Harrah’s Cherokee Valley River Casino & Hotel

Location:Murphy, N.C.

Owner: Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians

Operator:Caesars Entertainment Corporation

Architect:Cuningham Group Architecture

Opening Date:2015

Cuningham Group designed a new $110 million Harrah’s Cherokee Valley River Casino & Hotel in North Carolina for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and Caesars Entertainment. Located on tribal land in the picturesque Great Smoky Mountains, the casino is approximately two hours away from Knoxville and Chattanooga, Tenn., and downtown Atlanta, Ga.

This project marks the second time the iconic mountain range provided designers with their inspiration according to Sam Olbekson, associate AIA, associate principal, director of Native American design and planning for Cuningham Group. The company previously worked with the tribe and Caesars on the multi-phase, $650 million expansion and renovation of Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort, located 60 miles from the new casino site. Where the larger facility is a full destination resort, the new smaller facility is a gaming-centric, day-trip destination.

“Similar to its sister facility, the Harrah’s Cherokee Valley River Casino & Hotel also incorporates elements of the natural environment as metaphors to site the building appropriately and dramatically within the terrain and three-tiered site, as well as inform the shape of the exterior experience,” Olbekson said. “Majestic tree trunks rising from rock outcroppings and the gentle rhythmic layers of the mountains are examples of elements that are reflected in the design.”

Inside the casino, a major organizing component is the Grand Hall—a lofty entrance space featuring ample glass and open to the surrounding views. The hall is the center that connects all major components of the resort including the main casino floor, the full-service hotel and the food market with five fast-food outlets.



Using an approach they call “Every Building Tells A Story,” which emphasizes one-of-a-kind solutions, Cuningham Group works with clients to understand their vision and the stories they want to tell. Designers then extract metaphors from that information and from the character of each property and site to find inspiration for all aspects of a project from basic forms and shapes to materials and colors. The approach benefits clients by providing distinct environments and experiences that help differentiate them from their competition. 

“At Harrah’s Cherokee Valley River, the desire was for a strong connection between indoors and outdoors and a sense that this building belongs where it is sited—it’s not just a box plunked down on the landscape,” Olbekson said. “The design also captures a sense of place without falling back on a typical Appalachian rustic architectural style of exposed wooden beams and stacked stone.”

The building emerges out of the forest through bold vertical lines reflecting the texture of the forest mid-story. Its angled roof planes speak to the rolling hill sides and undulating terrain of the Smoky Mountains. Dappled and multi-hued patterns on the façade are inspired by the forest canopy and the light and shadows that filter through to speckle and visually transform the forest underneath. Tall, vertical, carefully composed windows allow views into and out of the Great Hall and connect the activity inside with the landscape outdoors.

A gradation of colors evokes the hues of the setting sun on one side of the interior and the hues of the dusk sky on the opposite side. The floor plan is laid out to reflect the layered spatial structure of the forest edge and interior, while utilizing interior design elements and bold colors to honor the four directions, the sunrise and sunset, and to promote light and shadow through forms that evoke the visual qualities of dappled light and branch structures.

Harrah’s Cherokee Valley River Casino & Hotel also has another design feature that sets it apart from the average casino according to Olbekson. “Windows!” he exclaimed.“Natural lighting is abundant on the casino floor. While most casinos try to block views to the outside, the design of this casino embraces its picturesque setting in the Great Smoky Mountains.”



Like any ground-up development project, there were some design hurdles that needed to be overcome to get the facility built. For example, a significant amount of earth was moved to site this project on 92 acres of land high on a hill, with 360-degree views of the surrounding forest.

“That was the biggest challenge,” Olbekson said. “In addition, an innovative structural system was used for the hotel—a proprietary structural metal stud bearing wall with precast concrete floors. For the casino building, a standard pre-engineered metal building was combined with a portion customized to create higher volumes and longer spans.”

