A Community Response to UNR’s Plans to Demolish the Historic Houses of the University’s Gateway District

NOTE: The following represents a collective effort among many individuals in the Reno community to establish a timeline for developments related to the historic houses of the UNR Gateway and to urge the university to give the community more time to save them.

Reno community members who have been closely involved with matters related to the University of Nevada, Reno Gateway are urging UNR President Marc Johnson to halt UNR’s imminent plans to demolish ten of the historic Queen Anne houses of the University Gateway district. It is our collective position that to raze these houses months or even years before building anything in their place would be a senseless act of destruction in violation of the public’s trust. A petition posted just last week by the Historic Reno Preservation Society already has more than 1,700 signatures from concerned citizens who also strongly oppose these plans.

All alternatives to demolition have not been exhausted and time has not run out. Contrary to the repeated assertions of UNR officials and spokespersons, those closely involved in preservation efforts strongly believe that the university has not provided the community with every opportunity to save as many of these houses as possible. Rather, UNR’s two efforts to relocate the houses were formulated and executed without any input from state or local historic preservation experts or organizations, and their failure in no way represents the exhaustion of all alternatives.

The claims by UNR that this demolition is required in order to raise funds and design the Gateway’s new buildings seem unsupported by previous university construction projects. Fundraising and architectural design for new construction can easily proceed, as it always does, without clearing a site, as the construction of the Engineering Building now underway on Evans Avenue clearly demonstrates. Indeed, fundraising and design for the College of Business building are clearly both well underway; Collaborative Design Studio has produced several generations of renderings for the new Business building, and the administration informed the UNR Faculty Senate as far back as November 2016 that a major private donor was interested in funding nearly all of its cost.

We urge university officials to be transparent with the community about how much time remains before potential groundbreaking for any new construction in the Gateway, and in the interim work openly with the community, this time with input from experts in historic preservation and state and local history, to formulate strategies to preserve these irreplaceable aspects of Reno’s disappearing 19th century heritage.

A Summary of UNR/Community Meetings Regarding the Gateway Houses

Those in the community who have been working to find solutions for these houses would like to help set the record straight when it comes to the university administration’s characterization of the past three years of discussions with that community regarding these houses and their fate. Since representatives of UNR have been meeting with the City of Reno’s Historical Resources Commission (HRC) and others about the houses, their removal has always appeared to have been the university’s primary objective. In contrast, the City’s Historical Resources Commission has encouraged a methodical and open-ended approach employing best preservation standards and practices to evaluate these historic resources and all options for preserving some of them in place before condoning their relocation.

Should relocation of these houses be deemed the only viable option to preserve them, the view of preservation organizations and specialists has always been that it should proceed with a view toward the long-term safety, integrity, and viable use of the structures, not as a simple act of removal to sites with sufficient square footage to fit them.

The HRC is the City of Reno’s professional advisory board for historic resources and the body that represents the public voice regarding historic preservation in Reno. This body was unfortunately not among the hundreds of people consulted in the creation of the University of Nevada’s Campus Master Plan 2015-2024.  Neither were the Nevada State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO), the Historic Reno Preservation Society (HRPS), or anyone with specific expertise in historic resources. Because the university has no set policies governing evaluation of the historic structures it acquires, UNR was apparently unaware of the historical and architectural significance of the houses its new growth strategy planned to displace. A 2016 investigative report by This is Reno confirmed that, indeed, historic resources had not been considered in the university’s master planning.

As a result, the larger community and the HRC only became aware of the university’s plans for the Gateway after the revised campus master plan had been completed. Growing concerns in the community for the fate of the historic houses located there only intensified in February of 2016, when UNR was seeking the approval of the City of Reno’s Regional Center Plan, which formalizes the desired density for the UNR Gateway to bring it in keeping with the Master Plan. Because the new Floor Area Ratio (FAR) specified for the Gateway seemed to preclude retaining any of these houses in place, the HRC approached Reno City Council and UNR with their concerns.

