My first visit to a casino was many, many years ago—long enough ago that I wasn’t allowed to linger and look around. Still a minor. During a family trip that began in Las Vegas, we had to keep walking through a gaming area to get from A to B; kids couldn’t gamble, and anything that made it look like they might be getting ready to play slots, or even to spy a certain tactic at the blackjack table…all of it was strictly verboten. Casino management strictly enforced it; I even remember seeing signage that referenced a Nevada statute restricting gaming to adults. (It has to be a state law and not a city ordinance, because—contrary to assumptions—the majority of the Las Vegas entertainment district rests outside of any municipal limits, in unincorporated Clark County.) After scurrying through the massive gaming halls at the Excalibur Casino and Resort so long ago, I can remember only one other consistent feature: the complete absence of natural sunlight. Every major casino in Las Vegas was windowless.
I definitely didn’t understand the reasoning behind this. As fascinated as I was by the cacophony of those competing arcade sounds, or the hyperbolic formality to croupiers’ costumes, or glassy stare of people following those spinning slot columns, the whole enterprise seemed dreary and depressing because of the lack of natural sunlight. Here we were in what Jean Baudrillard calls “that whore in the desert”, a city with well over 300 days of sunshine each year, and yet every casino along Las Vegas Boulevard (“The Strip”) seemed intent on arranging the biggest attraction—the gaming hall—so that not a single rivulet of photons could permeate.
Even more depressing was the equivalent play area for children: a video game arcade in the basement of the casino, which, once again, forced kids into windowless insularity with Super Mario Brothers 3 and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Even though I was definitely at an age that appreciated more than my share of video games, it still just seemed depressing. Was it really too hot to do anything outdoors? (Keep in mind that this family trip to Sin City occurred just as economic development planners were conceiving strategies to make the city a family-friendly destination of broad appeal. At this stage, kids were an afterthought; a basement arcade room was good enough for them while Mom and Dad played the poker tables.)
It was only many years later, as an adult, that I discovered the reasoning behind the gaming industry’s windowless strategy, largely through a statement from famed developer Steve Wynn. I have been unable to trace the origins of that statement through online research, which prompts me to question whether it’s apocryphal. A (slightly) more recent article from Time Out Chicago indicates that the notion of a windowless casino is a widely touted “conspiracy theory”: together with the absence of clocks, the lack of windows has prompted a fabled notion that casino operators want their patrons to lose all track of the passage of time, so they gamble more and spend more money. (If Steve Wynn did say this many years ago, as I believe he did, it has morphed into the “conspiracy theory” epithet, perhaps indicating the gaming industry’s attempt to run defense against an unscrupulous strategy of enabling addiction.)
The Indiana-based casino operator interviewed in the 2011 Time Out Chicago article asserts that windowless casinos have nothing to do with prompting customers to lose track of time. After all, most people have a watch or at least carry a cell phone. The main reason casinos are windowless, the Indiana operator claims, is that direct sunlight creates a glare on machines, cards, and gaming tables. The article does recognize that operators deploy subtle modifications to the environment to influence behavior: pleasant scents have historically helped reduce the stench of cigarette smoke (less so today with anti-smoking laws), but they still apparently trigger potential pheromones that prompt more aggressive betting behavior. Most casinos consist of one massive room to help prevent overcrowding; female gamblers in particular are more likely to place higher bets when they feel fewer people are watching. Conversely, the Indiana operator in the Time Out interview sought to debunk the notion that casinos designers have embraced labyrinthine interior layouts to help people get lost amidst machines and tables so they linger. Instead, it’s a goal to fashion an evening of gaming to resemble a department store’s shopping experience.
Okay. Well. Perhaps that article offers a treasure trove of “myth-debooonking” that should mollify anyone else who asks the same impertinent questions as me. Then again, a casino operator with clear financial incentives to cultivate a certain image around his business may feel impelled to finesse the truth a tiny bit. In such a case, empirical observations are just as good—if not better—at debunking commonly held principles to casino design. And I have encountered no better debunking example than a trip to Deadwood, South Dakota:
It’s a handsome wild-west simulacrum I have covered once before, several years ago, and all these photos are getting fairly old. But I feel confident I can pose this argument without having to confirm that things might have changed. It’s Deadwood. It won’t change. The local economy depends on it. Well, that and gaming.