Cuningham Group also had to fine-tune the property’s design—the new Harrah’s Cherokee Valley River Casino & Hotel is designed to reflect the modern sophistication of the tribe and its goal was to create a contemporary, state of the art casino development. The design takes its visual cues and conceptual inspiration from the characteristics of the natural setting where it is located, reflecting the cultural tradition of honoring the earth and environment and living in harmony with the landscape.

“The building does not rely on stereotypical and nostalgic cultural references, but speaks to a subtle interpretation of culture and the bolder and more forward-thinking contemporary direction that the Eastern Band of Cherokee is taking with its community and economic development,” Olbekson said.


Minneapolis, Minn.-based Cuningham Group Architecture is a leader in gaming and entertainment design with an extensive portfolio of innovative casino projects. For more information on the company, visit



Seneca Buffalo Creek Casino

Location: Buffalo, N.Y.

Owner and operator: Seneca Nation, New York

Architect: Hnedak Bobo Group (HBG)

Opening Date: 2013 (expansion to open spring 2017)

The Seneca Buffalo Creek Casino adds unmistakable energy and excitement to the Inner Harbor area of downtown Buffalo, N.Y., an area of the city that is now seeing resurgence in development, partially due to the Seneca Nation’s long-time commitment to area growth.

With an architectural and interior design by HBG (Hnedak Bobo Group), the urban casino is uniquely positioned in location, size and amenities to meet the needs of the regional gaming and entertainment market as it advances the Seneca Nation’s culture and community vision.

That vision involves creating a modern economic development that stimulates and creates synergy as part of the restaurant, retail and entertainment renaissance happening in the Buffalo Inner Harbor District.

The Seneca Nation has strong historic and cultural ties to the Inner Harbor area—which falls within their ancestral nine-acre sovereign Buffalo Creek Territory; and the property’s owners strongly believe that the success and growth of the Buffalo Creek gaming operation and the success and growth of the surrounding district go hand-in-hand. This vision of community integration directly influenced the casino design—of both the phase I casino, and now the phase II expansion scheduled to open spring 2017.

Marrying community and culture, the property’s carefully-planned design by HBG takes cues from its location just two blocks away from the First Niagara Center, home of the NHL’s Buffalo Sabres hockey team, the strong regional water influences of adjacent Lake Erie and Buffalo River/Buffalo Creek, and meaningful cultural elements significant to the Seneca Nation. The subtle, physical interpretation of these elements results in a contemporary and vibrant experience true to the Inner Harbor’s context and planned development trajectory.


Upon the permanent casino’s opening in 2013, the property witnessed tremendous success, leading the Seneca Nation to announce an expansion in 2015, consisting of new restaurant and gaming amenities.

In January 2016, the Seneca Nation and Seneca Gaming Corporation broke ground on the $40 million expansion project, also designed by HBG. As reported by the nation, the economic impact is expected to be large, with approximately 800 people working at Seneca Buffalo Creek Casino, helping to entertain the more than three million annual visitors.

Currently under construction, the two-story addition to the existing casino adds approximately 28,500 square feet of space on each of two levels. The ground floor will add more than 300 additional slot machines and additional table games, including a high limit room and expanded non-smoking area, and a performance stage for live entertainment at Stixx Sports Bar. The second floor of the expansion will introduce a new ‘Western Door Steakhouse’ concept restaurant with indoor and outdoor seating.

“Design and economics go hand-in-hand,” said Paul Bell, AIA, project manager and principal at HBG. “It was importantt hat, as designers, we understood the market influences at play in the Inner Harbor district before we began formulating ideas.” For example, according to industry research, HBG knows that today’s consumer, no matter their age, from Millennials to Boomers, expects more for their money—more creativity and intelligence from their entertainment experiences, more relevant amenities, more authenticity, more distinction.

“These aspects influence how guests spend their entertainment dollars,” Bell added. “We need to elevate our design thinking for each project and get very targeted with amenity design and offerings.”