University representatives attended several HRC meetings that winter and explained the need to build in the Gateway District to accommodate the university’s growth. In a February 16th meeting on the UNR campus attended by UNR President Marc Johnson, Todd Lankenau of Collaborative Design Studio, HRC chair Alicia Barber, HRC commissioner Melinda Gustin, and a few others, UNR Executive Director for External Relations Heidi Gansert showed a Powerpoint featuring photographs of various Queen Anne houses throughout town, ostensibly to demonstrate that the houses in the Gateway were not unique in the city. At that point, it became clear to those in attendance that the UNR representatives were not familiar with how historic resources are professionally evaluated, and the HRC began a series of significant efforts to help out in this regard.

They began by formulating new language for the amended Regional Center Plan that acknowledged the historic resources located in the Gateway and indicated that “In relation to potential historic resources, redevelopment in the University Campus Gateway Precinct on parcels not abutting North Virginia Street should prioritize in the following order: 1) preservation; 2) adaptive reuse; and 3) development that evaluates compatibility and integration of potential historic resources. Relocation of historic resources should be encouraged only in lieu of demolition.”

There was strong community support for integrating some of these houses with proposed new campus construction. Mike Van Houten of Downtown Makeover argued that the houses were valuable aspects of Reno’s history that should be incorporated into the University’s plans, as the City’s Master plan supported.

Facing increasing public concern that UNR intended to demolish these houses, President Johnson came to the City Council meeting on March 9, 2016, and explained the need for more dense development in the Gateway. He also, notably, committed to preserving the houses, if not in place, then in appropriate locations. His statements voiced there included the following:

“The last meeting we had, we talked about some alternatives to just leaving the houses where they are, the alternatives of possibly moving some of the historic homes to appropriate locations.  Alicia Barber and Melinda Gustin are working on some additional alternatives. We are actively looking for additional alternatives as well, and we are committed to preserving these historic houses that are in this Gateway District, not necessarily in their current locations, but in locations that are appropriate to their history.”

“We’re committed to work with the HRC and start from scratch. We haven’t got the building built yet, or designed….we will continue that discussion and find some good alternatives before we finalize the design.”

 

This commitment to relocate the houses as a last resort was incredibly reassuring to the entire community because it indicated Johnson’s commitment to—but only as a last resort—relocating the houses to appropriate locations in coordination with the HRC, rather than demolishing them. But first, he publicly committed to starting from scratch with the university’s designs for new construction in the Gateway, taking the identified historic resources into account, and bringing some of those ideas back to City Council.

At this point the HRC’s next goal was to provide the university with as much information as possible regarding this historic cultural landscape linking the community to the university, in order to allow UNR and the HRC to best collaborate on ideas that might integrate some of these houses with campus expansion plans. At HRC urging, the City of Reno commissioned and funded a professional architectural survey of the houses and provided the results to Heidi Gansert. That survey concluded that six of the Gateway houses were individually eligible to the National Register of Historic Places and most of the rest are eligible as contributing structures. That’s just the National Register. One—the Mary Sherman House—is already listed on the city and state historic registers, and they are all eligible for those registers as well.

Additionally, with the help of the community, a digital tour of the Historic UNR Gateway was created for Reno Historical to confirm their dates of construction and to illuminate some of the stories and people that, along with their architecture, lend all of these houses such rich historical significance.

At President Johnson’s invitation, representatives of historic preservation interests including HRC chair Alicia Barber met with UNR officials and Todd Lankenau of Collaborative Design Studio on campus on March 29, 2016. Barrie Lynn brought a large interactive map that would allow the group to experiment with different configurations of historic houses along with new university structures with the square footage the university required for its new buildings.  Community members held a well-attended meeting later that same day where local residents were excited to use the board to consider various options.

President Johnson and Heidi Gansert then attended a special meeting of the HRC on April 7, 2016 where Johnson stated that the Business building’s designers, Collaborative Design Studio, would go back to the drawing board and evaluate whether some of the houses might be incorporated. Johnson stated the following:

“So are all options on the table, forever, until we find your solution? Well, maybe not. But we certainly do want to continue to have conversations in this order of—well, in the other order—of opportunities. Right now we’re only trying to place one building. The rendering of a closed Center Street, to actually have a good campus feel, could that include some of the historic homes? Certainly. Could it have buildings on both side of the street? Yes. Could some of those be historic homes? Possibly. I think we would have to work with our professional planners to try to work that out.”

