The Design Observer Group


Posted 02.10.11


Brian Rosa & Adam Ryder

The Edge of Light: Wendover




Two thousand miles west of New York City, Interstate 80 crosses the final hurdle of the Rocky Mountains, the Wasatch Range, and drops down onto the Great Basin that covers much of the interior West. On the last day of a week-long road trip, we passed Salt Lake City and drove two more hours across the Bonneville Salt Flats, a startlingly white and largely featureless expanse — a remnant of the Pleistocene Lake Bonneville — eerily geometrical in its flatness. Signs on the shoulder warned us not to fall asleep at the wheel. We were on our way to Wendover, Utah, to participate in the artist-in-residence program at the Center for Land Use Interpretation, which maintains an outpost in this isolated but historically important pocket of the West.


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Bifurcated by the state line, Wendover, Utah, and West Wendover, Nevada, form a community that straddles the border of nowhere and nowhere. Established in 1906 as a maintenance stop on the Western Pacific Railroad, early Wendover was home to a small population of rail workers and miners. A couple of decades later, William Smith, proprietor of a service station — then Wendover’s sole business — literally hit the jackpot when Nevada legalized gambling in 1931. Smith converted his shop, which was right on the state line, into the Stateline Casino, today the Wendover Nugget. The Nugget was soon joined by four other casinos on the Nevada side, which collectively form the area’s economic backbone. West Wendover is comparatively populous and financially prosperous, with suburban-style tract housing, a golf course and a shopping center. Cross into Utah, though, and Wendover is economically restricted by the state’s gambling and alcohol laws; the town has little business of its own. Residents, mostly Latinos, commute across the border to work in the casinos.

Prosperity here was not always so uneven. During World War II, Wendover, Utah, was host to the largest bombing range in the country, training bomber crews across the vast desert. It was from the Wendover Army Air Field that Col. Paul Tibbetts took off in the Enola Gay, bound for Guam and then Hiroshima. The war effort boosted the town of 200 people into a small city, with its own hospital, library, interfaith chapel, bowling alley and multiple movie theaters. At its height Wendover housed 23,000 military personnel in 668 buildings. After Japan’s surrender, the air field became obsolete and fell into disrepair. The Air Force departed for good in the ‘60s and ceded the derelict property to the city. Today only two dozen of the military buildings remain.

The unique topography of the region, which lies at the foot of the Toana mountain range and the Leppy Hills, offers the opportunity for unexpectedly dynamic vistas. Trudging up to the promontories that loom over town, we had oblique views of the city, of the perfectly straight and flat stretch of Interstate 80 through the salt flats and of the monolithic communication arrays. From this vantage on a clear day, we found ourselves at one of the few points where the earth’s curvature can be seen on the horizon with the naked eye. At night, while the Utah side was nearly lightless, the casinos and hotels and parking lots on the Nevada side glowed bright as day, projecting a harsh screen of light on newly built tract housing, piles of concrete rubble from building demolitions and the mountains beyond.

In this gallery we present a collection of nighttime photographs of Wendover that record our investigations of the area. We explored the interstitial, unoccupied spaces at the edges of the interstate, among the ruins of the military base, and between the nightlife zones and the casino workers’ tract housing. We set out to document the ambient light emitting from commercial, municipal and residential light sources in an attempt to find a mythical “edge of light“ in the high desert.