How To Transform An Aging, Empty Atlantic City Casino Into A Brand-New Building

Real Estate

“Everything dies, baby that’s a fact. But maybe everything that dies some day comes back.”

That’s Bruce Springsteen for you. Singing about Atlantic City (the song, of course, is “Atlantic City”)—a town seemingly stuck on an Edge of Tomorrow-esque cycle of life, death, and rebirth.

It’s also the story of the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Atlantic City: A brand-new property that opened in June within the shell of the empty and abandoned Trump Taj Mahal, which towered over the city’s boardwalk from 1990 until its bitter bankruptcy in 2016.

When the Taj Mahal closed, it left behind an empty eyesore that anchored the city’s main drag. But as the song goes, it too has now come back from the dead. In just 14 months from when the company purchased the property in 2017 to the grand opening in June of this year, Hard Rock International has taken this aging husk of a mega-structure—complete with more than 2000 hotel rooms, 167,000 square feet of gaming, and millions of square feet of shops, restaurants, night clubs, and spas—and given it–well as tempting as it is to fall into cliche and call it a “face lift”, the truth is that the job was closer to full-on reconstructive surgery. 

The atrium at the new Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Atlantic CityHard Rock International

“The project had not been renovated sufficiently, or totally managed and maintained, I should say,” says Joe Emanuele, Hard Rock’s Senior Vice President of Design and Construction. “So, the bones were there, but it needed a whole total reevaluation and a total renovation to make the customer, at the end of the day, feel like it wasn’t the old Taj Mahal. We literally had to de-Taj the Taj.”

Perhaps it was a product of its time, but large casinos like the former Taj Mahal—particularly those from the 1990s—tend to be maze-like messes more concerned with stimulating (and overwhelming) your senses than offering a clear floorpan or way of getting where you’re going. The new Hard Rock attempts to fix that by creating a more user-friendly experience for basic necessities such as walking around.

“The Taj never had a very good circulation plan,” Emanuele says.

Key to fixing this: Adding a central atrium that serves as a dramatic statement and crossroads for the structure. According to Emanuele, some 70 percent of guests self-park and enter the casino through this atrium area, making it an obvious spot to serve as a showpiece and mission statement.

Here, a multi-story escalator rises through a 270-degree wraparound screen playing video content that includes concert footage and on-site promotions. At the bottom of the escalator sits the crown jewel of the hotel’s rock memorabilia collection: A Rolls-Royce automobile once owned by Elvis Presley; along with smaller pieces, such as hand-written lyrics to John Lennon’s “Imagine”. The wide-open atrium also makes it easy to choose your own adventure, with the casino floor and various restaurants all within clear view.

This open design philosophy extends to the new gaming floor. In addition to the addition of games and technology that simply weren’t in the circa 1990 Taj Mahal, the casino was redesigned to be less confusing and aid in crowd flow.

“The state of the art is actually giving people clear direction—how to maneuver through the casino,” Emanuele says.

Of course, the new hotel’s changes go beyond the aesthetic. In fact, what initially interested me about this project was a sense of curiosity about what mysteries lay within the walls of a 30-year-old Atlantic City casino. Surely there must be something interesting in there: Skeletons, long-lost treasures, suddenly newsworthy remnants of its former namesake? Maybe all of the above?

It turns out, those old walls just held a ton of old technology. To put it plainly, everything was stuck in the 1990s: The computer systems that manage the casino, the surveillance systems (after all, this is a casino), the AV setups at the property’s many venues, the HVAC systems—almost nothing had been updated in years. Bringing in new technology to areas that are both hidden and guest-facing was a huge step in refreshing the building, and making it feel new again.

I love visiting Atlantic City, but always feel a sense of sadness when stepping through the city’s monuments to former glory. Even if casino floors at some properties are busy, many visitorsseem less interested in the other attractions, such as dining, nightlife, and shopping.

Which is why it was a nice surprise to see the Hard Rock seem so busy and full of life. When I dropped by on a recent visit to Atlantic City, people were gambling, but they were also eating and shopping and partying and taking pictures of rock memorabilia. (And this was after Labor Day!) Basically, people were having fun. And for a city like Atlantic City, which has felt the sting of decades of false promises and failed properties, this is no small feat. And if the dice land right (sorry, couldn’t resist), it could even be a turning point. 

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