That sounded incredibly encouraging, and the HRC—a group that by its very requirements includes professional historians, architects, engineers, and preservation specialists—looked forward to more hands-on collaboration with university-hired planners to discuss options for retaining some of the Center Street houses in place. Unfortunately, that did not occur. At the City Council meeting on April 27, 2016, when the Regional Center Plan was up for a vote, Councilman David Bobzien, the council’s designated liaison to the Historical Resources Commission, expressed disappointment that he had not received any of the promised materials from President Johnson.

In her public comments to City Council, HRC chair Alicia Barber urged City Council to adopt the HRC’s amended language but also expressed her disappointment in the lack of productive dialogue regarding how to integrate these houses with new construction in light of their demonstrated significance. However, given the assertion from UNR that they would continue to collaborate with the HRC to discuss all options, City Council passed the amended plan.

Less than three months later, on July 14, 2016, President Johnson and Heidi Gansert attended an HRC meeting and announced that the university’s planners had completed their analysis and had determined that all twelve of the historic houses must be removed. As a justification, it was stated that based on their analysis, the university could secure far fewer offices from converting the houses into offices than they could from a new multi-story building. President Johnson then asked a stunned HRC to help UNR find new locations for all of the houses. It seemed then that the university’s analysis of these historic resources had been limited to quantifying their useful square footage, not a comprehensive evaluation of their intrinsic historical and cultural value.

Frustrated by the university’s seemingly superficial and end-driven analysis, the HRC composed and circulated a letter to all involved parties in September 2016 in which they expressed their cumulative frustration that University of Nevada officials were not taking seriously their commitment to evaluate all alternatives to relocating all of these houses or taking their historical value into account.

At that point, the HRC did not believe that the university’s stated desire to move ahead with relocating all twelve houses was warranted. The community’s interest in discussing the possibility of leaving the Center Street houses, in particular, in place stemmed from several comments Johnson had made earlier:

  • First, on April 7th, he told the HRC that the university’s initial goal in the Gateway was to construct a “signature building” facing Virginia Street that would alert the community of the university’s presence. Obviously, Center Street does not face Virginia Street, so it seemed reasonable to further evaluate the possibility that the new College of Business building might both be sited closer to Virginia Street and at the same time integrate the row of historic houses on the west side of Center Street.
  • Second, the Regional Transportation Commission of Washoe County (RTC) revealed that their plan to install some sort of transit stop on Virginia Street between Eighth and Ninth Streets would require much less land than UNR appeared to be reserving for this purpose. Here is a comparison of those two assessments by the RTC (left) and UNR (right):

Source: rtcwashoe.com (left) and UNR President Marc Johnson, as presented to the HRC (right)

  • Third, President Johnson had publicly committed on March 9th to preserving the Gateway houses in place or elsewhere. He told Mayor Hillary Schieve, and she assured the public, that the houses would not be demolished. As a result, the community believed it was important, and fully warranted, to further explore all options to keep some of the houses in place, focusing on those of Center Street, before moving on to what was mutually agreed upon as the final option: relocation.

Again, the HRC and HRPS set out to methodically explore alternatives. HRPS commissioned an architectural rendering to depict how the historic houses on the west side of Center Street could be integrated with the square footage the UNR said it needed for its new Business building. After months of analysis, she was able to demonstrate that the desired massing for the new College of Business building would be compatible with retaining the historic houses on the west side of Center Street (with their non-historic additions removed) were the Business building to be moved a bit further west toward Virginia Street, onto property that it appeared the RTC would need to acquire for its new transit station, but would not be using in its entirety. The below image is only intended to demonstrate available massing, not design.

In the diagram, the historic houses on the west side of Center Street are indicated in red, the stated RTC spatial needs appear on the bottom, and all the remaining space is shaded blue.

