If you have ever enjoyed the petroglyph designs on the bridges in Summerlin that span Interstate 215, you can thank Jeffrey Rhoads. I met him recently because he shot me an email asking if I knew people who could provide him with photos of more petroglyphs. This led to my finding out that every design on those bridges is copied from a real Native American glyph from somewhere in southern Nevada.
Educated at UC Berkeley and MIT and president of the Argonaut Company, Rhoads is an architect and urban designer. A little more than a decade ago, while working with the Summerlin development team, he came up with the idea of adding decorative features to the overpasses to be constructed along the beltway. It took quite a bit of negotiating to convince the various entities in charge that adding art to the bridges was a good, safe, and inexpensive idea. In the end, the Howard Hughes Corporation put up the money, which amounted to about one per cent of the construction cost.
While adding artistic elements to bridges dates back to ancient times, Rhoads was the first person to suggest doing it here in Las Vegas. The idea, he said, is to use a set of local references that connect a structure to its location. “This usually means flora and fauna,” he said. “Critters and plants.” Here in Las Vegas, another attractive possibility existed. “We had a chance to pay homage to the Native American culture of Southern Nevada.”
Before using the designs, Rhoads sought and received the support of the local Native American community. While the true importance of the petroglyphs lies in their unique context and location, the Las Vegas Paiutes said that they had no issue with replicas of the designs on bridges. They considered their use a positive reflection of their culture without detracting from the sacred significance of the originals.
Rhoads wanted to use genuine designs without doing anything that might threaten the fragile originals. “We don’t want to encourage people to go and find them,” he said, and no indication of their locations is put on the bridges. Rhoads also wanted to keep the artwork somewhat understated. “The tendency,” he said, “is to add more and more decoration. The challenge is finding balance, and not overdoing it.” On the first set of bridges—the overpasses at Hualapai Way, Desert Inn Road, Charleston Boulevard, Sahara Avenue, and Summerlin Parkway—the only decoration besides the glyph designs are simple abstract friezes, the name of the road, and the year the bridge was constructed. The bridges were also painted earth tones evocative of Aztec sandstone. The result, in my opinion, is lovely, and that’s not a word I ordinarily apply to freeway bridges.
The art on the bridges in Summerlin has done far more than beautify those original spans. Because adding art to public roadways and bridges adds so little to the cost and so much to the result, most subsequent projects in Las Vegas have incorporated such features. Look no farther than the new interchange at Interstates 15 and 215 on the south side of town for evidence of Rhoads’ influence. The designs aren’t his, but if he hadn’t crusaded for the bridges in Summerlin, the new bridges would probably be plain old gray concrete. (This is my analysis, by the way. Rhoads does not take personal credit for anything beyond the bridges he actually designed. The most he’ll say is, “I’m excited if my work has helped shape the region in a significant way.”)
Personally, I’m excited to have met the creative spirit that brought art to the bridges of Las Vegas. When I first saw the petroglyphs on the overpasses in Summerlin, I wished that the bridges in my part of town were as pretty. Thanks to Jeffrey Rhoads, who likes to say he “tags bridges for a living,” new construction all over the valley is looking a lot more attractive than it might have.
Currently, Rhoads is working on more bridges in Summerlin. These new spans will connect sections of an extended bike path and will also bear petroglyph designs. Drawing inspiration from various types of flying machines, Rhoads also designed the artwork on bridges near Nellis Air Force Base.