Changing Skyline | A slots barn, herding them in

Posted: May 11, 2007

Given the proximity of the state prison across from Harrah's new Route 291 racino in Chester, the inmates probably enjoy the best views of the hall's dazzling neon marquee, with its oversized simulated slot machine. And given the cheerless design of Harrah's gaming floor, the state inmates are probably no less confined than the slots slaves tethered to their electronic consoles.

It isn't merely the sight of 2,700 slot machines crammed into a football-field expanse that numbs the soul. From the moment you step into the crimson light of the slots floor at Harrah's Chester, you feel as if your body has been delivered into the programmed world of The Matrix. Only you're transfusing U.S. currency instead of your life essences into the machines.

To control the mood, Harrah's also insists on piping a strange droning music onto the slots floor. The ceaseless, atonal hum interferes with normal human conversation and sounds like a bad imitation of a Philip Glass composition. Not that the buzzing seems to bother the slots players, who keep their own internal time by patting the square play button on their machines.

Even though there's a nice variety of restaurants on the perimeter of the gaming floor - announced by loopy, Rat Pack- era typefaces - the majority of the tables stood empty Saturday night. Don't the players break from their rote exercise to eat?

Harrah's, which debuted in January, is the first purpose-built slots parlor to open in the Philadelphia area since the state legalized gambling in 2004. Though Philadelphia Park racetrack in Bensalem was also allowed to install slots, it's the newly minted Harrah's that offers a glimpse of what is in store for the city if two approved casinos, SugarHouse and Foxwoods, are built as planned on the Delaware. While neither will include a horse track, both will feature an identical program: 3,000 slot machines, an eight-story garage, one white-tablecloth restaurant, a range of budget dining, and a couple of bars.

The $420 million Harrah's building, designed by the Atlantic City casino specialists Sykes O'Connor Salerno Hazaveh, does offer some unexpectedly good architectural moments. The soaring glass wall at the high-end Cove restaurant is so sheer and effortless, it nearly melts into the sky. Held in place by a few metal clamps, the curtain wall utilizes the same system as the Apple store's new glass cube on Manhattan's Fifth Avenue, designed by Bohlin Cywinski Jackson.

The Cove's wall is strategically angled to provide a panoramic view of Harrah's harness track, but it also captures a noble lineup of stilled cranes in the neighboring shipyard, giving restaurant patrons a connection to Chester's once-mighty industrial waterfront and the world beyond the racino grounds. It's clear that the project's lead designer, Tom O'Connor, aspired to make Harrah's more than a big-box store for gamblers.

Take the tiled elevator banks that overlook the casino floor and lead to the garage. Each level is drenched in its own rich, sparkling color. Those elevators converge at a lobby that serves as a sort of way station: Patrons must pause there before deciding whether to cross into the Hades of the slots floor, or descend to the more serene track and simulcast level (racing starts July 9). The escalators are set in a zippy oval and lit with overscaled tiki lamps that are meant to evoke the Googie glamour of early Vegas.

It soon becomes clear that the architects' best design moves are concentrated on the track level, one story below the slots floor, and in the lobby way station. You can read into that what you will, but for me it suggests that it is impossible to civilize a room designed to house blinking, insentient money-collecting machines.

The slots floor is nothing more than a metal shed that has been painted a deep red. Though the high ceilings are laced with ducts, they proved insufficient to remove all the cigarette smoke on Saturday night. The tableau of hundreds of gamblers, moving robotically through the red-tinged, smoky brume, was like seeing a Fritz Lang movie on a creaky projector.

Not all casinos feel so dead. But when state legislators crafted a gambling law that forbids card and table games - while simultaneously imposing one of the highest tax rates in the country - they guaranteed that Pennsylvania would attract the worst of all casino forms, the slots barn.

The economics of table games yield a different kind of casino building. Because card games attract a more diverse and free-spending crowd, operators tend to invest in amenities like theaters, nightclubs, shops and hotels. I suspect there's a greater incentive for the patrons of full-service casinos to get up and walk around.

Not that Philadelphia's waterfront is the right place for two of these.

A coalition of anti-casino forces in the city has been lobbying Harrisburg's enablers to reconsider the state's gaming law. Those forces tried to place a referendum on Tuesday's ballot barring casinos 1,500 feet from a residential neighborhood, a regulation that would boot SugarHouse and Foxwoods off the Delaware waterfront.

Although the tactic was struck down by the state Supreme Court, the group Casino-Free Philadelphia will mount a shadow referendum by installing big red ballot boxes outside select polling stations. Voters can also register their views online at www.casinofreephila.org/referendum.

As dispiriting as Harrah's Chester racino is, it has the virtue of being located in a remote industrial area, away from dense residential areas. True, the slots parlor consumes good waterfront property. But Chester's stretch of the Delaware isn't on the verge of blossoming into a real neighborhood, as Philadelphia's is. It helps, too, that Chester's box is softened by the green of the racetrack.

Because of its location, I encountered virtually no car traffic along the 21/2 miles between the Interstate 95 exit and Harrah's driveway. Steering toward the garage, I admired the huge neon billboard on Harrah's facade. The light display made an impressive sight for a first-time visitor.

But I wonder if the inmates at the state prison still bother to watch the show.


Inga Saffron blogs about Philadelphia architecture at .


Contact architecture critic Inga Saffron at 215-854-2213 or isaffron@phillynews.com.

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