This visualization depicts the space that could be available for prominent UNR construction, were the university to enter into a partnership with the RTC to coordinate development on the Virginia Street-facing parcel. Again, this is simply showing massing, not design or setbacks.

 

Johnson and Gansert agreed to meet with representatives of HRPS in July of 2017 where they viewed these 13 boards and a short visualization of this option. President Johnson seemed, by their accounts, to exhibit interest in the idea, but never followed up with them.

What the community did not know at the time was that the UNR administration was already working on plans to relocate the houses without the involvement of the HRC or any other preservation professionals or organization. Ron Zurek informed the Faculty Senate about this plan in November of 2016, although the community did not find out about it until much later.

From the recording of that November meeting, Ron Zurek:

“On the west side of Center St. there are six houses, including our Real Estate house. We have a commitment to the City Council, the historical community, and to others that we will re-locate these houses. We are going to make every attempt to keep them together as a group. We have located a site; thank goodness it belongs to the State of Nevada, so we will be able to negotiate a good deal. It is just south of the freeway, and we are hoping to present a plan that will be approved by everybody–that will allow us (one by one) to move these houses and again, keep them together and preserve the historical context, and yet be able to use that very important site south of the campus.”

The community only learned later of this plan, spearheaded by Heidi Gansert, apparently to secure funds from the State of Nevada (perhaps through Housing and Urban Development?) to move some of the houses to publicly-owned land (eventually a city park, although other sites may have been considered) in Reno to be used for housing by Washoe County. She did not involve the HRC or anyone in the preservation community in that plan.

After working on this plan for what must have been close to a year, President Johnson and Heidi Gansert attended a meeting of the HRC in September 2017 and presented it to the commissioners as a done deal. Slides in their presentation depicted five of the historic houses wedged into Eighth Street Park, a narrow park perched on an embankment on the south side of Interstate 80 between Record Street and Valley Road. In the following slide shown to the HRC by UNR, north is at the top of the slide.

Source: Marc Johnson presentation to Historical Resources Commission

The HRC tried to explain that this site was completely inappropriate to the long-term preservation of these five houses or their intended use. The houses would have no front or back yards, and would have backed up against the steep embankment stretching down to the rushing traffic of the interstate. The houses originally located there had been removed in the 1960s to make way for the construction of I-80, and the land had been allowed by NDOT to become a city park because it had been deemed unsuitable for any development, much less habitation.

Apparently City of Reno Assistant City Manager Bill Thomas was also involved in formulating this plan, because he showed the exact same presentation shown by President Johnson to the City of Reno Recreation and Parks Commission in October of 2017. Clearly officials at the state and county levels were also involved, but no one mentioned anything to the HRC or SHPO.

The Board of Regents was then asked to pre-approve the relocation of all of the Gateway houses, something that was also not mentioned to the HRC or SHPO. It was at that time that historian and former HRC chair Alicia Barber wrote a previous blog post stating that the fate of the Gateway houses deserved a transparent public discussion.

In any case, sometime over the next few months, that plan fell apart, because the UNR spokesperson said so in the announcement that UNR was opening a Request for Proposals (RFP) in April of 2018 to relocate the houses.

Like the university’s previous relocation effort, this RFP was uninformed by historic preservation best practices and did not demonstrate knowledge of what responsible relocation of these houses must entail. Its writers did not consult the HRC, the SHPO or any preservation specialist when formulating its language, requirements, or timeline. Its description of the houses contained barely any information about them, not even their dates of construction or any of the information that was provided to UNR including the architectural survey or information posted on Reno Historical.

The university’s RFP gave applicants just six weeks to “show ownership, or show written contractual site control, of the real estate proposed which the house(s) will be relocated to.” For anyone hoping to acquire multiple houses, this was practically impossible. Indeed, as it turned out, no applicant could demonstrate ownership of enough land in Reno in that short timeframe to relocate more than a single house. It is surprising that the university did not then conclude that perhaps its stated timeline was unrealistic.

