ATLANTIC CITY — Valerie Pageau’s tearful farewell to Revel came on May 28, 2012.
She had spent five years scrutinizing every element of the casino floor; the sprawling resort was among the first thoughts she had each morning and the last each night.
But Pageau’s work was done. She had been a part of something special and turned it over to the people who would see it through. The interior designer dried her eyes, packed her bags and joined her boss in the taxi that would carry her to a flight home to Montreal.
A few blocks away, the glass-and-steel edifice still in the rearview, a vehicle careened through a red light and slammed into the driver’s side. The van’s sliding door crumpled. Pageau’s skull cracked against the glass. Lights out.
For the next year and a half, Pageau grappled with a difficult physical recovery and the legacy of what she’d created as Revel stumbled through a turbulent launch. The property, despite its innovative design and unconventional mission, was hemorrhaging $1 million a week.
“The timing was disturbing,” Pageau, 33, says in a Quebecois accent. “Two minutes after I was done with Revel. I remember I was thinking, ‘I want to quit and start my own company.’ It was like the end of one thing and the beginning of something else.”
‘Listen to the music’
“What do you think about casinos?” CEO Kevin DeSanctis asked Pageau at their first meeting.
“Oh my God, they’re so depressing,” she said.
DeSanctis laughed, his mouth turning up into a quarter-smile, and asked her to explain. She rattled through a list of all the things she hated about them. For the most part, she said, he agreed.
Control has been the guiding principle for casinos since the inception of legal gambling. There are no clocks and, similarly, little natural light to give gamblers a sense of passing time. Casino floors are stratified between penny slots, dollar slots, table games and VIP lounges. There are sections for smokers and nonsmokers. Even the buildings themselves, particularly in Atlantic City, adhere to a familiar template.
“When you come into town today, the skyline is basically the same,” DeSanctis told The Press upon the unveiling of Revel’s architectural drawings in 2007. “What you generally find are some white-looking buildings with red letters.”
In a time of increasing competition from new casinos in neighboring states, the veteran casino executive vowed that Revel would offer things no other casino had. It would wow visitors with ocean views and swaddle them in luxury. The gambling floor was just one small part of a larger resort, one entertainment option among many. Revel would be a place to see and be seen.
To that end, the project commissioned BLT Architects, a prestigious Philadelphia firm responsible for Revel’s biggest competitor for upscale visitors, Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa. For the casino and concert venues, DeSanctis recruited the Montreal-based Sceno Plus, a firm best known for designing theaters.
DeSanctis and principal architect Michael Prifti did not respond to requests for comment.
Pageau, who was 26 when she joined the Revel team, had worked on designs for Cirque du Soleil and was now charged with bringing spectacle to Revel’s 130,000-square-foot casino.
“To be quite honest, I think Kevin DeSanctis hired Sceno Plus and hired me because we knew nothing about casinos or gambling,” she says. “It was not our culture at all.”
Thus began a five-year odyssey that began with DeSanctis taking the design team to critique existing casinos. Early on, the health-conscious DeSanctis opted to ban smoking entirely. The hotel towers had to cut a striking profile that eschewed the plain white boxes. The casino floor needed a warm, inviting ambiance full of hidden places for visitors to discover.
Conversations were like improvisational jazz, with DeSanctis speaking in high ideals and metaphors.
“He would never be really clear,” Pageau says. “I remember he would say, ‘Val, listen to the music, not the lyrics’…
“He was — how do you say? — avant-garde.”
Financial troubles prompted the abandonment of Revel’s second tower in 2008, essentially halving the number of hotel rooms — and potential customers — while maintaining the same footprint for the public areas. Its original financier backed out amid construction, but the project eventually continued with new financing that included $261 million from the state.
Behind the scenes, however, the design team was mostly insulated from those concerns.
“I heard comments about people being scared to come to Atlantic City because the city was too dangerous or other casinos opening (in other states), but I never thought, ‘this will go bankrupt right away,’” Pageau says.
While Revel was an expensive proposition, its $2.4 billion price tag is not uncommon. Borgata, which opened in 2003, cost about $2.1 billion in all. Wynn Las Vegas, which sports a similar vaulted tower, cost an estimated $2.7 billion in 2005. The Venetian Macao cost $2.4 billion in 2007, although it benefited from cheaper labor.
When construction resumed, Pageau says the budget was pored over via “value engineering.” The biggest cut, she says, was a Cabaret at the south end of the casino. It would have housed smaller concerts and could have even transformed into a nightclub. A plan to hire a circus troupe to perform there on a semipermanent basis was dropped after the recession.
“The shell is there, the concrete, but almost nothing else,” she says.
With so much riding on Revel’s success, Stephen Dabbs raced to wrap everything up in advance of a soft opening in April 2012. As director of construction, he was in charge of ensuring everything was completed to the highest quality.
One example, Dabbs says, was ensuring the massive lanterns over the slot machines — Pageau says she was inspired by jellyfish — had the correct lighting. If the bulbs burned too hot, he said, they would’ve caught fire.
From opening day, however, large portions of the casino were left unfinished. At night, the middle floors of the tower were blacked out because the rooms there were never built. Hallways snaking around the casino were lined with murals in place of retail shops that never came. HQ Beach Club, one of the few profitable ventures on-site, didn’t launch until nearly a year later.
