Building Hope: Indian Head Casino

The landmark “Indian Head” natural rock formation on the Warm Springs Reservation plays prominently in the building form. Photography by Darius Kuzmickas © 2012.When the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, WorthGroup Architects (WorthGroup) and The PENTA Building Group (PENTA) partnered to move forward with Indian Head Casino in Warm Springs, Ore., they all committed to providing the tribe with much more than a gaming facility. They committed to providing the economically challenged tribe with hope.

“The three entities walked side-by-side the entire time,” said Jim Mickey, AIA, WorthGroup, principal and project executive. “That was what was so unique and great about this. There was truly understanding on how to get this thing online.”

With a strong team mindset in place, the Tribes, WorthGroup and PENTA worked to create a culturally and economically significant casino in just 10 months. The fast-track schedule ensured that tribe members would have jobs quicker, and the community could start generating income faster.

“Without the fast-track schedule, and a client willing to commit to the timeline, it would have taken another three, four or five months, and that would have meant people being unemployed that much longer,” Mickey explained. “Rather than just something architectural, it was a means for us to help them in an area where they were struggling.”

In order to prosper in the future, the Tribes looked back into their history. The Tribes chose to incorporate into the casino’s design two culturally significant landmarks: Celilo Falls, a former tribal fishing area on the Columbia River, and the Indian Head rock formation located on the reservation. Tribal elders mentioned to Mickey that they remembered the sound and the massive power of Celilo Falls.

“The concept of using those falls in the architecture was very special to the group. They adopted the idea very quickly and gave us a lot of inspiration and guidance along the way,” he said.

The main cultural concept for the interior and exterior architecture is an abstracted, modernized version of the fishing platforms at Celilo Falls.

“Celilo Falls is part of the geometry of the building,” said Bryan Hamlin, vice president of design for WorthGroup.

“They [the Tribes] weren’t looking for a photo reality,” Mickey added. “They were looking for something more interpretive, not literal. They liked the idea of incorporating those ideas into the buildings.”

The main lobby of the casino is a wedge shape, mimicking the fishing platforms. The lobby materials include stone veneers, warm woods and tile flooring. The lobby showcases a sculptural feature and tribal artwork representing the importance of the river and Celilo Falls. Integrated into the lobby is also a display case for The Museum at Warm Springs to promote their culture and heritage. The lobby is spacious and open, with an uninterrupted view of the gaming floor.

Moving on to the gaming floor, patrons first notice an “organic shape,” which is a dynamic lighting feature that connects the entire gaming floor. This allows the patron to have the same experience from the main lobby or the east lobby. Suspended, illuminated elements represent the river and also the wind traveling down the valley. The use of programmable LED lighting creates a feel of water and movement throughout the space. The wall plane is subdivided by timber elements that travel up the wall and engage the ceiling and the “river.”

One of the most unique elements in the casino is the main light feature on the gaming floor. Developed in collaboration with e-gads!, a specialty design and manufacturing company, the feature can be programmed to look like a flowing river, reminiscent of the Columbia, or change when a jackpot is hit, among other options. Lenticular film gives the feature its life-like qualities. The high-tech lighting fixture reaches across the 18,000 square-foot gaming area, providing an immersive experience for patrons.

“The light fixture has a lot of movement and color,” said Amber Boberick, interior designer at WorthGroup. “It connects across the gaming floor so that the people across the casino get this experience.”

The second important cultural influence, the Indian Head rock formation, is also prominent in the building’s interior features, as well as its exterior features.

“The facade wall in the dining room includes undulating planking that mimics the face,” Boberick said. “The client wanted that particular element included in the casino. It’s important to them.”

The facade wall of the restaurant also slopes horizontally, speaking back to the lobby soffit shapes. Warm wood planking in a dynamic and dimensional manner gives the restaurant a presence on the gaming floor. Incorporating subtle aspects of culture into the design, a built-out profile of the Indian Head rock formation is included in the facade. Windows in the facade create play and interest between the gaming floor and the restaurant. The restaurant’s multi-directional entrance pulls from both the gaming floor and the family-friendly east entrance.