The HRC and HRPS backed one group’s proposal to move the houses to Evans Park, in the UNR Gateway. Because that land is publicly owned, the group had to quickly schedule public meetings with the HRC, the Recreation and Parks Commission, and Reno City Council to discuss it.  In truth, the only reason they were even able to present as complete a proposal as they did was because they had begun work on it in February, a full two months before the surprise RFP was issued, in order to offer a responsible alternative to the university’s Eighth Street Park plan. Reno City Council expressed interest in the proposal and unanimously supported their application to UNR, contingent upon continued discussions over valid uses of the park.

City attorneys later issued their opinion that the Deed of Gift granting Evans Park to the City of Reno in the 1920s would prohibit its use as anything but a park, although the applicants, Truckee Meadows Heritage Trust, contended that their proposed use would still quality as a park. Reno City Manager Sabra Newby contacted the group to see if they would be interested in two other city-owned sites: one on an industrial site near Keystone Avenue adjacent to the railroad tracks, and another at the former CitiCenter site in the shadow of the National Bowling Stadium and a massive parking garage. Both might have contained the requisite square footage for multiple houses, but they were completely unsuitable for these historic Queen Annes, both in terms of their settings as well as the inability to conceive of any practical use or tenants for them there. Other options might have been considered, but the university’s timeline precluded any additional exploration.

In private discussions, UNR’s evaluation committee, whose members have never been identified, decided to award two of the houses to individuals, and selected the proposal submitted by Common Ground Urban Development on behalf of Burning Man plan to relocate the remaining houses to vacant land two miles north of the small town of Gerlach, 120 miles north of Reno.

Source: Common Ground’s proposal in response to UNR’s request for proposals, made available by Reno-Gazette Journal

The university then engaged with this group in negotiations for three months, and when Common Ground ultimately withdrew their application in October 2018, the university spokesperson stated that the next step would be demolition, an incomprehensible leap. It is not the community’s fault that Common Ground submitted an unworkable proposal or that the university’s rushed RFP had elicited no other options for saving the ten remaining houses.

Conclusion

The charming row of Queen Anne houses on Center Street comprise an incredibly significant cultural, historical, and architectural landscape, as they have nearly since the university’s establishment. Through their history of occupancy, they touch upon every aspect of Reno’s history, from education, business, and politics to journalism and the arts. The dates of their construction are contemporary with those of the university’s Lincoln and Manzanita Halls and their architecture and construction reflect a level of detail and craftsmanship that is increasingly rare in our rapidly developing city. In their longtime use as everything from residences to churches and offices, as well as their location adjacent to campus, they physically embody the true meaning of a “university town.”

The community would not be going to all this effort to responsibly evaluate the potential of retaining some of these houses in place, and crafting responsible relocation alternatives for them, were the houses not so significant. The local community did not voice widespread objections to the demolition of the historic houses on Evans Avenue, but the houses on Center Street are special.

The university may have fulfilled the requirements mandated by state law to document the houses of the Gateway before disposing of them, but these houses deserve more than the university’s “due diligence.” A state university should be leading the way in responsible stewardship of historic resources—not just those that were purpose-built for the university campus, but also for those the university acquires.

UNR officials have revealed multiple times to the UNR Faculty Senate that they have been speaking with a private donor or donors for years about funding a new College of Business building in the Gateway, and the university is understandably eager to announce this burgeoning partnership, but first wish to “resolve” the issue of these historic houses once and for all. We would respectfully state that this is not the way to go about it.

If the university does not wish for its new College of Business building and its donor(s) to be permanently associated with the destruction of irreplaceable historic houses, then the university should not demolish them long before the groundbreaking for any new buildings would begin. It is time for the university to get more people in the room—people representing both the university and the community—as well as specialists in historic preservation, to discuss the future of these houses.

Nobody knows when the RTC will be able to proceed with the northern component of their Virginia Street transit project, in the university area. If all the RTC plans to build in the Gateway is a bus pullout, then the majority of the half-block fronting Virginia Street between Eighth and Ninth Streets could ultimately be available for UNR’s new College of Business building. If the RTC plan never transpires, then the campus entrance that UNR wants so badly to enhance will still consist of two downtrodden motels. Why not wait until we know for sure what will be available on the Virginia Street-facing parcels and enter into a partnership with the RTC to plan the area together?

