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Transporting Visitors to Another World:
Architect DeRuyter Butler’s Hard Work Pays Off in Las Vegas

Architect DeRuyter ButlerDeRuyter O. Butler, B.S.Arch. 1977, gave new meaning to the idea of all-work, no-play during his years at the CUA School of Architecture and Planning.

He worked full-time, saved enough to buy a house and still managed to get a 3.2 grade point average, matriculating in four years from one of the most labor-intensive programs at Catholic University. He averaged two hours of sleep a night while in school.

“I made no friends and joined no clubs,” he admits. Barhopping was definitely out.

With this background, it seems unlikely the exceptionally hardworking architecture grad would wind up in the nation’s capital of gaming, luxury and leisure. But working hard is exactly what Butler has been doing in Las Vegas for more than 20 years, as an in-house architect for Steve Wynn, the billionaire developer of a new generation of casino resorts that have revitalized the famous Vegas Strip.

“DeRuyter Butler and I have been together a long time. When I sold my previous company and came over here to create [the casino resort Wynn Las Vegas], I told him, ‘This is going to be a big adventure but I can’t do it without you,’ ” says Wynn, adding that he and Butler are “connected at the hip. Everything we’ve done at the last several hotels is because DeRuyter is here.”

Wynn Las Vegas, Bellagio, Treasure Island, The Mirage and the Golden Nugget are all resort hotel and casino properties with tourist appeal that extends far beyond what once sufficed for attracting gamblers to the city. Butler, now the executive vice president of architecture for Wynn Design & Development LLC, has worked in various capacities on those projects and several more in Atlantic City, N.J.; Biloxi, Miss.; and Macau, China.

As design architect, Butler was chiefly responsible for the concept and architectural designs of the Italian-styled Bellagio Hotel and Casino, with its spectacular bank of fountains, recognizable to many moviegoers as the model for the glamorous casino in the movie “Ocean’s Eleven.” Two yea­rs after the resort opened in 1998, Wynn sold it along with his other holdings at the time. He took the proceeds and bought the old Desert Inn hotel and golf course on the Strip, setting the stage for Butler’s next challenge.

Once the Desert Inn had been knocked down, Butler served as design architect for Wynn’s most ambitious resort project to date. Opened in 2005, Wynn Las Vegas is a $2.7 billion mega-resort with 2,700 guestrooms stretching up to the sky in a glistening bronze 50-story tower. Amenities of the 5.6 million-square-foot hotel complex include 70,000 square feet of high-end retail (e.g., Cartier, Dior and Chanel stores), 200,000 square feet of convention and meeting room space, 15 restaurants, two high-tech theaters hosting well-known performers, 36 luxury golf course fairway villas, a Ferrari-Maserati dealership and a man-made lakefront mountain shielding the colossal resort from the hustle and bustle of the Strip.

For those who haven’t heard of the properties Butler has worked on, they are the resorts that ushered in a new era of “themed” gaming hotels in the city, beginning with the opening of The Mirage in 1989.

“Mr. Wynn is known to do attractions with his projects,” says Butler, who works with Wynn by first drawing the developer’s ideas on sketch paper. “The object of the game here is to be in the top tier of tourist attractions, and that typically means offering something people won’t want to leave Las Vegas without seeing.”

Some of the attractions they’ve created include the 40-foot-high active volcano at the tropical-themed Mirage. Shortly after it opened, staff had to post signs nearby warning unsuspecting passers-by not to run across the street — through traffic — toward the source of the fire and explosion effects.

Treasure Island features a pirate-infested ship that sinks beneath a lake after its actor-buccaneers engage in a simulated battle in front of the hotel. The Bellagio, with design elements inspired by Italy’s Lake Como, has the aforementioned fountain show. Wynn Las Vegas features the 130-foot-tall mountain, studded with more than 1,500 trees plus a series of five waterfalls cascading into a lake.

“These projects use architecture, landscape and design to transport visitors to another world,” says Michelle Rinehart, assistant dean of CUA’s School of Architecture and Planning, who went on a tour of Wynn Las Vegas with the school’s development board in spring 2007. “What I found fascinating is how [Butler] has been able to use architecture to create an experience. He’s building things that take people out of their everyday life.”