Nestled just outside of Black Hills National Forest, this city of under 1,200 full-year inhabitants owes much of its verve to summer tourism. Aside from the vistas within the Black Hills themselves (which stretch 5,000 square miles across most of southwest South Dakota and partially into Wyoming), the region offers bison-sighting in Custer State Park, the controversial (and eternally unfinished) Crazy Horse Memorial, Devil’s Tower in Wyoming, and, of course, Mount Rushmore, which lures over 2 million visitors to the region each year, mostly between Memorial Day and Labor Day. Other outdoor, lake-centric recreational opportunities abound, due in no small part to the pleasant summer climate: the intense prairie winds help mitigate the otherwise scorching heat, the high elevation insures a low humidity, while the nighttime temps are cool even in July. And South Dakota’s distance from any major body of water amplifies the four seasons: transitional spring and autumn are brief, flanking a winter whose fronts can easily spawn bitter cold from early November to late April. Though generally a dry region, snowfall rates can vary greatly, depending on elevation and position on a mountain.
Deadwood sits squarely in the middle of the Black Hills National Forest; both it and its companion city of Lead (just four miles away), offer an oasis of micro-urbanization amidst the arid high plains wilderness. They both surged in the late 1800s as mining towns, offering the quintessential devil-may-care self-governance mythologized in depictions of the American West; after all, South Dakota didn’t achieve statehood until 1899. Prosperity continued in the first decade of the 20th century, allowing the Deadwood-Lead region to host over 10,000 people. At one point in time, Lead was South Dakota’s second largest city.
As is typical of Western mining towns, prosperity was ephemeral. Depletion of gold deposits undermanned the economic basis for these isolated cities, and, aside from a brief recovery during World War II, the region has steadily lost population ever since. The two towns today claim barely 4,000 inhabitants, and Deadwood’s decline has been more precipitous. Deadwood is also the seat of Lawrence County, while Lead remains the larger of the two municipalities. Nonetheless, Deadwood boasts the greater portfolio of surviving late 19th century commercial buildings, enough for it to earn National Historic Landmark status.
In almost all respects, Deadwood’s physical form belies its mere 1,150 population, which is a testament to how many of the buildings have survived from its 1940 peak of 4,100. It has terrific bones. Its fortuitous position in the middle of a natural area replete with attractions undoubtedly helps keep the city on the map; in fact, tourism may be its only real source of viability. With an abundance of hotels—including some newly created to match (loosely) the 1890s Wild West vernacular—Deadwood remains a popular stopover for tourists in the region, and the mystique of the eponymous cult TV series has prompted economic development efforts that capitalize on its historic rough-and-tumble image.
Some of the Old West references border on the kitschy, as evidenced by the Old West re-enactors in the righthand side of that second photo. At one point, a mock fight between two gunslingers took place in the middle of the road, with the actors’ raised voices turning all sidewalk tourists into momentary spectators. It culminated in a fake shootout, which was 0% terrifying and 100% cute.
The photo above vaguely captures this mock-duel in histrionic action.
Corny, yes. But it’s hard to fault a city like Deadwood for trying. Even towns whose populations have remained stable or have grown over the last 60 years often have a surfeit of old 19th century commercial buildings. After all, shopping and purchasing patterns have changed; the ideal facilities for selling dry goods—let alone running a business—doesn’t exactly fit the 19th century paradigm of a brick building with a broad-window storefront at the first level, then upper levels for offices, additional storage, or even the private residence of the business owner. Yet that is the building typology that presided over Main Street America in 1890. Most towns just didn’t need all those old buildings by the time auto-oriented shopping reigned supreme in the early 1950s, so many of the less attractive old buildings went vacant and fell into disrepair. And this happened even in cities and towns that continued to grow amidst 1960s and 1970s suburbanization/social upheaval.
Meanwhile, Deadwood lost 75% of its population. It’s a testament to historic preservationists’ tireless efforts that they’ve kept so many buildings standing. But how have they kept them occupied? The demand for overnight lodging in the Black Hills is high, especially in the summer months. And few of Deadwood’s commercial buildings always functioned as hotels. (Or brothels—this was the Wild West after all.) But many other 19th century buildings simply lack the suitable layout to work entirely as hotels. What then?
The answer, it seems, was to meet an untapped regional demand for gambling.
The storefront window in the photo above belongs to a 19th century building customary in Deadwood. What’s surprising isn’t the building itself; it’s the orange glow of a slot machine from inside the left window. This picture looks right into a casino, and it’s not windowless in the least.
Deadwood is filled with casinos in old historic storefronts, and, given the configuration of such buildings, not a single casino is windowless.
Notice the neon “BLACKJACK”. And here in the photo below is a sprawling venue called Bodega, whose casino floor is spread across three historic buildings (minimum).
I didn’t photograph even close to as many casinos as I witnessed. Sure, Deadwood has restaurants, bars (saloons), tchotchke shops, and other associated touristy bric-a-brac (including well-regarded haunted history tours). If I were to estimate, I’d say about 25% of the historic buildings had fully operating casinos on their first floor, including some of the buildings long intended for use as hotels, like the Silverado Franklin Historic Hotel and Gaming Complex.
