Skydancer Sneak Preview On Tour with Tribal Member and Designer Mike Laverdure

BELCOURT, North Dakota. – The completion of Phase 1 of the new Skydancer Casino and Hotel addition isn’t just progressing, it’s on time and mostly on budget.  At approximately $28 million (projected) the complex is certainly the largest investment ever taken on by the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa and expectations for it are high.

Skydancer Casino, Casino Architecture
Skydancer Casino Designer Mike Laverdure

Modern architecture on American Indian reservations is often subject to cultural relevance and that relevance is often a challenge for any architect charged with meeting those design requests, regardless of their background.  Even more daunting is the challenge for an American Indian architect as they are expected to understand their home culture and to reveal it in ways that to some people should be obvious.

Such was the case for Canadian architect Douglas Cardinale, Blackfoot/Metis, who was the initial architect for the new Museum of the American Indian in Washington D.C Cardinale was also the first architect to take on the task of designing the new campus for the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico.  In both instances, the architect was subject to many voices who shared the idea that such indigenous architecture, even if built in modern times with modern materials, should still be outwardly and directly relevant to indigenous American culture.

Eagles, turtles, feathers, other imagery were often suggested, always a daunting task for the imagineer and the builders who were usually just as concerned with the finished usefulness of the needed local buildings.

In some cases, such as in the southwest United States and in Mexico, forms for indigenous architecture were evident because traditional architecture still stands, such as the world heritage site, Taos Pueblo (1000/1450 CD) or the ruins at Chichen Itze, (c 600-900 A.D.) Yucatan, Mexico.

However for northern tribes of Algonquin stock whose traditional architecture was the birch bark longhouse, relative examples are easier to imagine than to build to the specifications of history.  After all they need to function as contemporary business buildings.

A simple survey of 20th, 21st century built American Indian buildings nationwide reveals a penchant by tribal leaders to request buildings that resemble these cultural icons.  The Lumbee Tribe of Pembroke, North Carolina requested a turtle design for their 2010 new office complex.

The Native American Center (1981) in Niagara Falls, New York, also resembles a Turtle.  It is now closed.

At Sisseton Wahpeton Community College, Sisseton, SD, the center of their main building is meant to resemble a drum.

While the multiple projects do inject cultural relevance into their respective communities, they have been, in retrospect, less than functional and often have demanded remodeling in order to make them user-friendly.

In the case of the new Skydancer Casino and Hotel, tribal member and designer Michael Laverdure explained with passion how much attention was paid to injecting cultural relevance into the grand building without sacrificing the major functional needs of a modern casino complex.

On a recent sunny afternoon, Laverdure, son of local elder Betty Laverdure, took an hour out to give the Turtle Mountain Times an exclusive backstage sneak peak at the Casino and Hotel’s interior and exterior.

As Director of the First American Design Studio, for DSGW Architects, of Duluth, Minnesota, Laverdure, along with Randy Wagner, AIA, LEED AP, Principal/partner Architect of the firm, took aspects of Turtle Mountain culture, our icons and our design ideals and injected them into the space without detracting from the special and functional needs of Turtle Mountain’s first real gaming “palace!”

With hardhat and vest on, we entered the new complex from the south, where a service entrance and doorway leads into the new ‘tentatively’ named “Sage” Restaurant.  The interior styling of the new fine dining establishment is the result of collaborative work of Laverdure and other outside consultants who specialize in restaurant design. Because no final contract is in place regarding the “to-be-leased” food and beverage operation of the restaurant, the current consultant, L&L Kitchen Group Inc., of Las Vegas, NV, asked that no specific names be associated with the restaurants’ eventual day-to-day operation.  However, some aspects of the space were confirmed.

According to Laverdure, “the space is approximately 5,000 square feet and will feature an ‘American steak with a country spin theme, as well as specialty oriental cooking.”
Part of what is already built is a “hibachi cook stove”. The hibachi “fire bowl” is a traditional Japanese heating device. It consists of a round, cylindrical or a box-shaped open-topped container made from or lined with a heatproof material and designed to hold burning charcoal.