Creating those kinds of experiences takes millions upon millions of dollars, thousands of drawings, thousands of workers and a lot of time, says Butler, who still puts in long hours — 13 per day — working directly with Wynn and overseeing a design staff of between 16 and 25 people on any given project.

“I try to look at virtually all the drawings that we produce, but it’s impossible,” Butler says. “For Wynn Las Vegas, we produced in the range of 10,000 drawings, all 30-by-42-inch sheets. Each drawing is issued with revisions for ‘betterments along the way’; you have to track every sheet because it’s a legally binding contractual document with the contractors. By the end of the project we were tracking over 120,000 sheets.”

And that’s just one component of his job.

“DeRuyter’s work ethic and his energy are incredible,” Wynn says. “He can do 37 things at once, then sit down with me and ruminate and solve problems that we’d been struggling with and never been able to solve before. And these projects are extremely ambitious. High-rise office buildings are kind of a kiddy game compared to designing one of these hotels. The architectural solutions that are required dwarf anything that we would commonly associate with more mundane forms of architecture.”

Butler does get a little more sleep these days, arriving at the office by 6 a.m. and leaving by 7 or 7:30 p.m.

“I’m in luxury mode,” he jokes. “I usually get about six hours of sleep a night.”

Butler’s disciplined work ethic dates back to his adolescence, when the Washington, D.C., native started a paper route that grew to cover a large swath of Silver Spring, Md. During his junior year in high school he worked part time at a McDonald’s and a gas station, in addition to the newspaper job. After graduation he earned a partial scholarship to CUA, but was otherwise self-supporting, working nights at a local post office while carrying a full load of classes.

“I’d go to class from 10 a.m. until 6 p.m., and then be at work by 6:30 p.m.,” Butler remembers. “I usually got off between 3 and 5 in the morning. And then I’d start all over the next day with classes at 10 a.m.”

His schedule didn’t allow any superfluous time for socializing or internships. Butler struggled to put in the notoriously long design-studio hours that frequently keep architecture students working all night.

During one design studio in his senior year, he called in sick to work and stayed on campus for four days straight to finish a project. “I finally came home that Friday night and was dead until Sunday,” he says with a wry smile. “Those were the bleak years.”

But by the time he was 21 years old, Butler had bought a modest house in New Carrollton, Md., and was caring for his two youngest siblings, ages 4 and 13, whom he took custody of following the death of their mother.

“I do regret I wasn’t able to get more involved at CUA, but there just wasn’t time,” he says. “During those days, I just had to do what I could to get through and get decent grades.”

Butler’s paternal grandmother is the one who gave him a toy construction set as a child and said he’d make a good architect.

“I always knew I wanted to do architecture,” Butler says. “It seemed like a way — if you were good enough — to leave a mark on the planet, something lasting to show for your career.”

He began working soon after graduation, first as a draftsman with an engineering firm, then as a fledgling employee at Wynn’s initial in-house design firm, Atlandia Design, which was then headquartered in Atlantic City. “I had never set foot in a casino until then,” says Butler, who joined the firm in 1982.

He might have been new, but he had enough experience to tell that something was wrong with a set of plans he was working on for a casino expansion in Atlantic City. One of the drawings called for a parking garage ramp that went, essentially, nowhere.

“I took it to my boss and said, ‘Look, I don’t understand this,’ ” Butler recalls. “He seemed to like me more after that and gave me more work to do.”

Butler soon was promoted and, after three years with the company, he hit a milestone in his career. He was assigned to design an expansion of the Golden Nugget casino in Las Vegas, including a new tower with guest rooms and a bank of elevators.

“I came out from Atlantic City because they were going to pour the concrete. When I arrived that morning, there must have been 75 concrete trucks lining up around the streets of Las Vegas,” he recalls. “They were pouring the foundations around the elevator core and I was thinking, ‘They’re pouring all this concrete and it’s solely dependent on what I drew on a piece of paper. Well, if I screw this up, so ends my career.’ That’s pretty scary.”

The concrete was poured, the elevators went up, and, in 1986, Butler moved to Las Vegas full time with the rest of Wynn’s design group. When they finished The Mirage in 1989, the project was credited with driving a casino construction boom that continues today.