Yes, that’s the building’s full name. I cannot tell from the confusing historical account on the hotel’s website if it always hosted gaming, but it began as the Franklin Hotel. After the Great Depression pushed the temporarily resurgent Deadwood economy into further retreat, the building’s owners sold it to a property development firm that converted it to apartments. It only became a hotel again in 1989, the same year the South Dakota legislature legalized casino gambling. The Silverado company purchased it and ensured that its casino floor would never be windowless; a structure like the Franklin Hotel couldn’t survive such modifications and still achieve historic clout.
After sunset in July, the 90+-degree temps quickly plunge 30+ degrees to what most visitors would find chilly (at least if they wore shorts during the daytime—as they likely did). After a relaxing dinner, if caught unawares during the wind-swept prairie evenings, these visitors can always retreat to one of the many gaming parlors scattered throughout Deadwood. Since none of the buildings are windowless, they promote themselves. All these casinos are the direct product of the “Deadwood Experiment”—one of the first initiatives to legalize gambling outside of Nevada and Atlantic City. Since there was so little competition at that time, Deadwood met a huge untapped regional need, even if the region was sparsely populated. Revenue generated from the earliest casinos vastly exceeded expectations, which helped finance additional preservation and economic development initiatives necessary to restore the small city. After all, the 1970s and 80s witnessed further decline, an area plagued by prostitution raids (the town’s one economically reliable enterprise), and devastating fires in treasured 19th century structures. Since the City of Deadwood could share these gambling revenues with the state, local leaders used the proceeds to refurbish roads, sewer lines, and important civic buildings like City Hall and the train depot. Just three years after legalized gambling, the National Trust for Historic Preservation removed the city from its “most endangered” list, helping to reaffirm its 1961 designation as a National Landmark Historic District.
So of course Deadwood has no Vegas-style, windowless casinos. I’ll confess I’m not certain the gaming culture in Deadwood is thriving; after all, the country as a whole offers a lot more casino competition than it did in 1989. Deadwood is a hoppin’ town on a comfortable summer day and night. But how popular are those casinos in January, when temps often drop to subzero and Las Vegas remains bearable if not balmy in comparison? Sure, the Rapid City Regional Airport (RAP) isn’t too far away (and receives most of the Black Hills tourism), but it’s a far cry from the scores of airlines and flights servicing Las Vegas’s international airport (LAS). Ultimately, I’d speculate that Deadwood’s many smallish casinos supplement the tourist economy that is already present in the region thanks to the Black Hills. They help transform Deadwood into an buzzy overnight node rather than just a daytime curiosity, and they create enough energy to tenant all those historic buildings, making it more competitive than other towns in the vast, sparse Black Hills region of South Dakota and Wyoming…including the larger, comparatively staid nearby city of Lead. But people seeking a weekend of gambling do not, as a general rule, come out to Deadwood to do so. And, in spite of a seemingly lively, vibrant downtown scene, the atmosphere doesn’t seem to be luring permanent residents to the region. Both Deadwood and Lead are still trending downward in population (albeit much more slowly than in the past).
Despite its checkered role as a tourist hub. Deadwood’s resilience as a gaming town defies both the “conspiracy theory” I probably misattributed to Steve Wynn, as well as the Time Out Chicago gaming operating trying to debunk it. Windowless casinos are not essential for success, and, at least in Deadwood, the presence of those storefront lights helps boost the nighttime energy. But, as a direct refutation of the Indiana operator’s assertions, casinos won’t be ruined from the glare of sunlight. Deadwood gets plenty of sunshine on a typical summer day; summer precipitation in the high plains is rare. And, even if the setting sun—or its rising the next morning—is Mother Nature’s most effective tool at curbing gambling addiction, it’s not a sure-fire guarantee. People don’t need a windowless gaming hall as an excuse to stay up all night. They also don’t need a massive maze of a gaming room; casinos work fine cut up into smaller spaces, or jury-rigged across multiple buildings, like the Bodega. All things said, Deadwood’s ability to stave off “ghost town” status helped prompt numerous other municipalities and states to legalize gaming as an economic development tool. Not all use the windowless model; riverboat gambling comes to mind as another tool for challenging the status quo. And while the closure of long-term institutions in Las Vegas and Atlantic City may prompt analysts to speculate we’ve reached “peak casino”, the commingling of gaming with other recreation creates a seemingly infinite array of new opportunities. Deadwood is a great-looking, fun town in a beautiful setting. And it doesn’t need a faux shoot-em-up to prove it.