Travel: Hoover Dam has style

HOOVER DAM — The huge engineering projects of the 1930s, designed to tame the American West for human benefit, might have suffered an excess of hubris. But they certainly had style.

Hoover Dam was built to turn the Colorado River into a source of water and electricity and make the desert bloom — and was designed to be a thing of beauty.

The artistry of the dam, about 30 miles southeast of Las Vegas, is apparent even from a distance. Some visitors might find the man-made flourishes to be as breathtaking as the views of Black Canyon and Lake Mead.

The dam straddles the Nevada–Arizona line. The visitors’ entrance is on the Nevada side. Thrifty drivers who arrive early can cross the top of the dam and park for free on the Arizona side, where the road ends, and make a short hike back across the dam to the Visitor Center. Those who would rather park close, or who arrive when the free parking is full, can pay $10 for a spot in the Visitor Center parking garage.

Being a thrifty traveler, of course, I made the short hike, which offers an amazing perspective from above the dam. From the ultramarine blue waters of Lake Mead arise huge decorative water-intake towers, like secular steeples. A pair of twin towers on each side of the state line in the middle of the dam show the time in their respective states: Pacific Time for Nevada, Mountain Time for Arizona.

Visitors will want to spend plenty of time exploring the public areas atop the dam, including the Old Exhibit Building, which served as the visitor center before construction of the new center in the 1990s. In the old building, a large, three-dimensional map/diorama gives an old-fashioned but informative view of the Colorado River Basin and the dams and reservoirs within.

Just outside the old building is “Winged Figures of the Republic,” an installation by artist Oskar J.W. Hansen featuring two massive heroic bronze figures, each 30 feet high on a base of highly polished black rock, flanking a 142-foot-tall flagpole.

The figures, Hansen said, represent “the immutable calm of intellectual resolution, and the enormous power of trained physical strength, equally enthroned in placid triumph of scientific accomplishment.”

OK, then.

The floor surrounding the figures is a mosaic of terrazzo inlaid with a star chart depicting the planets and stars at their precise positions when the dam was dedicated on Sept. 30, 1935.

Nearby is a huge bronze plaque, also designed by Hansen, that commemorates the 96 men who died during the dam’s construction.

There are also public restrooms atop the dam. The men’s room, I can report, is also an Art Deco beauty, with its own terrazzo floor, bronze doors and fixtures.

After exploring the art on and near the dam, I proceeded to the Visitor Center for a tour ticket.

The Dam Tour, a one-hour guided excursion, takes visitors inside the dam to the power plant and through some of the miles of internal passageways. A shorter Power Plant Tour lasts 30 minutes. Both tours include admission to the Visitor Center and its museum, exhibit gallery and overlook.

The tours begin with a 10-minute film about the dam’s construction and its contribution to progress.

When built, Hoover Dam was the largest dam in the world, 726 feet high, spanning 1,244 feet of canyon at its top. The dam was and is a wonder of science and technology, and its planners and builders knew from the start that their marvel would attract visitors.

Tours were envisioned from the beginning of construction, so the passage into the dam’s power plant was studded with Art Deco adornments: Terrazzo mosaic floors, decorative brass doors and ornate rails and light fixtures.

In the power plant, visitors can walk out on a viewing platform to see eight of the dam’s massive generators, part of a bank of generators that produce more than 2,000 megawatts of electricity.

After the visit to the power plant, the longer dam tour goes off the groomed path into the raw concrete heart of the structure. Guests walk through a vent tunnel, 10 feet in diameter, and look through vent levers through the face of the dam down the Colorado River. They also see inspection markings scrawled during and after construction and learn construction details illustrated by the traces left on concrete walls, floors and ceilings.

The end of the tour takes guests up by elevator to the top of the dam and out the beautiful bas-relief-decorated elevator tower across from “Winged Figures of the Republic.”

After the tour, guests can explore the Visitor Center exhibits, including a full-scale model of a bucket used to move concrete during construction, a walk-through model of a generator and many other audio, video and interactive exhibits.

Visitors also can forgo the tours and buy admission just to the Visitor Center.

The Visitor Center also has a nice outdoor observation deck. But for a panoramic look at the entire dam, the best viewpoint is from the Mike O’Callaghan-Pat Tillman Memorial

Bridge just downstream.

U.S. 93 once ran over the top of the dam, a pinch-point that would back up motorists for miles. Now, through-traffic has been rerouted over the four-lane Memorial Bridge, completed in 2010.

Memorial Bridge is itself an engineering marvel, the widest concrete arch in the Western Hemisphere and the second-highest bridge in the U.S., 890 feet above the river.

The picturesque arch is also a fitting aesthetic complement to the dam. Visitors can park in a free lot on the Nevada side and take a short walk to the viewing platform atop the bridge. There, they can look out on the entirety of Hoover Dam, and marvel at the genius, artistry and, yes, perhaps the bit of hubris that created it.

— Steve Stephens can be reached at sstephens@dispatch.com or on Twitter @SteveStephens.

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