SugarHouse Casino Hits the Sweet Spot

The site that was once a big sugar refinery, dormant for 20 years, has now been brought back to life as the brand-new casino to hit Philadelphia’s riverfront, SugarHouse Casino. Overlooking the Delaware River, it’s also home to spectacular views of the downtown skyline and the magnificent Ben Franklin Bridge.

But being in a state with a relatively young gaming history presented some initial challenges. After a public battle over the site location, HSP Gaming Inc., owner of SugarHouse, did finally secure all the necessary permits, and an accelerated build schedule began. The casino officially opened its doors to the public on Sept. 23.

Seeking to “do something different,” Cope Linder architects and Floss Barber Inc. interior designers embarked on an ambitious project. Ian Cope, AIA, partner with Cope Linder Architects, explained that one of the owners aspired to have something sophisticated, urban and even edgy, with a focus not only on the convenience gaming side, but also in engaging entertainment options. “Although we initially toyed with some retro imagery, picking up more literally on a ‘50s era, Rat-Pack identity, we all started to gravitate toward doing something more contemporary, even a bit modern, with a little spice, exuberance and edginess, without being gaudy,” Cope explained. “We were all quite clear that we wanted to do something that created an authentic new entertainment experience for our local clientele, rather than someplace that tried to capitalize on more cliché cultural icons or potentially trivialized Philadelphia’s rich and genuine history.”

With an evolving vision, and large collaboration, the work began. A goal was to have a seamless and visually connected experience for the customer, from outside the property to in. “Materials, geometric forms, textures and lighting components from the exterior of the building are sparingly employed inside and vice versa,” Cope said. “We worked together to fracture what could otherwise have been perceived as a boring box, by using angular forms in many planes and a focus on capturing interesting views. There is a kind of intuitive recall of the design vocabulary and materials employed both inside and out.”

Cope believes there are three really unique design elements to SugarHouse. The first is its waterfront restaurant, The Refinery. Cope explained: “This is where the architecture and Floss Barber’s interior design really come together, and the line between inside and out is intentionally blurred. The space occupies a wonderful corner of the casino, is full of natural light, an elegant bar and the space spills outside to a splendid and lavishly appointed riverfront terrace with incomparable views. It is a very ‘chill’ space.”

Another unique element are the ‘living’ walls that adorn the main porte cochere. These are beautifully crafted and sculpted living plant arrangements in an irrigated tray system. They have a seasonal quality and add a kind of softness, a human scale and a sense of detail to an otherwise bustling large-scale space at the front door.

SugarHouse’s exterior features custom-prefabricated architectural aluminum panels, aluminum glazing, ornamental iron, suspended back-light polycarbonate panels and three-form backlit accents.

On the property’s gaming floor, broadloom carpet with bold geometric patterns adds to the fun experience for the player. The casino currently houses 40 table games, including blackjack, craps, roulette, mini baccarat, Pai Gow poker, three-card poker and four-card poker tables, and 1,600 slot machines.

The third unique feature Cope mentioned is the waterfront itself and new promenade. This public-accessible and gracious pathway gives a sense of connectivity to the river and provides some respite from the activity within the casino. It provides a place to sit, stroll, jog or bike. “This is something both we and the city fathers insisted upon, and it’s proving to be a well-used public amenity,” Cope noted. “We think our promenade may be the first of its kind in Philadelphia, entirely within a privately-owned commercial development. We think the SugarHouse could be a catalyst and a cornerstone for more quality development along the riverfront.”

The casino was designed with plans for a future expansion. The larger, permanent project will add more F&B venues, an entertainment/lounge venue, spa, parking garage, a two-tower hotel and an expanded casino area.

“It’s no secret that there were some detractors who opposed casino development of any kind and others who opposed locating one or more of these projects along the waterfront,” Cope explained. “While the opposition was at times quite vociferous, we believe it represented a very vocal minority.” Cope told a story about how at one public hearing, an obviously passionate detractor sitting behind him discretely poured ice-cold water down his back during his testimony. Another person suggested that he should lose his citizenship. “It was a test of your will to continue on,” he said.

But support from others helped Cope move on. “After completing my testimony and feeling a little dejected, a group of folks from a nearby neighborhood rushed up to me to tell me that they ardently supported the project. They said that the parcel had stood vacant for far too long. They wanted and needed those new jobs, they wanted someplace nearby to go and take their guests for their own entertainment, and they wanted to be able to safely go down to what they viewed as their waterfront. They made it very clear that there was tremendous support for the project and that was inspiring.”

And after the casino’s recent opening, it’s obvious that its presence is a positive for the community now.

Photos © 2010 Greg Benson

KEY PLAYERS
Owner……………………………………………………HSP Gaming Inc.
Operator……………………………………………..Rush Street Gaming
Development Manager………………………Keating Development Co.
Owner’s Representative…….Development Management Associates
Architect…………………………………………..Cope Linder Architects
Landscape Architect…………………………….Cope Linder Architects
Interior Design……………………………………………Floss Barber Inc.
General Contractor………………………………..Keating Building Co.
Site/Civil Engineer…………………………………Urban Engineers Inc.

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