“Most of the areas that weren’t finished were pretty well hidden from the public,” Dabbs says. “There were things I found after a year and a half that I didn’t even know existed because we weren’t building them.”
But those incomplete spaces didn’t go unnoticed. Many of the patrons a casino needs to succeed — gamblers — didn’t like it.
Innovation meets reality
Paul Steelman spends a lot of time up in the air, and occupational interest means the Atlantic City-born architect often chats up high rollers he encounters en route to gambling destinations.
On one such flight, a “little old lady” gushed about her 17 trips per year to Caesars casinos. When the conversation turned to Revel, however, she was less effusive.
“She was a pretty good gambler and slot player,” Steelman says, “but Revel would be the first time she ever gave back a slot club card when she was finished.”
The anecdote is indicative of the response to Revel. Architects and casual observers were generally impressed — Pageau even recalls construction workers taking selfies in front of her meticulously designed backdrops. Gamblers, particularly the elusive “whales,” were unmoved.
“Gamblers are the people you need to really love the place,” Steelman says, pointing to the absence of any real effort to appease the VIPs.
High rollers accustomed to the red-carpet treatment didn’t have special bars, restaurants or exclusive gambling rooms, he says. Ultra Lounge, which housed Revel’s high-stakes tables and slots, was hidden in a far corner of the casino.
“Kevin wanted everyone to feel like a VIP,” Pageau says. “Ultra Lounge was meant to be a kind of VIP environment, but everyone was welcome. I kind of admire that idea, but it’s probably true that a casino needs VIPs.”
And the unfinished spaces were one of the easiest targets for derision cited by Revel’s critics.
“Most buildings are judged in 30, 40, maybe 50 years,” Steelman says. “Casinos are judged in two minutes. After two days, Revel’s reputation was pretty set: People didn’t like it.”
Martin Blumberg, another Atlantic City architect, admires what Revel set out to do, although he concedes that the design was “perhaps a little too sophisticated.”
He’s had his share of failure.
In the late ’70s, Blumberg designed the Dunes Hotel and Casino. His design bears striking similarities to Revel: lots of glass to allow natural light and ocean views with large public spaces for visitors to take in the sights and sounds. The Dunes lost its financing before construction could be completed. Its steel frame stood off Albany Avenue for about a decade.
Blumberg doesn’t think the design was Revel’s fatal flaw — too many economic factors were working against it — but he still wonders how the Dunes would have fared.
“It was a revolutionary idea at the time that never got built,” he says. “Who knows — that could’ve been a failure, too.”
Steelman says most of Revel’s mistakes seemed to be based in good intentions. The placement of the hotel check-in on the sixth floor was a nod to bygone hotels of the 19th and early 20th centuries, he says, but most gamblers want quick, easy elevator access to and from the casino floor.
The absence of a buffet or food court next to the casino floor also meant that Revel missed out on, for example, guests lured down for breakfast who then stay to gamble. It also meant that those looking for cheaper options were, at least at first, left out.
“You need to have every price-point to be successful,” he says.
Following Revel’s decline has been frustrating and sad for Pageau.
It’s not just professional pride, she says. DeSanctis and the rest of her colleagues thought Revel would change Atlantic City’s fortunes. The building and the city became a part of her as much as her ideas became a part of Revel.
“Right before my accident,” Pageau says, her voice growing soft and low, “I was really proud. I felt totally proud and lucky for being a part of this.”
May 28 left Pageau with a concussion and several damaged vertebrae. She spent more than a year recovering from the intense pain and cognitive impairment.
“You’d be talking to me and I couldn’t understand anything,” she says. “I became dumb.”
But the accident also brought perspective to her time at Revel.
“It was an awesome thing that happened,” she says, referring to Revel and the accident. “For five years, I was on a very fast train … the accident gave me the time to think about everything I’d done. Revel was my project. It was the main thing in my life.”
Now Revel is also moving on.
At least one prospective buyer has come forward, although plans are still vague.
Steelman says the specificity of the design rules out virtually anything but a casino. There’s too much overhead and renovation costs to transform it into condos.
The most logical move, he says, is for a buyer to complete the second tower under the auspices of an established hotel chain, such as Hilton or Hyatt. That strategy has worked for projects in Las Vegas and Macao because it gives them access to the chain’s large booking pool.
“It’s virtually impossible to build a new casino without (a brand name),” he says.
Blumberg doubts Revel will be empty for long. It costs a lot of money to keep the air conditioning and heat running to avoid mold and decay in such a massive building, he says.
Even so, he says, Revel is a big part of the city now.
“I think it’s an exciting skyline, and Revel punctuates the end,” he says. “When you drive on the White Horse Pike and look toward the city, you can say, ‘Wow, this is an interesting place.’”
Pageau eventually started her own company and is currently involved in the design of a massive resort in the Bahamas. Like many here in Atlantic City, she ponders Revel’s future and is ambivalent about its past.
“I’m sure it’ll have a second life,” she says. “It didn’t have a long life, but I think it’s better to regret things we did than things we didn’t do.”
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