Making the Monumental MGM National Harbor

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Published on Architizer, January 30, 2017

With the country’s most famous historic monuments — and not to mention the seat of government — located right in its backyard, a new casino resort on the Potomac would need to show reverence to the District of Columbia but still dazzle throngs of locals and tourists alike if it’s to thrive as a gaming destination and hotel. Such were the challenges that MGM Resorts faced in opening the MGM National Harbor in Prince George’s County, Maryland. But, thanks to thoughtful architecture by HKS, quiet-yet-sophisticated interiors by Studio GAIA, world-class dining, specially commissioned artwork and high-profile programming, the new capital-region property, which opened its doors in December, looks poised for success.

Inspired by the Nation’s Capital
On approach to the $1.4 billion LEED Gold–certified MGM National Harbor, visitors encounter a visually striking and massive plinth clad in precast concrete in a shade of white that recalls the stone monuments of D.C. Surprisingly, this stepped structure is actually a utilitarian parking facility that the architects nestled into the slope of the uneven site — which rises 95 feet from west to east — so that guests driving to MGM National Harbor end up “ascending” to the resort’s main entrance.

“Technically, when you walk up to the Washington Monument, you ascend a series of steps,” explains Eddie Abeyta, principal and design director at HKS. “This [plan] is allowing the guest to arrive and be lifted above the natural terrain, to experience the landmark and the panoramic view of the hotel and the surroundings.” The landmark he refers to is the knife-like 24-story hotel tower, which mimics the verticality of the Washington Monument and aligns parallel with the National Mall. Its bespoke unitized curtain-wall structure incorporates insulated low-e glass with ceramic vertical frits that not only help control solar heat gain in the rooms and corridors, but also enhance the overall aesthetic inside and out.

From the hotel’s porte cochère on the eastern end all the way to the resort’s western or rearmost point (the equivalent of five urban city blocks), the site plan is like one big nod to the L’Enfant and McMillan Plans of D.C. It’s organized on a central spine of connected experiences, for instance, while its oval-shaped entrance conservatory evokes D.C.’s circular parks with spokes that lead to other parts of the resort, including the 125,000-square-foot casino, fine and casual dining facilities, retail shops, the 3,000-seat theater and hotel.

The latter is accessed via a grand helical staircase topped with a dramatic chandelier composed of 892 hand-blown Czech glass droplets with varying opacities, a centerpiece that was conceived by the resort’s main interior designer Studio GAIA. On the hotel-lobby level, regional context is reinforced yet again, giving this property a distinct identity from its Vegas counterparts. “One of the guiding principles that were outlined by our client was to respect and complement surroundings,” says Abeyta. “You’re right along the banks of the Potomac River, overlooking the beautiful rolling hills and treetops. So the project was really trying to connect the guest with the D.C. symbolism but also this natural environment.”

This sentiment is carried through planning and aesthetics as well as specially commissioned art. Behind the hotel check-in desks, a large-scale installation by Prince George’s County artist Margaret Boozer reconstructs a map of the area with 10,000 pounds of clay that was excavated from the construction site. And D.C.’s famous cherry blossoms were captured by local photographer Ron Beverly and blown up into vinyl wall coverings for the lobby bar and mezzanine overlooking the conservatory.

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Veering From the Vegas Archetype
The earthy yet refined palette throughout the lobby “work[s] together with the outdoors — the woods, the water and nature,” reiterates Studio GAIA’s Ilan Waisbrod. “It’s very elegant but very subtle and quiet,” he says of the finishes his firm specified for this level, from amber-tinted translucent glass and neutral-hued broadloom carpet to granite countertops and an abundance of woodnotes. The timber comes in the form of light-hued engineered wood floors and veneers on all the custom millwork such as slatted architectural wall and canopy elements. These elements are dividers that weave through the lobby, lobby bar and ballroom and meeting-room corridor at different heights to create a more intimate feel and human scale within the soaring space.

A far cry from Sin City resorts, the neutral and natural shades may seem a bit out of the ordinary and too subdued, but, explains Waisbrod, “We didn’t want to compete with the architecture — it’s very monumental. That’s why we used a very monotone palette but played with the scale.”

Studio GAIA continued this aesthetic and palette in the 308 guest rooms and suites, most notably implementing wood proscenium-like frames that recall the slatted wood canopies of the lobby level. These built-ins frame the bed headboards as well as the bathroom vanities and mirrors. Waisbrod likens this millwork to the interior of a yacht, yet another inspiration given the hotel’s views of the waterfront and its sailing vessels.

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A Grand Finale
Back downstairs just beyond the frenetic casino, the westernmost end of the site plan features the serene Potomac Plaza, a landscaped terrace atop the parking structure’s roof. Because this deck offers expansive views of the river and various waterfront amusements such as the Capital Wheel, it was also the logical spot to situate a few of the resort’s 15 dining establishments. Celebrity chef José Andrés opened his restaurant Fish within the corridor that faces this plaza, with the option to extend the seating out onto the terrace should the weather permit. Meanwhile, a reflecting pool following the oval shape of the roof deck features a 100-jet fountain that’s enhanced at night by programmed color-changing LEDs and an additional LED video wall that displays digital artwork as well as promotions.

“It’s a really great place to congregate, and the connection that you have with the Potomac is spectacular from this vantage point,” says Abeyta. Overlooking a part of the river where D.C., Virginia and Maryland converge, MGM’s Potomac Plaza even affords a distant view of the Washington Monument — the very landmark that largely inspired this monumental project.

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