Driving along a trout stream and under the massive green-roofed porte cochère with seven waterfalls, guests approaching Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort get a taste of the heart and soul of the culture and region before they even reach the front door.
Cuningham Group worked with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and Harrah’s Entertainment (now Caesars Entertainment) to renovate and expand Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort into a world-class resort destination in the Great Smoky Mountains. The project was one of the most complex phased efforts the firm has undertaken, and the casino was operational the whole time, said Cuningham Group Principal and Director of Strategic Development Tom Hoskens.
“The project is a symbol of not only an entertainment resort that uses the natural setting as a metaphor, but a resort building that embodies the heart and soul of a culture, a region and a tribe,” he said.
With a relationship spanning nearly two decades, Cuningham Group first designed the tribe’s original 175,000-square-foot property that opened in 1997. The $650 million renovation and expansion completed this year includes the addition of 180,000 square feet of casino floor, a 21-story hotel, new restaurants, 8,350 square feet of retail, a 10,000-square-foot VIP Lounge and a 3,001-seat entertainment center.
Hoskens calls the resort a prime example of Cuningham Group’s design philosophy Every Building Tells A Story™. The guiding vision for the property was a “modern mountain lodge,” achieved by blending the natural beauty of the mountain setting with contemporary elements and hints of elements important to the tribe.
At the beginning of the expansion and renovation project in 2007, Cuningham Group worked with a cultural committee to determine the importance and scope of cultural influence in the property. It was decided very early on that design and themes would primarily be a reinterpretation of the Great Smoky Mountains, and tribal elements would be more subtle and complementary, Hoskens said.
“Few casinos, tribal or commercial, can boast a setting as rich in natural splendor as Harrah’s Cherokee,” he said. “The regional and geographic location in the heart of the Great Smoky Mountains has always been the guiding influence for Cuningham Group designers.”
Some of the subtle tribal elements incorporated into the design include: the seven waterfalls at the porte cochère that represent the tribe’s seven clans and medallions cast in the terrazzo floor of the retail and restaurant concourse that depict corn and ginseng, both of which are important to the tribe.
Hoskens refers to the resort’s new entry rotunda as the “crown jewel” and showpiece of the expansion, saying it’s a must-see for non-gamblers and a tourist attraction itself.
The rotunda features 60-foot-tall trees, a 140-foot LED video screen with state-of-the-art audio and video capabilities, twin 68-foot waterfalls that cascade from the ceiling to a collection pool in the floor, two escalators and a massive, floating spiral staircase.
Video on a giant wrap-around movie screen provides a synchronized light and sound show with 15 different themed programs. The mini shows feature everything from an artistic retelling of the Cherokee origin story to nature videos and casino announcements.
Cuningham Group designers created four visually distinct themed zones on the interior to help orient and move guests through the expanded casino. Modeled after the experience of taking a walk in the Smoky Mountains and identified as Earth Water, Rivers Valleys, Woodland Moon and Mountain Breeze, each zone evokes a different theme and mood through lighting, music, signage and other amenities.
“Using the four zones, not only do we change the décor as we go through the casino, we give people landmarks along the way,” Hoskens said.
The “landmarks” are beverage stations, each uniquely designed as an anchor in each of the four zones. The path to these landmarks is marked by the floor surface and ceiling features.
To create continuity and movement through the zones, Cuningham Group also included a concept element they call “the wind.” The wind is an acrylic box with color-changing capability that curves the entire length of the casino and changes the mood within each of the spaces very slowly and subtly.
Complementing the wind are “the wisps,” reflective beads punctuated by gobo lights that make them look like they are moving. The wisps create a different atmosphere in each of the zones. For example, in Rivers Valleys, the wisps are more cylindrical and circular like puffy clouds. In Mountain Breeze, they become more linear to hint at motion and movement.
Creek Tower is the property’s new upscale 21-story, 464,000-square-foot hotel that includes 454 standard guestrooms, 68 standard suites and 10 high-end suites, including two “super suites.” Here, too, the natural surroundings inspired Cuningham Group’s dynamic design and selection of motifs and materials. For example, the tower’s waving and fluid roof form complements the natural dynamic of the rolling mountain-scape.
The arrival experience in the lobby includes a combination of kinetic imagery of the region, sculptural relief and architectural elements such as native river cane, grasses, rugged stonework and rich woodwork that help bring nature indoors in a refined, modern fashion, Hoskens says.
The ceiling elements and columns are symbolic of the surrounding tree trunks and canopy with dappled light and shadows filtering through. A cozy fire lounge is nestled in the heart of the lobby and floor to ceiling windows provide dramatic views of the spectacular terrain.
A pebble path on the carpet guides guests toward the dramatic views outside, while natural materials and contemporary artwork that depicts abstract nature further the modern lodge experience in the large, well-appointed standard guestrooms.
The Multi-bay Suites on the 21st floor have distinctive themes like Crisp Hydration, Traditional Lodge, Ski Lodge and Vibrant Bloom that play out through materials, color palette, design details in headboards, lighting and complementary artwork and accessories.
The two exclusive Super Suites cap the floor’s north and south ends and provide dramatic views of the mountain panorama. The North Suite reinforces the hotel’s modern lodge concept with earthy textures, natural materials, organic artwork and simple clean lines. In contrast, the south suite, “Soho Chic,” is a sleek and edgy design that still incorporates lodge elements like a fireplace and wood floors. The spacious rooms feature high ceilings and full-height windows, large wrap-around patios, custom furniture and lighting, commissioned artwork, fully automated systems, top-of-the-line theater seating and large built-in TVs, luxury bathrooms, and a party tub and bar for entertaining.
The four major phases of work led to final grand opening events starting on March 22. Hoskens calls the project a “meaningful success” because Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort’s 2,500 employees and the tribe are proud of the property, great opportunities have been created for tribal members and their families, and a sustainable quality of life has been achieved with a desire to strive for more.
“The tribe truly believes they are part of and are contributing to something much bigger than themselves,” Hoskens said. “Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort has become one of the most successful casino resorts in the southeast U.S. with an illustrative story behind its design and a track record of success that has helped make life better in their part of the world.”
Anna G. Larson is a former Associate Editor at Casino Enterprise Management. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Photo credit: Peter Malinowski/Insite.