I passed this house so many times. Drove right by. It’s just not what you’re expecting, lodged between a parking garage and an apartment building built in 2003. The landscaping also camoflauges it too. When I finally got my act together to go to one of the monthly tours and punched the address into my iPhone, I was surprised how close it was to downtown Las Vegas. I made the 8 minute drive and sure enough, distinctive breeze blocks and an aqua door announced I was in the right place. As I approached those doors, a neighbor walking by asked me what I was doing. When I told him I was going to tour this house and why it was special, he was dumbfounded. He said, “I never knew — I just cut through here on the way home!” Well, at least I wasn’t the only one who missed the landmark.
The Morelli House was built in 1959 and was the dream house for band leader Antonio Morelli and his wife Helen. Morelli, was probably best known as the man leading the band behind the Rat Pack — Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis, Jr., Dean Martin, Joey Bishop and Peter Lawford — at the Sands Casino. After working at the Sands for 4 years, Morelli decided to build upon a site at Desert Inn Estates, a community centered around the Desert Inn Golf Course. Modern architecture was in full swing in Las Vegas at this time and Hugh E. Taylor was designing other homes in the community, so he was selected as the architect and worked closely with both Morellis as they had specific ideas about their new home.
If you’d like to take a drive through Desert Inn Estates, don’t bother. It’s not there anymore. What is there is the Wynn Casino. There is still a golf course behind the casino/hotel complex, but it is slated to change yet again into a lagoon at some point in the future. So how did the Morelli House survive when the other houses were demolished to make room for the Wynn? They stuck it on a truck and moved it! This could be done because unlike most homes in Las Vegas and specifically in Desert Inn Estates, the Morelli House house wasn’t built on a slab. It was transported to a plot to be used as the headquarters for the Junior League of Las Vegas.
So about the house itself: it is in pristine condition. Details abound, even in the small entranceway: a stained glass panel designed by Isabel Piczak, only visible from inside the house; tear drop glass in the windows around the door that compels you to touch it; original fiberglass draperies. Entering into the living room, you see the large, frequently photographed fireplace. The fireplace is so clean, I asked if it was indeed a working fireplace. I remember reading somewhere that the Morelli’s put a tv in the fireplace, so maybe that is the answer! A button opens and closes the drapes — I noticed several consoles through the property. Mr. Morelli liked state-of-the-art operations.
The living room is oft-shot as I mentioned, and rightly so. The unique shape of the copper fireplace against the white wall behind is a stunner. But do not overlook the kitchen! The wavy, cushioned, naugahyde around the island, the tv console that turns into a bar and the built-in vintage appliances (including my favorite, a bun warmer!) are a retro dream. And such storage. The wood, the lighting, the custom tiles; there is so much to take in here in this perfect snapshot of elegant midcentury living. Photos around the breakfast nook banquettes hint at the illustrious guests that may have come to the house and presumably the cocktail parties that ensued, making good use of that tv bar.
If you think that’s pretty much it for the tour highlights, you’d be underestimating the bathrooms. The first, done up in yellow with bold floral wallpaper, the second, in green feature little touches that make them extraordinary. Faucets with “AM” for Antonio Morelli on top are in both baths. In the master bath, the green tile contains golden flecks and extra wide tan grout keeps those tiles in place. A small but tall sink designed for the 6-foot plus Mr. Morelli is something special. And the door knobs everywhere will knock you out.
I think the thing that was so interesting about touring the Morelli House is the fact that so many of the little details that make a house special were left intact. One could really feel the warmth the Morellis and architect Taylor created. The house was modern, yes, but comfortable with a logical flow. The materials are rich and unique, but not too precious. After Antonio died, Helen sold the property to a man that promised he wouldn’t change anything. And he didn’t. He couldn’t control the powers that would eventually demolish Desert Inn Estates, but luckily the Junior League had the vision to rescue the property, maintain it and open it to the public regularly, telling the story of the Morelli’s and their beloved home.
That’s nice. Sooo, should I go? Yes. The tour lasts about an hour, the docents are extremely well-versed in all aspects of the house and it’s super cheap. (see below). Tours are held second Saturdays, September through November and January through May and start at 10:30 AM, 11:30 AM, and 1:00 PM. Just show up, no reservations needed. Probably not great for young kids.
I’m smitten. Tell me more. Furniture designer Valdimir Kagan designed and donated the furniture currently in the living room. The furnishings the Morellis favored were Italianate — here’s looking at you New Jersey — but the Junior League determined the furnishings should echo the mid-century nature of the house.
Location 861 Bridger St., Las Vegas, NV 89101
Cost $5. I know! Only $5!