Buffalo’s Inner Harbor market was primed for new, targeted experiences. Three main design elements/venues at the Seneca Buffalo Creek Casino fulfilled a market gap. Spurred by community-driven interests and a focus on locality and authentic elements of native and regional design, designers created the Stixx Sports Bar and the Western Door Steakhouse restaurant, and infused the casino with subtle references to Seneca Nation heritage, culture and local context.


To get the heritage angle correction, HBG worked closely with Seneca Nation stakeholders, Seneca Gaming Corporation leadership and casino operations, and Seneca Construction Management Corporation. From early design and cultural exploration workshops through to construction, the Seneca Gaming Corporation leadership is highly involved in keeping the team focused on realizing the ultimate project vision. 

 Close collaboration between HBG’s design team and the Seneca Nation Cultural Committee was invaluable to ensure authenticity of native artwork and regional inspirations, including custom materials used throughout the design.

“Before design concepts were created, our team met with the Seneca Cultural Committee to learn about the nation’s customs, history and cultural identity,” said Nathan Peak, AIA, design discipline director and principal at HBG. “The nation wanted the property to reflect the local Buffalo area, while also infusing meaningful cultural elements into the design.”

One such cultural element worked into the property’s design was the Seneca Walk. “As a unique place making element, the Seneca Walk was created as a signature pedestrian entryway to the property,” Peak said. Stretching from the corner of Perry St. and Michigan Ave. to the casino’s front door, Seneca Walk is lined with eight custom-lit pylons, each representing one of the eight Seneca tribal clans—Turtle, Bear, Wolf, Beaver, Snipe, Heron, Deer and Hawk.

The Senecas are also known as the “People of Great Hill.” This historical and cultural element inspired designers to plant a White Pine, symbolic of the Tree of Peace, on the 10-foot hill overlooking Seneca Walk.  The glowing Tree of Peace landmark design element is unmistakable on the casino floor, a welcoming and energizing feature that also works to make wayfinding easy and uncomplicated for casino guests. The Tree of Peace becomes a focal point of the design, highlighted by an undulating wood-tone ceiling.

Rising almost 17 feet in height and spanning almost 14 feet at its widest point, HBG’s design of the Tree of Peace is highly abstracted; sculptural pine branches rise up around the tree to emphasize the rhythm and geometry of the individual pine needles. Illuminated to signify its importance, the Tree of Peace is said to have been “used by the Creator to represent peace, strength, the will to not fight against one another and protection when abiding by the great law of peace.”

The Seneca Nation is also widely recognized for their intricate jewelry and beadwork patterns. Metallic canopies found over many of the public spaces feature patterns derived or abstracted from traditional Wampum belt patterns unique to Seneca. The Hiawatha belt, which memorializes the Great Law of Peace, can be found over all entrances of the casino. Distinctive floral, ribbon and 3D splint-and-ash basket weave motifs layer on ceiling, wall and floor coverings, while Seneca artwork features rosette medallions and stainless steel panels. The high-limits gaming area is set apart by mosaic flooring made of Sicis art glass and marble mosaics that provide a wonderful iridescent visual effect–reminiscent of traditional Seneca Nation jewelry.

Drawing inspiration from Lake Erie and Buffalo Creek, designers applied a symbolic water design to the building’s facade with blue metal panels creating a visual wave-like movement spanning the casino entrance and wrapping around the building. The blue panels are continued into the two-story expansion elevation to emphasize the rectangular geometry and a second story balcony for outdoor Western Door Steakhouse restaurant dining. This water concept was carried into the gaming floor by a custom carpet pattern resembling radiating water droplets, and in fluid-patterned blue and multi-colored carpet detailing on the expanded gaming floor.

Internally, the two-story expansion addsa new central stair with a dramatic overhead ceiling and wall feature evocative of a long, flowing waterfall lit in deep shades of watery blue and gray. The new design element will add to the gaming excitement, and give the new expansion an interior prominence on par with its elevated exterior stature. A second main bar will be located on the new gaming floor underneath the new stair, accented by water-inspired hues and rain-like ceiling light features that frame the bar seating area.


