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Architect McAllister Worked Hard to Create Leisure

Sinatra's Rat Pack poses in front of the Sands for a group shot during the daytime shooting of <em>Ocean's 11</em>, 1960.
Sinatra's Rat Pack poses in front of the Sands for a group shot during the daytime shooting of Ocean's 11, 1960.
Nighttime neon lights up a Bob's Big Boy.
Nighttime neon lights up a Bob's Big Boy.
An illustration shows Bob's Big Boy in the Toluca Lake area of Burbank, Calif., 1950.
An illustration shows Bob's Big Boy in the Toluca Lake area of Burbank, Calif., 1950.

The origins of Las Vegas' famous roadside beacons can be traced back to architect Wayne McAllister. He was also responsible for many of southern California's most-legendary drinking and dining establishments. A new book celebrates his work.

McAllister was born in San Diego in 1907. He dropped out of high school and landed his first job when he was just a teenager, working at a company that drafted plans for southern California bungalow homes.

His first big break was designing a hotel, spa and casino known as Agua Caliente. Spanning 655 acres just across the Mexican border in Tijuana, it looked like an elegant cross between a Moorish castle and a Spanish Mission. When the Agua Caliente opened in 1928, Hollywood stars such as Gary Cooper, Bing Crosby and Clark Gable came to drink and gamble there legally during Prohibition.

Building on his success in Mexico, McAllister went on to design nightclubs, resorts and hotels in southern California. His specialty was the much classier predecessor of today's fast food drive-thrus — the circular drive-in, including the chain Bob's Big Boy.

Chris Nichols, author of a new book called The Leisure Architecture of Wayne McAllister, says it's no small feat to create a place where people want to spend their time and money.

"There's a huge amount of effort that goes into making these things seem easy and comfortable," Nichols says. "You don't know why they're comfortable, you don't know why you like them, but it's because somebody sat over a drafting board and worked it out."

McAllister's other specialty was creating places with a sense of fantasy, such as the Smoke House Restaurant. Just across the street from Warner Brothers Studios, it has long been a hangout for Hollywood wheelers and dealers: Errol Flynn, Judy Garland and Milton Berle were all regulars.

McAllister's list of credits also includes the El Rancho Vegas Hotel (the very first resort built on what would later become the Las Vegas Strip), the Desert Inn, the Sands and the Fremont Hotel, where Wayne Newton got his start.

Nichols says McAllister benefited from working in an era that was much less stringent when it came to permits and building codes.

"The drive-in plans were outrageously simple, and it's crazy that they let people build things, you know, sorta like anything goes," Nichols says.

Perhaps McAllister knew that freedom wouldn't last forever. In 1961, he retired from architecture and went on to pursue other business interests, including ostrich farming and coin-operated copy machines.

He died in 2000 and today, few of his buildings remain intact. But at least one of them should survive for years to come: His Bob's Big Boy is now a California historical landmark.

All photos from The Leisure Architecture of Wayne McAllister. Reprinted with permission of Gibbs Smith, publisher.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Alex Cohen is the reporter for NPR's fastest-growing daily news program, Day to Day where she has covered everything from homicides in New Orleans to the controversies swirling around the frosty dessert known as Pinkberry.
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