“Oh my God, I’m in hell,” I cried out when the car that had rolled for hours through the luscious darkness of the Mojave night came to a jolting stop at a traffic light on Las Vegas Boulevard, right by the giant oscillating fuchsia flowers of the Tropicana. Back then, in the late 1980s, the Strip was the lasciviously long neon tongue a modest-sized city unfurled into the desert. Behind the casinos lining Las Vegas Boulevard was the desert itself — pale, flat, stony ground with creosote bushes here and there, a vast expanse of darkness, silence, and spaciousness pressing in on the riotousness from all directions.

Las Vegas was so bright you couldn’t see stars anywhere near the city, and you could see the glow on the horizon from dozens of miles away. (They say astronauts could see it from space.) But the old Las Vegas celebrated deserts and the West: its early casinos were the Apache (1932), the El Cortez (1941), the Pioneer and the Last Frontier (1942), the El Rancho (1947), the Desert Inn (1950), the Sahara (1952), the Stardust and the Dunes (1955). Most of them were technically in Paradise, the unincorporated area outside the Las Vegas city limits.

They were vulgar, they were garish, and they were also a confident new American architecture, something unprecedented, designed to be seen from cars on the Strip, named to celebrate the mythic desert and the romanticized West (and the Arabic east of casbahs and oases), though their architecture and lavish applications of neon were futuristic in a Jetsons kind of way. Maybe that past begat that future; maybe covered wagons led to outer space — the final frontier, as Star Trek told us, with similar colonial possibilities. The iconography of the casinos was about the here and now, drawing on the past but looking forward to what still felt like the American century with decades to go.

The Europeanate past was used up in that equation, dust to be shaken off en route to an optimistic version of the future.

Sometime in the 1980s that confidence in the country and in the future fell apart and Americans began to genuflect to Europe again — to a hackneyed, imagined past that conveyed tradition, privilege, and classiness of the kind that has a lot of upper-class aspiration to it. You can see it in the metamorphosis of the casinos. Cowboys and Arabian Nights in the desert were over; the anywhere-but-here era had arrived in a torrent of faux-Provence and pseudo-Tuscany.

In 1989, the Mirage opened, said to be the first casino built by Wall Street — with junk-bond money — though its décor was about being in Polynesia, not Manhattan. To draw in onlookers, a volcano erupted in front of the casino at regular intervals with jets of water, red lights, and a roar. Magnate Steve Wynn built Treasure Island next door in 1993, with a small ocean out front in which a nautical brawl took place over and over, a casino inspired by a picaresque novel written by a tubercular Scotsman (as were Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean ride and blockbuster films). By 1998, the Bellagio — named after the peninsular resort town on Lake Como, Italy — had opened. It featured a small gallery of multimillion-dollar art trophies — a Van Gogh! a Monet! — and was fronted by an eight-acre lake whose fountains spurted water on the half-hour during afternoons and every quarter hour in the evenings.