A Natural Gem: Pala Casino Spa & Resort

Pala Casino Spa & Resort, nestled in the rolling hills of the Pala Mountains in southern California, first opened its casino doors in 1999 and has since undergone two expansions. The first, in 2001, added a 507-room hotel, spa, pool and event lawn as well as new restaurants and expanded gaming facilities. The second, completed in late 2009, brought the property to a new level of comfort and elegance by adding even more exciting amenities.

The project team involved in all three phases of the property was assembled by JCJ Architects, which acted as the overall executive architect. All the interior spaces were completed by an “all-star interior-design team,” according to Ralph Gentile, principal of Ralph Gentile Architects (RGA) of Los Angeles, who is considered one of those “all-stars”.

RGA was responsible for much of the interior design in the original building, including the hotel tower in the first expansion, but mainly focused on the restaurant components during the most recent expansion. Tandem, based out of Las Vegas and another all-star, served as interior designers for the Center Bar, poker room, Choices Buffet, high-limit gaming areas and the hotel lobby during the expansions.

As one can imagine, planning for such a multi-dimensional project takes a lot of thought and effort. “The Pala development team carefully and exhaustively studied their options before starting the expansion,” Gentile explained. “We had an operating casino that was doing very well. We didn’t want to spoil anything but construction is kind of messy. It’s very important that as new amenities came on line, they did so in a way that marketing could highlight and promote.”

A bump in the road during this process was something the world experienced—the economic recession. Though the crisis did affect final design decisions, the project persevered. “… The scope of the entire construction had to be scaled down due to economic and physical factors,” Kimberly Daoust, design principal for Tandem, explained. “We still think that even with the scaled down expansion, the final product has exceeded the public’s expectations.”

The result is what Daoust refers to as a gem, located away from the hustle and bustle of an urban setting. And Pala and the design team have capitalized on its location, taking design cues from its surroundings. “The interior and exterior design strategies were chosen to enhance and echo the beauty of this exceptional natural setting,” Gentile added. “The exterior theme is based on California contemporary design with specific details drawn from a tradition of craftsmanship and the California landscape.”

Daoust said the Pala Casino can compete with any Las Vegas property: The expansions doubled the property’s size and raised the stakes with three re-designed, feng shui-inspired rooms, including an exclusive high-limit lounge. “For high-limit players, the lounge is an area where they can spend some time and don’t have to leave the space,” she noted. “The food and beverage offered in the lounge isn’t just an afterthought but a focal point. The room uses dark wood, Michelangelo stone, contemporary carpet design and dramatic lighting.”

Jordan Banares, another design principal for Tandem, explained that the buffet design was partly inspired by the existing casino’s Frank Lloyd Wright architecture. “Natural elements are found on the interior architecture and organic patterns on the highly graphic carpet pattern,” Banares said. “The wood elements create the warmth that makes voluminous space tailored more to human scale.”

The team designed the Center Bar as the main hub of the casino, where energy and entertainment is generated. “It is the jewel of the casino space hence the backlit columns,” Banares explained. We used diachronic glass that changes color as one walks by. The extensive use of Michelangelo marble on the floor complements the use of wood for the structure.”

Gentile recalled that the project had an interesting design requirement: “Northern San Diego County is one of the few areas of the country that has a ‘dark sky’ ordinance. In order to preserve the beauty and enjoyment of the night sky, all buildings and landscape areas are required to employ special lighting design strategies. All lighting on the property is designed and controlled to avoid any upward-directed light sources—which contribute to light pollution—thereby preserving a sky filled with stars.”

Inside the casino, other environmental practices were employed. Special consideration was given to energy and water use in the rural setting, with appropriate materials and alternative strategies to achieve balance within the site. The design team selected materials and finishes based on natural and renewable resources such as bamboo flooring, recycled products and natural stone. Where possible, LEED-certified products and materials were incorporated.

Owner: Pala Band of Mission Indians
Operator: Pala Casino Spa & Resort
Architect: JCJ Architects
Designers: Tandem (www.tandemlasvegas.com); Ralph Gentile Architects (www.rgastudio.com)
Contractor: Swinerton Builders
Lighting Design: The Ruzika Company Inc.