Floating Casino Follows Industry's Upscale Trend

Thursday, January 11, 2001
As the casino riverboat industry celebrates its 10th anniversary this year, there's little resemblance between the first reproduction 1890s paddlewheelers that a decade ago plied the upper Mississippi River in Iowa and today's luxurious floating casino resort complexes with their plethora of amenities.

Pinnacle Entertainment's $200 million Belterra Casino Resort in Belterra, Ind., which opened last Oct. 27, epitomizes this trend. The Belterra coincidentally and unintentionally also pays tribute to the industry's hallmark 10th anniversary - which is traditionally celebrated with a gift of aluminum or tin - through use of an innovative technique. The casino's interiors are accented by custom-honed, dimensional sand-cast aluminum to meld the classical architectural excellence of today's upscale megacasino resorts with a consideration for marine allowances that require the use of lightweight, non-combustible materials.

Bauer Interiors used classical architectural motifs and materials throughout the 370- x 104-ft. vessel, whose name means "beautiful land" in Portuguese, and throughout the land-based pavilion and ramp that accesses the plush casino.

"It's seldom that a floating casino uses the same designer for the boat and the land-based pavilion," said Grace Bauer, president of Bauer Interiors of New Orleans. "By doing so on the Belterra, we were able to achieve harmony incorporating the same elements and colors throughout the property.

More than 10 miles of trim are layered in ceilings and wall tops throughout the property. Classical Botticino marble leads passengers through a 200,000-sq.-ft. pavilion, down a 220- x 100-ft. walkway lined with serene Palladian arches and into the casino's groin vault topped off with a decorative trompe l'oeil design. But perhaps the most unique feature of the Belterra is the dimensional, sand-cast aluminum, canopy-like ceiling sculptures that hover over the casino's table games along the boat's centerline.

Bauer wanted an organically-designed canopy that would impart an atmosphere of intimacy over the table games and separate them from the rest of the casino with its 14-ft. ceilings. Metal castings worked well with the interior's classical design.

"Normal aluminum casting stock out of a catalog is flat and didn't have enough volume and mass to spatially define that area of the casino," said Bauer. "They were far too light, they disappeared and added clutter. These stand out and define the space while introducing original art into a casino environment."

Bauer chose artist Kit Wohl of New Orleans to design and build the four, 70-ft.-long sculptures that weighed a total of 7,000 pounds. Wohl created wild aluminum swirls and curves that are reminiscence of acanthus leaves, then added gold leaf, verdigris patinas and backlit etched glass light fixtures - designed by White Glass of New Orleans - every 10 ft.

Bauer incorporated the innovative technique into other parts of the casino by adding two different groups of wall panels and railings. Five acanthus wall panels of the same sand-cast, dimensional aluminum with limestone insets line the front desk in the hotel lobby. Classically severe, regal crown railings highlighted with brass and Rosa marble insets line the oyster bar in the pavilion and the high-limit area of the casino.

Custom work of the caliber that Bauer wanted for the sculptures is usually made of fiberglass or foam-based material. But the marine environment necessitated use of a non-flammable material.

"Aluminum was the best material because it was the lightest," Wohl said. "Sand-casting it gave it more curvature, dimension and rough texture than stock does. Bauer wanted to push the technique and get something that hadn't been done before.

"It was a very creative exercise," she said. "The actual fabrication was challenging and required expertise in several areas of metalworking and coloration."

Bauer had similar considerations and challenges throughout the remainder of the project. In areas where wood could not be used - such as the public restrooms - cast, inert GRG took its place, covered by a faux wood finish.

In the 55-ft. rotunda entry to the pavilion, hidden cove lighting directed beams both skyward and to the floor. The owners wanted the dome's skylights to glow with visibility at night and be easily recognized for miles throughout the rural farming community. But the rotunda - with its stepped ceilings leading up to the skylight - also needed adequate lighting on the floor. Two levels of columned coves hid dozens of three-light panels. The rotunda and the skies overhead are never dark.

"The owners wanted a casual but elegant style," Bauer said. "But the overriding passion was for a classical simplicity that was tasteful, well-lit and bright."

Passengers move through the rotunda into a 100-ft.-long, 35-ft.-tall skylit walkway, flanked by restaurants, a 450-seat buffet, a 30-ft. wall aquarium, meeting rooms, queuing areas and the 15-story hotel.

A smaller rotunda caps the walkway and steers passengers onto the ramp. Like other modern riverboat casinos being put into service today, the transition from land to water is seamless. The less-than-10-degree descent down the ramp is never perceived by boarding and disembarking passengers, because the height of the baseboards and column capitals telescope to keep the perspective in alignment.

Also, passengers glean no clues that the ramp is actually a gangplank; its interior better resembles a five-star hotel lobby than an airport concourse. Verdigris-patinaed light fixtures hang from 14-foot, coffered ceilings, while white Botticino marble slabs bordered by blue lapis and peachy Rosa line circular, custom carpet insets with classical motifs of acanthus and medallions. While traffic patterns necessitated different designs throughout the boat and the pavilion, the yarns incorporate the same hues of royal blue, gold and burgundy that is the Belterra signature.

"Using the same elements and colors provide harmony to the design," Bauer said. "But it's different enough that it's still a great treat visually."

Dual groin vaults serve as the entry to both of the boat's casino decks. The 30-ft., square vaults with 17-ft. ceilings are surrounded by crystal lighting fixtures that highlight six layers of applied moldings topped by applied trompe l'oeil. Inside the casino, attention to detail rules. Restroom stalls have floor-length, louvered doors while the crown molding and wood-grained ceiling have faux finishes. Beveled mirrors in starburst designs line the back of the poker bar at the stern of the boat. Each mirror holds at its center a golden flame-shaped light fixture. The lights are also used in the pavilion entrance to the VIP showroom.

The same Rosa marble that highlights the pavilion walkway and the ramp trims the cashiers' cages in the casino. Air conditioning vents and ducts are totally concealed throughout the pavilion by crown molding.

"The challenge as a designer was the interface of all these systems - marine, casino, etc. - and then have them all work," Bauer said of the year-long project. "It took a lot of effort, but the finished product was well worth it."

Bauer Interiors is a full service interior design firm with over 21 years experience in the marine industry. With a reputation for award winning design, Bauer combines total interior design services with technical expertise in the regulations governing this industry. The company's creativity and specialized technical skills are supported by complete management services.

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