In North America, the term “hibachi” refers to a small cooking stove heated by charcoal (actually called shichirin in Japanese), or to an iron hot plate (teppan) used in teppanyaki restaurants. (source Wikipedia)

The fine dining restaurant, described as the only one of its kind for a hundred miles, is expected to seat 60 guests in several different areas.  Warm, fall colors with bursts of primary colors such as red and blue create the color palette.  Linens, glass stemware, and china are all on order and will be part of the experience. A glass-enclosed wine cellar will serve as a design highlight and partial room divider. Part of the seating will include three self-contained private dining rooms for family parties and individual groups.

As you enter, expect to encounter a formal hostess stand where guests will be greeted and shown to their tables. The look of the restaurant is casual and sophisticated, (see picture) walls are covered in plank wood and stone, the floors are warm wood and the space is accented with wood “rope” detailing and adorned with high-end lighting fixtures.

The entrance features a circular pit, a water ring on the outside and a continuously burning fire at the center.

An interior bar with seating for approximately 15 guests is at the far-east end.  Guests can sip cocktails or wine while they await their table.  The bar is situated so guests can clearly see the entire dining room and who’s arriving for dinner.  It also offers a clear view of the Hibachi area where chefs will be working out in the open.

Feather details everywhere
For most guests, the real point of arrival will not be the service entrance to the restaurant, but the lavish new entrance drive and canopy.  As we exited the building to get a clear look at the front of the facility from close-up, landscapers were everywhere planting bushes, trees and white rock.  I asked Laverdure about the exterior of the building.  During the daytime, from Highway 5/281, the building appears to be as yet unsheathed, plain concrete.

“We’re still playing with that,“ said Laverdure. “The curving design was meant to resemble the Turtle Mountains, at night it’s the Northern lights in the silhouette.  I think it really works, however it is a work in progress and we’re still considering some kind of metallic finish.”

The finish would be an answer to the building’s somewhat concrete box look.

Laverdure went on to say that “until all the elements are installed, we won’t know the full effect.“

He indicated that signage, spelling out Skydancer Casino and Hotel has yet to be installed on the red build-out so prominent at the front.

Another major enhancement will be the finished swoof — the metal lighting element on the top of the building. “It’s meant to mimic the roach on a dancer’s head,“ said Laverdure.

At the present time the public is only seeing “5 of the lighting designs.“  According to Laverdure the possibilities are endless for lighting, “once we get someone in place who can program the lighting regularly, you should start to see lighting that is appropriate to season and for holiday.  Really the idea is that the whole building is a big lighting element which you should be able to see for miles in every direction.”

Up close, the skin of the building is wholly different from it’s appearance from a distance.

Standing next to the building, it’s obvious the finish is steel and concrete and appears much more textured and modern.

Laverdure took time out to explain his design philosophy for the new facility and the outward expression of those design cues.

“I wanted the visitor’s experience to begin at the beginning. It starts with the canopy,” he said.

The canopy is the large overhang above the double driveway where guests will arrive by car or by bus.

A large sculpture, the work of tribal artist Bennett Brien, featuring an eagle and bear theme is nearing completion.  It will sit at the front of the casino complex as an anchor and an intriguing delightful, highlight.

The canopy itself according to Laverdure is meant to mimic the very top of an eagle feather.

“Eagle feather details are visible everywhere throughout the casino,” said Laverdure, “as well as the four directions.”

“The canopy functions as the top of the feather and continues through the skylight which graces the ceiling of grand entry way.”

“This is so unique,“ said Laverdure, “most of the time when you enter a casino, you’re immediately seeing the gaming floor.  What we did is so different, instead you’re entering this grand entry space which takes you directly to the hotel registration desk.”

A glass-rotating door will help to offset cold weather.  Gray slate tile also laid out in a feather pattern marks the lobby floor.  The feather detail is repeated in the soaring glass windows to the North, “their steel insets are feather designs,” said the architect.
An 18 foot tall video wall sits above the hotel registration desk to welcome the visitor and also serves as an announcement banner for featured entertainment and presumably big winners.

