The Sahara Hotel and Casino, backdrop for the 1960s heist movie "Ocean's Eleven," is making a comeback after shutting its doors in 2011. The iconic Las Vegas resort, originally built by Del E. Webb, is undergoing a $415-million makeover that will restore its former swagger.

Renovation, however, is tricky due to decades of patchwork improvements and piecemeal additions done by various owners resulting in spotty construction records.

Project contractor PENTA Building Group of Las Vegas began refurbishing the 4-million-sq-ft complex at 2535 South Las Vegas Blvd. in February. The construction contract is valued at $187 million.

The 240-room Martin Stern Jr.-designed Sahara was "The Jewel of the Desert" when it opened in 1952. When the three-tower, 1,620-room Strip resort reopens this fall, it will be rebranded as SLS Las Vegas.

Renovating a classic

The venerable property, last renovated in 2003, had slipped into disrepair when Los Angeles-based SBE Entertainment and San Francisco-based Stockbridge Capital Group bought it in 2007 for $331.8 million from Gordon Gaming Corp. The resort eventually closed because it was no longer "economically viable," says Sam Nazarian, SBE chairman, who believes its makeover represents "the future of Las Vegas."

A significant hurdle has been to rectify years of additions and renovations. "The hotel casino was built 60 years ago in different phases, with new work taking place each decade," says PENTA project manager Steve Lobel. "It was a process of discovery."

Those discoveries included 35,000 sq ft of vintage woodframed construction as well as asbestos and walled-off forgotten spaces, including a private bar for the Rat Pack, an old elevator pit and a fuel tank that had to be remediated. The Las Vegas office of LVI Services performed $11 million in demolition and remediation work, with PENTA self-performing additional demo work. The hotel casino, on 17.5 acres, consists of seven interconnected buildings and two parking structures, east and west, with 3,865 combined spaces.

PENTA divided the project work force into two teams: one for the site's three towers and the other for the podium. There are 21 zones covered with a total of eight superintendents and eight engineers. The job will require 1,200 craftworkers, 100 scissor lifts and 80 subcontractor-suppliers during the peak of construction activity.

"A lot of the systems were either broken or stolen when the property was closed," says PENTA project manager Tom Richardson. "But we're trying to save and reuse as much as possible." Most of Sahara's plumbing system, for example, was missing from the site prior to renovation.

Luxury Amenities

SLS is a rarity among Strip megaresorts, which traditionally are razed and replaced once they become dated. Instead, SBE is ditching the Sahara's dated Moroccan theme for contemporary upscale elegance similar to nightclubs and restaurants that Nazarian owns in Los Angeles.