Hot Springs, Ark., is a lakefront resort town with a long and infamous history in the world of gaming. Once a haven for the rich and famous, the secluded town, located just southwest of Little Rock, became known as The Spa City—America’s First Resort, due to the area’s natural thermal spring waters long thought to have powers to soothe and heal. Hot Springs was also popular with notorious gangsters, such as Al Capone and Lucky Luciano, and equally notorious illegal gambling activity. Hot Springs historians boast that “the town offered Las Vegas-style amenities before there was a Las Vegas.”
Rising out of the shadow of its past, Hot Springs has continued to promote itself and draw visitors interested in experiencing its unique history and scenery, its historic Victorian-style Bathhouse Row and its vibrant horse racing heritage at Oaklawn Jockey Club, which was the only legal form of gaming available in Arkansas until about 10 years ago.
Hot Springs Gaming Comes Full Circle
Oaklawn Jockey Club, now known as Oaklawn Racing and Gaming, is one of the country’s most revered racing venues. During the three-month racing season, up to 60,000 fans may gather on a race day to cheer on their favorite contenders. Since 1904, the horse track has brought some of the very best racing to the south; Smarty Jones, Zenyatta, Temperance Hill and many other greats have all run on the Oaklawn track over the years.
In 2009, Oaklawn’s owners added games of skill to the operation, bringing Hot Springs’ gaming past full circle, this time as a legal and valuable contributor to the community’s economic prosperity. Gaming revenues also help subsidize the racing operation and allow Oaklawn to bring in more customers and better prize purses for the racing winners, draw top names in racing and also boost exposure of their racing operation to different markets/clientele.
2009/2010 Expansion/Renovation to Oaklawn’s Grandstand
National award-winning entertainment and hospitality design firm Hnedak Bobo Group was selected to design the first casino addition and grandstand renovation to Oaklawn, completed in 2009 and 2010, respectively. “At that time, we designed a two-level racino at the south end of the existing horse racing Grandstand,” said Craig Conrad, AIA, principal at HBG. “Modifications were also made to the existing grandstand and other areas to meet both the current and future needs of race fans and casino guests.”
With two thriving operations under one roof, Oaklawn has seen tremendous popularity in Hot Springs, and the owners recognized the need to expand once again to accommodate current and future patrons. Oaklawn again retained HBG to design the new $20 million expansion to its gaming center, which was completed in late December 2014 in time for Oaklawn’s 111th race meet on Jan. 15, 2015.
Expansion Design Elevates Casino’s Prominence
At 83,400 square feet, the latest expansion—the second in five years—more than doubles the size of the gaming floor adding hundreds of new gaming terminals and a High Limits section, and creates key F&B amenities to target the needs of Oaklawn’s gaming patron, including Silks Bar & Grill and Bistro 2705 grab and go café.
“The new addition required that an entirely new entrance be created for the casino along the south elevation,” said Shawn Hobbs, AIA, lead designer and senior associate at HBG. A dramatic new illuminated two-story entry experience gives the gaming side of the house a new separate identity and announces the casino’s elevated status on par with its racing counterpart.
Designers reinvigorated the casino’s exterior design while maintaining a similar design scheme and materials that had become part of Oaklawn’s gaming brand since the casino opened in 2009. Oaklawn’s original racing grandstand structure was formed with strong horizontal shapes leading HBG designers to introduce simple volumes and linear and interlocking building shapes to tie the casino together aesthetically. A mixture of color and texture creates visual interest. “Red, orange, tan and gray metal panels contrast with a light-colored stone base and columns to create a contemporary aesthetic,” Hobbs added. “At the new entry, these materials converge to frame the new two-story window wall, which gives a glimpse of the excitement found within the illuminated interior.”
Ease of maintenance and durability were factors in material selection. Materials including metal wall panels, ground-face aggregate block, dimension stone cladding and glass blend to create a sleek and sophisticated visual presence.
Designers planned all casino additions and grandstand modifications to give the racing grandstand clear views of the adjacent racing track. The casino was sited to the south to allow separation and the most ideal conditions for the horse races. For example, all exterior additions and modifications could not feature colors that would distract the horses. Because of this, the casino elevation facing the racetrack maintains neutral colors on its façade. This potential impact led to a more austere exterior. Designers focused most of the “wow” on creating a spectacular interior experience for guests beginning in the dramatic two-story entry lobby.