The row of houses on Center Street, perhaps with the single Riegg House on the east side moved to the south end of the west side, could be enormous assets if remaining in place. Responsibly restored, renovated, and filled with new life, they could house not just offices but retail, commercial, coffee shops or eateries, benefiting the campus community. Interpretive signage would reveal the incredible story of their survival and link past and present, for the future benefit and pride of the entire community.

However, if the university truly wishes all of the houses removed, they owe it to the broader community to provide an opportunity to give UNR its blank canvas without needlessly sacrificing these irreplaceable houses long before the site is needed. University leaders including President Johnson have stated repeatedly over the last 2+ years a commitment to relocating these houses rather than demolishing them, and the community believed them. If the university is currently open to proposals to move these houses, they should make that option public as soon as possible so that everyone is aware of what they are doing. But first, it is critical that UNR halt its demolition plans and be transparent about the anticipated timeline for new construction in the Gateway.  With so much at stake, let’s work together, as befitting a true university town, to find a solution that works for everyone.

 

Join me for these events in September 2018!

This September brings an abundance of literary and historical activities to the Biggest Little City, and I’m thrilled to be participating in so many of them with fellow readers, writers, and lovers of history! From the Nevada Humanities Literary Crawl to my curatorial talk for Reno’s Sesquicentennial at the University of Nevada, Reno to chatting about writing about Reno with one of its best contemporary authors, I hope you’ll join me. They’re all FREE!

Nevada Humanities Literary Crawl: Saturday, September 15th, 12-8 pm, various locations. FREE

First up is the Nevada Humanities Literary Crawl on Saturday, September 15th. This is such a fun annual event, combining readings and literary panels with food, drink, and general carousing. My panel this year is all about food writing (in my case, for the Food Network, edible Reno-Tahoe, and America: The Cookbook), and I’ll be sharing the stage at the Washoe Public House with the fabulous Sharon Honig-Bear of edible Reno-Tahoe and Michael Tragash of Yelp from 1:30-2:15 pm. More information and a full schedule can be found on the Nevada Humanities website. Plan to make a day of it!

Reno at the Crossroads: 150 Years at Reno’s Shifting Center: Sunday, September 16th, 2-4 pm, Mathewson-IGT Knowledge Center, UNR campus. FREE

On the afternoon of Sunday, September 16th, I’ll be giving a highly visual talk about Reno’s changing downtown at the Mathewson-IGT Knowledge Center. This is in conjunction with the exhibit I curated there on all five floors of the main library at the University of Nevada, Reno. You can read more on the exhibit here.

I’ll be focusing on Reno’s downtown, a perennial source of discussion and sometimes frustration, using all the photos and maps that I can fit in. Here’s the official description:

The talk will be from 2-3 pm, followed by refreshments and plenty of time to wander through the five floors of the exhibit. Parking is free on weekends, and for this Sunday only, the exhibit room in the Special Collections will be open, allowing you to see some of the show’s best components! RSVPs are encouraged but not required.

Writing Reno with Ben Rogers and Dr. Alicia Barber: Tuesday, September 25th, 6:30 pm at Sundance Books & Music, 121 California Avenue. FREE

I’m excited to finish off this September’s events with an evening with my friend, the writer Ben Rogers on Tuesday, September 25th. I’ll let Sundance Books explain what we’ll be up to:

“To celebrate the long-awaited reissue of The Flamer, the beloved debut novel by Ben Rogers, we are proud to present Writing Reno, a community book talk with Rogers and Reno historian Dr. Alicia Barber.

Dr. Barber and Rogers will discuss what makes Reno such an interesting setting for a novel, and what makes it so worthy of our interest and inquiry, from both an artistic and historical perspective. Community members will gain deeper insight into how setting impacts the novel, and why Dr. Barber and Rogers are drawn to exploring Reno through their writing.”

For more information on this event, head to the Sundance Books & Music website.

And as the song goes, see you in September!

