History is the story we want to pass on to future generations, hopefully somewhere they can find it. How we tell the story for future generations is the responsibility of the present generation.
The green lawn that graphically frames the historic Bureau of Reclamation building is part of the north-south alignment of Boulder City that creates the Masonic symbol of the all-seeing eye was the vision of the progressive city planner Saco Rienk de Boer. Like the reflection pond at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., the lawn is integral to the design and part of the vision of the first planned community developed by the government. In Reclamation’s own words, “no Boulder City building was complete until trees and lawns were thriving.”
The construction of Hoover Dam was a unique time in history when industry, art, engineering and science came to deliver a uniquely audacious construction project that changed the world and set the stage for the American century.
The history of water in Las Vegas might start with the much touted and celebrated springs that gave just enough water to make it a two-block paved town and railroad water stop. Its growth and development really starts with the first water pumped from the Colorado River and stored in the tank on our hill, made drinkable by our ornate Romanesque water filtration plant, Bureau of Reclamation that offered jobs during a brutal Depression, and construction of Hoover Dam, that enabled the modern Southwest and powered an amazing future, which all of us now are the beneficiaries of.
Then there is the story of the Kentucky top soil and how it ended up in Boulder City. The moniker clean green Boulder City did not happen by accident; it was a very conscious decision that took a lot of hard work to accomplish.
The site selected for Boulder City was once just another lump of decomposed granite like the rest of the hills surrounding us, dominated by creosote, cholla and a few agave. And although horticulturist Wilbur Weed did plant some demonstration triangles that still exist, it was not what those pioneering utopian creators of master planned communities had in mind. So they brought in train loads of top soil from Kentucky, added 15,000 pounds of grass seed, planted some trees — deciduous and selected conifers — and bushes and created a town that looked like America as interpreted by the dreamers and builders of the time.
But this Kentucky dirt is now Boulder City soil — a living thing, (according to my soil guru and resident Douglas Merkel, who could get anyone excited about soil) cultivated, integrated, transforming, evolving and absorbing the universe for over 90 years as an emerald sea around salvation on the hill: the Bureau of Reclamation administration building.
I viewed the reclamation (xeriscape) plans at its open house Nov. 10 and must admit I was shocked by the reality of what was about to happen. The winding path with mostly nonnative plants chosen more for palate, texture and Instagram moments had destroyed the simple geometry and coolness of the space. There was a lot of thought and professionalism in the presentation, but ultimately felt like another demonstration garden created by a committee.
The original design by De Boer and executed by Weed was carefully cultivated and nurtured. What we were shown was a paint-by-numbers concept that had little to do with the historic space.
I get it, Reclamation is in an awkward situation. They are the messenger of bad news to communities dependent on what had been until about 20 years ago the miracle of the Colorado River. The lake (Mead) is about to dead pool and they have a nice green lawn that they’re not doing very much with.
The solution is to give the lawn to Boulder City. This same technique was used by the federal government in 1959 when it no longer wanted to run a town. We could call it a historic grass lawn habitat, seeing it is probably the first public grass in Southern Nevada (Las Vegas at the time had no fountains, faux volcanoes or parks). The city does a better job at lawns anyway. While we’re at it let’s take over the post office lawn for consistency.
Imagine expanding Art in the Park with a children’s area where they can experience walking barefoot in the grass while participating in an ice cream making contest and being cleaned off with a garden hose. Or laying on the lawn looking at the stars above our city in the darkness of Boulder City’s outdoor planetarium created by our new dark sky city lights. The city’s first communal Thanksgivings could be held on newly cut lawns of the Reclamation building; we can do that, too. This Thanksgiving take a stroll on the lawn before it’s gone.
Preservation starts at the local level. Let the citizens of Boulder City make the hard choices about what remains green. I, for one, would sacrifice one golf course fairway for the lawn on the hill. Reach out to our elected officials; I have. All who I’ve spoken to are supportive. All their contact information is in this paper; it’s so convenient.
I have one last alternative. Restore the land to its native Mojave pallet, Weed’s demonstration garden triangles still exist on Park Street and Avenue I.
This will be harder to recreate than it sounds and will require just the correct amount of neglect to achieve what is created in nature. And they should replace the sign on the hill at the intersection of Park Street and Nevada Way to read “Sorry, we were wrong.”
The opinions expressed above belong solely to the author and do not represent the views of the Boulder City Review. They have been edited solely for grammar, spelling and style, and have not been checked for accuracy of the viewpoints.
Alan Goya is a former member of the city’s Historic Preservation Committee.