As with any property built close to water, Seneca Buffalo Creek Casino has a bunch of unique developmental obstacles to overcome. A key challenge early on involved how to most effectively integrate the property on the site for visibility and accessibility from main Inner Harbor district traffic. This involved forecasting where future development might take place in the district so that the Seneca Buffalo Creek Casino remains an active contributor to the area’s economic development as sprawl naturally occurs in the district. 

Designers took the project’s site planning very seriously, since placement of the main entry and access to key community–based amenities would greatly affect the success of the overall development.  The first phase implementation created a unique place making element, the Seneca Walk, as a signature pedestrian entryway to the property that also sets the tone for future development.

Memphis, Tenn.-based Hnedak Bobo Group (HBG) is a national leader in the design of casino resorts. For more information on the company, visit



Sandia Resort and Casino

Location: Albuquerque, N.M.

Owner and operator: Pueblo of Sandia

Architect: YWS Design & Architecture

Opening Date: 1994 (latest expansion 2015)

The massive expansion of Sandia Resort and Casino completed in 2015 transformed this distinctively New Mexican resort into a major regional destination. The magnitude of the expansion is significant and includes a 217,000-square-foot expansion of the casino floor to create the Roadrunner gaming space; new food and beverage offerings; a 680,000-square-foot, 1,682 space parking garage; and a detached, full-service 27,000-square-foot day spa and golf pavilion which also serves as an event center.

The resort is located in the sacred Sandia Mountains and the design and expansion honors its natural surroundings by telling the story of the native Sandia Pueblo people. For example, the inspiration for the concept of the spa pavilion design was a Kiva, a room used by the Puebloans for religious ceremonies. Additionally, designers took full advantage of the surrounding natural beauty and showcased the Sandia Mountains as a stunning backdrop to the treatment rooms inside the spa and main ballroom of the pavilion.

The casino and Roadrunner expansion incorporate the Pueblo architecture and art motifs prevalent throughout the rest of the property with the use of wood, iron and local stone. The undulating ceiling also mimics the non-linear aspect of nature.

Instead of creating a “cookie cutter” parking garage, designers opted to create a structure that appears to be built from adobe clay and wood timbers. The garage has won multiple awards for its concrete design—Best Specialty Contracting Project 2015 from Engineering News Record and Excellence in Concrete 2015 from the America Concrete Institute, New Mexico Chapter.


The Sandia Resort and Casino expansion design was innovative in other ways as well.

To distinguish itself from regional competitors, YWS Designers created a detached multi-use building combining a world-class spa-salon (including Vichy showers and VIP treatment areas) with anintimate, state of the art convention/meeting room facility (including HD large screen projectors, latest in sound system and attached commercial kitchen). The Spa Pavilion can host a variety of events, from weddings to post golf tournament dinners and more.

The casino and Roadrunner expansion created space for an additional 300 gaming machines, a brand new casual deli restaurant and a physical connection to a brand new 1,682 space parking garage. The expansion also transformed a previously small and hidden area of the gaming floor into a bright and open transition space to the existing gaming floor, complete with high ceilings and state of the art smoke removal system.

The design team catered to Sandia Resort and Casino’s clientele by offering covered parking for Albuquerque’s hot summer days and convenient access to the casino floor from the award winning parking garage.

Of course, there were some design challenges to overcome in the Sandia Resort and Casino expansion, not the least of which was a highly controlled budget and schedule for project completion. It was important for the client to keep the casino running and for construction not to affect the property’s bottom line.

To achieve this goal, the design and construction teams worked together to complete the project on budget and time. They came up with design and construction solutions prior to the start of construction to avoid delay. Building information modeling (BIM) also played an important role and helped the design and construction teams find construction solutions to conflicts before any dirt was moved.

YWS is an international architecture and design firm focusing on leisure environments in hospitality, gaming, retail dining and entertainment. For more information on the company, visit