Interior Subtly References Horse-Racing Heritage
From the exterior, the inviting glow from the illuminated glass entry feature offers an enticing view into the large-scale, Chihuly-inspired glass chandelier hanging dramatically from the two-story lobby. The lobby’s dark, sophisticated color palette and rich finishes are highlighted by a massive, stark white custom art piece hanging above the new gift shop. “The art piece’s linear bands run through it at angles mimicking the linear forms found in the overall design scheme,” said Jennifer Smith, IIDA, HBG interior designer and associate. “The grand staircase and escalators appear as structural elements in the lobby, with their strong visual presence and height lending a dramatic effect in the tall entry lobby as they lead patrons to the main gaming floor on the second level.”
“With added amenities and added gaming machines came a need for reconfiguration of the gaming floor to accommodate ease of access and efficient functionality,” Conrad added. Oaklawn’s 12 table games were located directly at the top of the escalators and staircase, serving as the centerpiece of the gaming action. Gaming machines are grouped around the tables, with The Winner’s Circle, the new High Limits area and all F&B amenities placed strategically around the perimeter of the gaming floor.
“Reinforcing Oaklawn’s visual brand, the new gaming floor maintains essentially the same interior design aesthetic our team established in 2009, with some enhancements,” Smith said. All carpeting was replaced with the same or similar patterns and some light fixtures were reused, such as the large glass chandelier that now graces the entry lobby, which was delicately dismantled and relocated from the former entryway.
All design references in the expansion hint of the rich horse-racing heritage at Oaklawn, using abstract design themes as the catalyst for discovery. For instance, one must look twice to see that the main inset carpet pattern on the gaming floor is a series of abstracted galloping horses. “Other abstracted references to racing involve dynamic overlapping planes and linear elements that work together with lighting and pattern to create a sense of movement around the floor,” Smith said. The new High Limits area and the adjacent Pop’s Lounge bar are set apart by half walls under a curtain wall of shimmering strings of metal beading that capture the flashing color and light from nearby gaming machines. The effect is a production of speed and movement that harkens to the excitement of racing.
Silks Bar & Grill—Hot Springs’ newest spot for great food and great sports is Silks Bar & Grill, located inside the casino, adjacent to the table games, activating the perimeter with movement and light from more than 30 large-screen televisions throughout. Angled ceiling elements over the bar and dining seats and simple styling impart a modern interpretation of racing horses with dual finishes inspired by horse and jockey. Sports memorabilia adorns the walls over the booth seating. The dynamic ceiling plane, engaging lighting levels and a warm, natural green, yellow and brown color palette draws patrons into the venue for a relaxing and fun experience.
Bistro 2705—In the Bistro 2705 grab and go café, stark white walls and casual metal dinette furniture create a lively backdrop to find a quick bite or late night snack. As a further ode to horse racing, the bistro’s focal wall is adorned with a custom wall-covering pattern reminiscent of starting block numbers and colors. Against the bright white wall, the effect is uplifting and fresh.
Possibly the most challenging undertaking in each project involved the careful design and construction phasing that allowed the expansion and renovation projects to move ahead with minimal disruption to operations. “It would have been impossible to complete a project of this magnitude without dividing it into phases,” said Plant Superintendent John Hopkins, a member of Oaklawn’s senior management team who has spearheaded the expansion.
“The end result of our expansion efforts is a bigger and better entertainment experience,” Hopkins said. “We are thrilled to have this new gaming area ready for guests coming to town for our race meet.”
Fortunately, Oaklawn’s guests did not seem to mind the minor inconvenience. In January, Oaklawn Racing and Gaming was voted Best Racetrack/Racino in the Mid-South region of the United States by readers of Southern Gaming and Destinations magazine. This recognition comes shortly after Oaklawn was voted Best Casino/Gaming Center by the readers of the Arkansas Democrat Gazette during its annual Best of the Best awards for 2014.
Oaklawn Racing and Gaming, Hot Springs, Ark.
Oaklawn Racing and Gaming, Hot Springs, Ark.
Eric Jackson, General Manager
Architect and Interior Designer:
Hnedak Bobo Group, Memphis, Tenn.
Dan Elias, AIA, LEED AP — Principal/Principal-in-Charge
Craig Conrad, AIA — Principal / Project Manager
Shawn Hobbs, AIA — Senior Associate / Lead Architectural Designer
Jennifer Smith, IIDA — Associate / Lead Interior Designer
Flintco, Springdale, Ark.
Nathan Peak, AIA, is a principal and partner at Hnedak Bobo Group and a recognized gaming industry “Top 40 Under 40.” In his role as Design Discipline Leader for HBG, Peak is passionate about creating and celebrating engaging, uplifting expressions of architecture that prominently stand out in the gaming marketplace. He may be reached at npeak[at]hbginc.com or 901-525-2557.