From the grand entry, visitors step down into a huge new gaming floor.  The overall color palette of the space is blue and red with a custom designed carpet, which features the Ojibwa prairie rose design so often found in our traditional beadwork (see picture).

“What was kinda cool,” said Laverdure, “was the color we picked is called Manitou Blue! It’s the blue color you’ll see everywhere throughout the Casino floor and the Hotel!”

The central part of the floor is a wraparound bar, two sides! The bar is described as “auto-robot”.  Bar pours are measured automatically and are dispensed off-site coming to the gaming floor via an elaborate under floor delivery system.

As an homage to the Casino’s history, the bar top will include old coins issued by the Casino encased in a clear poly resin, like glass.

Tucked in between the gaming floor and the lobby is a comfortable seating area for meeting one another and counting your cash before you begin your night of successful gaming.

The coffered ceiling in the gaming room space is repeatedly split in four to highlight the four directions.

To the west is a separate high stakes gaming area with walls finished in a basket weave design, another paean to indigenous design.

Further to the south is the track and race betting area.

To reach the cashier (cage) visitors have to walk to the far end of the Casino, presumably spending whatever cash they already have all along the way.

A large glass-enclosed gift shop (nearly double the space of the present gift shop) is to the east.

What you won’t see
Perhaps the biggest and most important addition is what the public will not see.     “The air conditioning system,” said Laverdure, “is top of the line.  It’s designed to suck all the smoke out.  You shouldn’t be able to smell smoke at all.”

More than 800 machines are planned for the floor, and fiber optic lighting will grace the space throughout.

“It’s meant to look like stars twinkling at night,” said Laverdure.

A new employee experience
In the present casino, employees are spread throughout several areas and tucked into whatever nook and cranny was deemed available.  In the new complex, the entire 2nd floor is now a combined, administrative suite.  And sweet it is.  The new offices are elegant and practical, even grand.

To the far south is a new suite of offices meant for the general manager and staff with a smaller boardroom.  Just north of the GM’s offices is a large and elegant 2nd boardroom.

Bathrooms are in abundance.  Accessible only by key card, the floor brings together all of the administration activities of the casino.  Laverdure calls this “improving efficiency through architecture.”

Just below the elaborate administrative space, on the main gaming floor are spaces dedicated to enhancing the working experience of the floor and hotel employees.  They include a break and smoke room, separate bathrooms, employee lockers and a much-improved professional capacity laundry room for the new hotel addition.

Speaking of which ….
Although the room rates are still not calculated, the choices for suite stay have definitely been upped.  On the upper floors at each end are the king and queen suites.  In the King suites (north end) guests can expect to enjoy in-room fireplaces, a wet bar, dual bathrooms with sliding glass doors and large walk-in shower spaces clad in gray slate tile.

King beds and a wall mounted flat screen T.V. as well as comfortable living room and bedroom furniture, carpeting and linens are all presented in the similar tones of red and blue and yellow and white to match the rest of the hotel’s visual experience.

Also included are wall niches, just above the fireplaces, which will feature the sculpture collection for sale and for enjoyment during your stay.

The rooms all feature floor to ceiling glass and amenities such as microwave, refrigerator and coffee makers.

The queen suites at the southern end are only slightly smaller and have the views of the setting sun and the prairie.  Although the rooms appear to have glass all the way across, “that’s just an illusion to enhance the design, in point of fact,” said Laverdure, “I wanted to frame the beauty of the Turtle Mountains through these windows, like a picture.”

Each floor of the new hotel addition is handicap accessible, “the handicap specific suites meet all the A.D.A. requirements,” said Laverdure.

The complex is set for a soft opening on November 1, 2012 with a dignitaries’ reception planned for 3 pm., with a general public opening to follow beginning at 5 p.m.

For more information contact the Skydancer Casino at 701-244-2400.

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