LAS VEGAS — There aren’t many Alzheimer’s treatment centers that host rock concerts. And trade shows. And weddings, bar mitzvahs, and celebrity birthday bashes.
But when the medical staff here at the Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health calls it quits each evening, the building does a quick costume change to usher in a glamorous nightlife.
The product of a liquor salesman’s bold vision and Frank Gehry’s brash architectural style, the outpatient medical center treats some 25,000 patients with an array of neurological disorders each year.
It also hosts dozens of very Vegas events in a circular space with stark-white walls and 199 trapezoidal windows — no two exactly alike. Dom Perignon launched a new vintage here with a glitzy party. The international gastronomic society Chaine de Rotisseurs held an induction ceremony, over seared scallops and Muscovy duck breasts.
On a more prosaic level, a recent political town hall featured Democratic presidential hopefuls Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton.
The jaw-dropping space is part of the appeal. So is the fact that Lou Ruvo Center uses its event fees to fund brain research and patient care.
“When you walk in, you are absolutely awestruck. It’s a pretty magical place,” said Alyson McCarthy, the executive director of the local Ronald McDonald House, who moved the charity’s annual event to the Ruvo Center four years ago. “And knowing that every dime you spend goes to brain research makes it even better,” she said.
Millionaire liquor wholesaler Larry Ruvo founded the center to honor his late father, Lou, a well-known businessman who ran the Venetian restaurant, a Rat Pack hangout. Lou Ruvo died of Alzheimer’s in 1994.
In the years before his father’s death, Larry Ruvo endured a revolving door of unsettling visits to neurologist waiting rooms, including one where he and his father sat alongside a man who could not keep his head up, another wearing diapers, and a third in a wheelchair.
“Is this where I’m headed?” Ruvo recalls his father asking.
“No, Dad,” he said. “These people are here for other things.”
That lie would haunt him.
“You knew what was coming, that my father was going to die,” Ruvo said. “But there was no dignity. So I told myself that very day that I wanted to build a facility where patients never saw other patients, where people’s dignity was preserved.”
At the Lou Ruvo Center, which is run by the Cleveland Clinic, communal waiting rooms have been replaced by “tranquility rooms” where patients check in before being escorted to an exam suite. Patients enter and leave through different doors so they do not run into others in a more advanced state of their disease. Volunteers hand patients orange carnations after their appointments.
There are other touches, too, meant to put patients at ease: Because direct light can affect those with neurological disorders, the soft lighting points upward. Hallways unfold in reassuring curves. There’s different colored furniture in the lobby of each floor to help orient patients with memory problems.
The four-story complex treats patients with Alzheimer’s and dementia as well as Parkinson’s, Huntington’s, multiple sclerosis, and other neurological diseases. It also participates in dozens of clinical trials.
While the design of patient floors is meant to be reassuring, the building itself looks like it’s perpetually collapsing into chaos. A swirling stainless steel shape, it’s been described as a sheet of aluminum foil dropped over a set of building blocks, an apartment building melting in the summer heat, even the form of a damaged mind.
Sales manager David Watts says the center has raised millions for brain research, though he declined to give a specific figure.
“The stunning architecture gets to people,” he said. “It opens their minds.” Some couples who book weddings there even ask guests to donate to the center rather than bring gifts, he said.
Far from being intimidated by the design, patients embrace it, said clinic director Dr. Jeffrey Cummings, who spent two decades running the neurological program at the University of California, Los Angeles, before coming to Las Vegas.
Cummings likes to tell the story of the time Gehry was asked if he was thinking about the brain when he designed the center.
“He said, ‘Not consciously,’” Cummings said. “And I think that’s a very interesting answer.”