The Historic Houses of the UNR Gateway Deserve a Public Process

November 18, 2017 – For nearly two years now, I’ve been very involved in trying to ensure the preservation of a grouping of some of Reno’s most historic houses. They’re located at the southern edge of the University of Nevada, Reno campus, on a strip of land between 9th Street and Interstate 80 that UNR has deemed “The Gateway.” The university has been acquiring property in this area for several years with the intention of constructing new campus buildings on these blocks.

Unfortunately this plan wasn’t known to anyone who recognized or appreciated the historical value of the houses found in the Gateway until the plan to replace them with new buildings had been codified in UNR’s new campus master plan, which was adopted in 2014. (City of Reno officials were involved in the creation of that master plan, so the fact that no one noticed that one of these houses is listed on the city’s own historic register–as well as the state historic register–is an oversight we still don’t understand.)

The “Gateway District” sits between the Ninth Street (where the UNR campus begins) on the north and Interstate 80 on the south. On the far left is Virginia Street, then Center Street, then Lake Street. Historic houses are found on Center and Lake Streets, with one on Eighth Street facing the I-80 off-ramp.

Since December of 2015, when we first learned of the university’s plans, members of the local preservation community, including the Historic Reno Preservation Society, the statewide organization Preserve Nevada, and the City of Reno’s Historical Resources Commission, which I chaired until this past summer, have tried to determine how projected new construction might coexist with the preservation of some of these historic houses in their original locations, as a valuable, tangible link to our city’s heritage. A Facebook page called Preserve the Historic UNR Gateway was also established to provide photographs, documents, and updates regarding the situation.

These houses aren’t physically marked in any way, so their history is not widely known. The row of six Queen Anne houses on the west side of Center Street (shown at the top) were all constructed prior to 1900, about 30 years after Reno’s founding in 1868, and about a decade after the University moved to Reno from Elko. They were at the time considered some of Reno’s most beautiful homes (the whole town had less than 5,000 residents!), and although modest by today’s standards, they have enormous historical significance for Reno, where it is getting increasingly difficult to identify any physical link whatsoever to our 19th century heritage.

The Atcheson House at 829 N. Center Street was constructed in 1895 by Lewis D. Folsom. The house’s completion was such a notable event that the newspaper raved in December of 1895, “in point of architectural beauty and modern convenience it is doubtful if there is another residence in town that can equal it.”

North Center Street from the railroad to Ninth Street was for decades known as University Avenue, and these houses served as a consistent gateway to the original entrance to campus for nearly 120 years. All twelve of the historically significant houses of the Gateway appear in a virtual tour on Reno Historical, where you can read about their many tenants through the years, from university faculty and students to architects, mayors, journalists, prominent business owners, and everyday citizens.  It is somewhat ironic that UNR officials should hope to demonstrate their commitment to better connect the campus to downtown Reno by displacing the very houses that have physically embodied that connection for more than a century, and that hold great potential for continued residence or adaptive reuse as university-related offices, eateries, or some other function.

Once alerted to the historic nature of these houses, UNR officials did agree to pursue relocating them rather than demolishing them. They are, of course, to be lauded for that, as demolishing these houses would constitute a tragic and irrecoverable loss. But keeping at least one row of these houses in place doesn’t seem out of the question. This past summer, the Historic Reno Preservation Society spent thousands of dollars commissioning architectural renderings to show how the six historic houses on the west side of Center Street might be integrated with the new College of Business building that UNR hopes to build there.

They presented this idea to President Marc Johnson, and were hoping to discuss it with him further when, in September, he suddenly announced to members of Reno’s Historical Resources Commission that the University had found a destination for five or six of the Center Street houses, and would be proceeding with a plan to move them there. This plan–to move them to a small strip of land on East 8th Street abutting the south side of Interstate 80–had apparently been in discussion between UNR, Washoe County, and an unidentified statewide source of funds for some time. I am not sure if it is still proceeding; there has been no detailed public explanation of this deal.

I provide this information as background for this past week’s revelation, which was the news that on November 30th, 2017, while meeting at UNLV, UNR President Marc Johnson will be asking the Board of Regents to pre-approve the future relocation of all twelve of the houses in the Gateway. There is no destination of recipient indicated in the accompanying report, which can be viewed in its entirety at that link.