At the time, Las Vegas had approximately 60,000 guest rooms. When The Mirage was about to open, others in the tourism industry thought adding its 3,000 rooms to the mix would create a glut, Butler recalls. “There hadn’t been any new rooms built in 20 years. They thought we would never fill them,” he says. “But we did.”

Wynn’s competitors and other investors noticed, starting the new wave of development on the Strip.

“Wynn started the modern luxury hotel boom in Las Vegas,” says Professor Michael Green, an expert on the city’s history at the College of Southern Nevada. “In the ’70s and ’80s, Vegas had gone downhill. There had been no major hotel casinos built on the Strip since 1973, when the original MGM Grand had been built and it burned. There had been a national economic stagnation; Vegas had gone through an exorcism of organized crime. At the same time, Atlantic City was eating into the gaming market, Indian reservation gaming was just starting, and the states were putting in lotteries. Vegas needed something special to attract people, and Wynn had the idea to offer big attractions — something to get people into the tent.

“And he needed architects like Butler to translate his vision,” Green says.

Today the city has more than 150,000 hotel rooms and a 98 percent occupancy rate year-round. Industry watchers say business is booming at Wynn Las Vegas, where the least expensive rooms go for $279 a night.

“If you review their latest earnings statement, the Wynn is doing so well it looks like the place is basically just printing money,” said Hunter Hillegas, chief editor of RateLasVegas.com, a tourism Web site. “When Steve Wynn did The Mirage, that’s what changed a lot of people’s minds about Las Vegas. Then he did Bellagio, which redefined people’s expectations of Vegas again. People used to think you couldn’t get a really high-end hotel experience in Vegas. But then came Bellagio and it had the high-end retail, the restaurants, the art gallery, with paintings from Wynn’s personal collection by Van Gogh, Matisse and Picasso. It really changed people’s minds — they realized Vegas had become more than just buffets and blackjack.

“The effect of these projects has been completely transformational for Las Vegas, and will be even more so going forward,” Hillegas says.

Once Butler and his design team began working on Wynn Las Vegas, they underwent an internal transformation as Wynn decided to offer visitors a new kind of experience. Instead of taking guests to a South Seas volcano or an Italian villa, he decided to try a new kind of theme: a more refined feeling of elegance, intimacy and coziness inside an expansive resort.

“We wanted a close integration with nature,” Butler says. “Everything is designed to look out at trees, waterfalls and beautiful landscaped environments enhanced with special lighting.

“You know, architects can design a building, but their client’s level of sophistication and sensitivity has a big influence on how the project turns out,” Butler says. “It’s an interaction that constantly goes on. Mr. Wynn is this incredibly brilliant, creative person. He may have an idea but needs input on how to make it into something real that works. And that’s where I, my staff and the other consultants come in. “

With Wynn Las Vegas on the map, Butler has gone on to new projects. He did the concept drawings for a new Wynn resort in Macau, and currently is focused on Encore, a resort that will complement Wynn Las Vegas and be located on adjoining property. All of its rooms will be suites.

Away from the drafting table, Butler enjoys spending time with his family. He and wife Gabriella have been married for 14 years. He calls daughter Daria, 11, “the achievement I am most proud of. She is an honor student at one of the most challenging schools in the area and has a wonderful personality and disposition.”

Spending time with them is his favorite pastime away from work, and they understand his commitment to his career, he says.

Imagining, designing and overseeing construction on such a massive scale demands the kind of hard work Butler calls essential for young architects who want to make it today.

“One of the problems I see in the profession and in American society in general is a lack of initiative for people to go the extra mile and strive in their profession,” he says. “They want to make as much money as they can and do the minimum they have to do to get by. Those aren’t the people who rise to the top, unless they just get there by default. But to get into a position like mine, you have to go above and beyond the call of duty.”

The hard work is worth it, he says.

“After all of the efforts to get a major project open — it takes about five years from start to ‘almost’ finished — they’re never truly finished — it is a fantastic experience to observe people experiencing the project, walking through and commenting on it,” Butler says. “And then there is the notion that your efforts have made a mark on the planet, something relatively permanent for many people to see and experience. It’s why I chose to go into architecture.”

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Revised: November 2007

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