Jenna and Michael Morton take a progressive approach to architecture and social responsibility in Las Vegas by Mayer Rus / photographs by Jack Coble
If Jenna and Michael Morton had any misgivings about moving from Chicago to Las Vegas, those doubts evaporated the moment they stepped off the airplane. When the couple decamped on a frosty February morning in 2003, the temperature in the Windy City had plummeted to nine degrees. Upon arrival in Vegas, they were greeted by sunny skies and a mercury reading of 75. They knew they were home.
The Mortons have since sunk deep roots in the Las Vegas community, for their business, the N9NE Group (a collection of upscale restaurants and nightclubs) and their family, which now includes three kids—Eli, Pierre and Petra. They could easily be the poster children for the new guard of Las Vegas society. With his shaved head and G-Star jeans, Michael looks every bit the CEO of a newfangled 21st-century business enterprise—think skate punk meets nightlife guru meets guitar hero. Jenna makes the perfect foil, with the dreamy face and statuesque figure of a Valkyrie and the spirit of a die-hard suffragette. It’s no surprise she worked as a model for 10 years.
But don’t let the hip fashion and joie de vivre fool you—there’s substance behind the Mortons’ style. Michael is the son of legendary Chicago restaurateur Arnie Morton, founder of Morton’s steakhouses and a major player in the once sprawling network of Playboy Clubs. He opened his first Vegas venue—a sibling of his popular Chicago nightclub Drink—in 1995, and in 2002, his Nevada operations exploded when he joined forces with George Maloof, owner of the Palms Casino Resort. Jenna, in her role as director of community and government relations, spearheads the N9NE Group’s progressive agenda of activism and philanthropy within the company and in the broader community. It’s a serious job for a seriously committed woman.
Her path to professional and familial bliss in Vegas followed a circuitous route. Born and raised in Michigan, Jenna traveled frequently to Jordan to aid in archaeological digs with her father, a professor of archaeology and ancient history, and her mother, an expert on Middle Eastern textiles. “I’ll never forget working with my parents in Palestinian refugee camps,” she says. “They taught me the supreme value of service to others.”
That lesson apparently stuck. After traveling the world on a modeling-financed whirlwind for a decade, Jenna returned to earn a degree in political science from Northwestern University. When the N9NE Group’s burgeoning Las Vegas business precipitated a move, Jenna simply shifted her passion westward. “All of my politically aware life had been spent in Chicago. In my mind, everyone was a Democrat,” she says. “In Las Vegas, it’s a 50-50 split. People have to work together and compromise to get things done. The political dynamic is totally different, but the sense of purpose and the shared commitment to building a better city are incredibly strong.”
The transition to Vegas politics had a few early hiccups. “I was a little naive,” she recalls. “Not long after I arrived, I was working on a fundraiser for General Wesley Clark, who was
running for president. I picked up the telephone and invited Elaine Wynn, who explained to me in a very patient and gracious way that she and Steve host the Bush Srs. when they are
in town and therefore they would not be coming to my event. In retrospect, just calling her was totally presumptuous.”
Despite their inauspicious introduction, Jenna and Elaine have become allies in a number of local causes. Surprisingly, the two joined forces on the steering committee for Barack Obama’s Nevada campaign. They are also dedicated to After-School All-Stars, a program that steers at-risk youths away from drugs and gangs. Jenna is the group’s fundraising chair. “They call me the Money Honey,” she says with a laugh. “Don’t print that!”
One gets the sense that if Jenna could squeeze another 48 hours into a 24-hour day, she’d have no trouble filling the time with worthy causes. The environment is at the top of her list. She currently manages all the green initiatives for the N9NE Group and donates her time to organizations like Conservation International, to which she was introduced by her friend Jane Gale, another prominent Vegas activist. “Once you hear her talk about CI, you can’t help but join the cult,” says Jenna. “I’m also following in her footsteps at the Springs Preserve Foundation. Janie spawned the idea of the Springs as a world-class facility focusing on sustainability education and recreation.”
From their strikingly modern home on the outskirts of town, the Mortons have a front-row seat to the majestic Nevada landscape. The Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area spreads out to spectacular effect just beyond their backyard fence. “We bought this land specifically because of the views. The property wasn’t even on the market when we came across it, but we knew immediately we had to have it,” Michael says.
“This is one of the most beautiful places on Earth,” Jenna concurs. “The topography and climate are almost identical to Jordan, which makes it all the more special to me.”
Much like Jenna and Michael themselves, the house they built defies caricatures of Las Vegas living. There’s no gilding in sight, no elaborate moldings, no plastic Trevi Fountain. Instead, it dares to be restrained in both its crisp, quiet architecture and its child-friendly interiors.
After reaching out to design firms in Los Angeles, Scottsdale and Las Vegas, the couple found a sympathetic collaborator in local architect Richard Luke. “Our lives are incredibly cluttered and busy, so we wanted our home to be a clean, unfussy environment that doesn’t demand a lot of mental energy,” Jenna says. “Richard took our ideas and concept sketches and interpreted them in an incredibly strong way.” In Michael’s words, “The design is all about simplicity and restraint—Japanese by way of the desert.” Daring, indeed.
Following the simplicity edict, the primary building material for the structure is a pale, sand-colored travertine. The house is laid out in an arc that embraces views of the mountain ranges in Red Rock Canyon. A seamless flow from indoors to out allows for easy entertaining—personal, professional or political. Last October, the Mortons hosted Al Gore for an eleventh-hour fundraiser for the Obama campaign. The setting functions just as well for impromptu scooter rallies and bike races among the children and their friends.
“This house is our refuge—it’s a place for our family to feel grounded and close to nature,” Jenna says. “I never get tired of waking up early in the morning to watch the moon set over the mountains. It’s magic.” And after all, isn’t magic what Vegas is about?