on the tropical beachcomber theme, with sponsorship from Jimmy Buffet.”

The centerpiece and most challenging aspect of the design/build project is a 25 foot high cement/plaster volcano that "erupts” once an hour after dark with lights, sound, smoke and a woman/mermaid emerging out of the top and sliding down into an oversized acrylic blender. She is then lifted from the green margarita mix by a large steel fishing hook. "To build this we created a 3-D model of the steel and plaster shape,” Poliquin says. "The plasterers used scaffolding that was suspended from the ceiling. The plaster­ing and faux painting of the volcano required upward of 20 people.”

There are six bars located on three floors. Each has a different theme ranging from resin tops imbedded with shells and tequila bottle labels to riveted stainless steel, to wood carved with the initials of all who worked on the project. Several of the bar tops and dies are made of cement/plaster and were a challenge to build. The plaster on the tops had to be shaped in such a way as to create a pool for the resin.

There are two scaled down schooner ships with booths and table seating. The masts have extended sails that serve as pro­jection screens for Jimmy Buffet music videos. There is a third schooner located on the exterior, which has a hull made with concrete/plaster that was stamped with oiled lumber to create wood graining, and then carved in place to look like shiplap wood. All of the mermaid figureheads are cast plaster. Four fishing boats are outfitted with seating, captains’ chairs, radar housings, anchors and fishing rods. The tables have photos of Jimmy, the Keys, fishing licenses, etc., all covered with resin. These boats are against a wood dock that has been manufactured from treated fir and has inset bolts made out of painted resin.

The perimeter walls are covered with murals, aged corrugated metal wainscot, and a replica of the Six Mile bridge, which is made from M.D.F. and wooden buttons, and has been faux painted to look like rusted steel. The drywall behind the bridge is faux painted to resemble stained concrete.

"An interesting aspect of this project was the shopping list of unusual items,” Poliquin says, "including very specific types of shells, nautical charts of the Keys, 4- foot high acrylic blenders, chains and anchors, captain’s wheels, radar housings, Osprey nests, iguanas, thatching, 5-foot-long fish hooks, aged rope, faux palm trees, and so on. We must have contacted 10 shipyards and antique boat part dealers from Maine to Washington trying to find a cowl vent, which was finally found in Long Beach, Calif.”

Back at Raymond HQ

Overall, the Raymond Group employs about 100 in the office and 1,500 in the field. "One thing we have a reputation for is that we build upon good quality people,” Winsor says. "A number have worked for us 25 to 30 years. We have a unique ability to put different trades together on a common task. There’s a tremendous amount of teamwork and a lot of structure imposed in terms of monitoring, scheduling and knowing where the project will end up financially.”

Winsor adds that another aspect of the financials is "We have banking, insurance and bonding relationships that assure our customers that they are not taking a "gamble” on us.”

"One of the challenges is to bring together a lot of manpower to get the job done in a short amount of time,” Lorch says. "For instance, the Aladdin Casino involved $40 million worth of work, and involved 400 trade people working seven days a week to get the job finished in six months.”

Lorch adds, "We were probably the first to offer this theme package in Las Vegas. We have one substantial competitor in town, but many other groups have tried it and have gotten out, for it’s very difficult to do right.”

Raymond’s theme work is not limited to Las Vegas. The company done casino work in other states, such as Louisiana and Connect­icut. But there’s plenty to keep the company busy in Las Vegas. "The number of projects going on in this town is staggering,” Lorch says. Viva Las Vegas!