Cottonwood Restaurant features 114-seat casual dining and buffet.The restaurant has a warm color palette and includes stone walls, expansive glass windows with decorative metal elements, tile flooring, custom carpet and local tribal artwork. The ceiling incorporates horizontal wood beams that intersect and layer on top of the glowing copper ceiling, and the meandering installation of down lighting speaks to the movement of the river.

On the exterior of the building, the geometry of the fishing platforms were transformed into large-scale abstract sculptural elements rising more than 30 feet in height. The main casino facade is divided into three sections, symbolizing the three tribes of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs. Each section contains a slightly different canopy supported by three angled steel elements positioned and adjacent to large-scale rippled blue walls of sculpted foam.

“The symbolism of the final sculptural composition recalls the legacy of Celilo Falls,” Hamlin noted.

On Feb. 4, the rewarding work of designing and building a casino from the ground up in 10 months paid off when tribal members saw the interior of the property for the first time during the grand opening.

“Their reaction was pretty cool—they understood it and they enjoyed it,” Mickey said. “Seeing how many people this really helped made it really meaningful for us. Even as we were going through the final couple weeks, the employees were tickled pink to have a job, enjoying the final pieces of putting the building together. ”

J. Mark Eshenroder, project executive/business development at PENTA, says the success of the project came down to one simple idea—teamwork.

“A successful project is always done with a successful team. We’re all there for the same goal: to create the project the client wants within the budget,” he said.

Another element that contributed to the project’s success was the Tribes’ vision. The Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs and their management team had definite goals for the project and passed those ambitions on to WorthGroup and PENTA.

“They researched their market and knew their needs. The clear decisions made early on in the development process allowed the WorthGroup team to develop the construction documents as The PENTA Building Group was buying out and building the project,” said Curt Carlsen, project superintendent at PENTA. “Because of this, the project was able to start up fast and maintain the fast pace from start to finish.”

PENTA utilized local subcontractors for the project and credits that team of individuals with contributing to the swift completion of the project.

“The local subcontractors we had on the project were some of the best I have had the opportunity to work with,” said Bob Martin, project manager at PENTA. “The project was very fast paced, as most casino projects are, and from the day the subcontractors stepped on the job, they were on board with the fast-paced schedule and worked very well together making it a successful project for everyone.”

Mickey adds that the project was also unique due to its family-oriented approach. “The people you are working with are family,” he said. “You look at it from a different standpoint.”

The completed casino located on Highway 26 created 250 jobs for the Tribes, in addition to the jobs created during the construction of the property. Job creation and gaming revenue will help the Tribes grow and flourish.

“There are a lot of things they can do in the future—they can diversify,” Mickey said.

Indian Head Casino is already receiving rave reviews. Ken Billingsley, general manager, is pleased with patrons’ reactions to the property. “Patrons are amazed at how fast the casino went up and the architectural design of it,” he said. “We’ve also received many positive comments on the friendliness of our employees and the gracious hospitality that is given.”

Additionally, the casino strives to employ and involve Tribal members whenever possible.

“Because of this, you get the feeling that you are a welcome guest of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs and that you have the opportunity to share their culture,” Carlsen said.

It’s clear that with its culturally rich design and amicable hospitality, Indian Head Casino is more than just a casino—it is a symbol of hope for a tribe that has long struggled economically.

Architectural studies were created abstracting the fishing platforms into large-scale facade sculptural elements rising more than 30 feet in height. Photography by Darius Kuzmickas © 2012.
Owner & Operator: Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs
Architect & Interior Designer: WorthGroup Architects
Contractor: The PENTA Building Group
Structural and MEP Engineering: Coffman Engineering
Designer & Manufacturer of Gaming Floor Lighting: e-gads!