On November 17th, I sent an email to the members of the Board of Regents, and I am including its full text below, as it is my strong belief that the Regents should not approve this request without also ensuring that UNR will follow a transparent and inclusive process in determining the future disposition of these houses, should they be absolutely determined to move them.

The Armstrong House, at 821 N. Center Street, was for many years the home of poet Joanne de Longchamps, who willed the house to UNR in 1983 in hopes it would be used as a guest house for visiting professors and dignitaries. It currently serves as the International Center.

Let me finish by saying this: It is absolutely to the University’s credit that they are not planning to demolish these houses. But simply agreeing to transfer their ownership to unspecified recipients and allow them to be moved to unspecified destinations will not ensure their preservation, and the process of determining where they might move needs to include members of the public as well as experts in historic preservation.

If the decision-making process is not thrown open to the public, we will have no idea what excellent suggestions might be offered that would ensure their future safety, the retention of their historical integrity, and their ability to be interpreted and appreciated by the entire community, whether ultimately landing in public or private hands. 

If anyone is interested in providing their own comments to the Regents on this issue before the November 30th meeting, their email addresses can be found online. There will also be the opportunity to comment during the meeting via a video link from Reno. That last link contains the address of the remote location in Reno, as well as the full agenda for that meeting of the Regents’ Business, Finance, and Facilities Committee.

Here is the text of my email to the Regents and their Chief of Staff, Dean Gould.

Dear Mr. Gould and Distinguished Regents,

I am writing in regard to an item that is scheduled to be discussed at the next Board of Regents meeting at UNLV on November 30th. It was a great surprise to read under Item 5 on the agenda of the Business, Finance, and Facilities Committee that UNR President Marc Johnson is requesting that the Regents pre-approve the future relocation of all of the historic Victorian houses of the area commonly referred to as the “Gateway,” the historic neighborhood at the southern edge of the UNR campus, between 9th Street and Interstate 80.

Although relocation of these houses is of course eminently preferable to their demolition, relocation alone would not ensure their preservation, and there is much more to this issue that should be discussed in order to ensure their future survival. I hope that this item can be postponed until these matters can be resolved in a transparent and inclusive fashion.

Specifically, this action should not be approved until the Regents can also consider, outline, and approve a public process that will govern how UNR makes decisions regarding the future locations and use of these historically significant houses. If not, approval on November 30th of this action would enable UNR to make any future decisions regarding these houses without public input. This would not only be damaging to the long-term relationship of UNR to the broader Reno community, but could also result in irreversible damage to the houses themselves.

Neither President Johnson nor any members of the UNR administration informed anyone in Reno’s preservation community that this item would be appearing on the next Board of Regents agenda. They should in particular have informed the City of Reno’s Historical Resources Commission (HRC), which is the body charged with overseeing the preservation of houses listed on the city’s Register of Historic Places. [I am a professional historian who personally chaired the HRC until June of this year and have been personally involved in this issue since first learning of UNR’s plans for the Gateway in December of 2015.]

The report accompanying this agenda item makes no reference to the intense community interest in the houses of this neighborhood, the fact that one of them–the Mary Sherman House at 847 N. Center Street–is listed on the City of Reno and State of Nevada historical registers, or that the twelve houses designated for relocation have all been deemed eligible for the National Register of Historic Places. The accompanying assessment by Johnson Perkins Griffin that most of these houses “have reached or are rapidly approaching the end of their economic life” is preposterous. The six houses on the west side of Center Street, in particular, all constructed in the 1890s (the Assessor’s dates are in many cases incorrect), are in excellent condition, as are many others in the neighborhood. Houses of this vintage and considerably older are in use throughout the United States as economically-viable residences, offices, and businesses.

Although UNR administrators have been consistent in stating their intention to build new construction on the site of these houses, they have not been consistently transparent about their private negotiations to find new locations for them. In fact, in early September, Heidi Gansert and President Marc Johnson informed members of Reno’s Historical Resources Commission that they had, with no involvement from the preservation community or interested members of the public, initiated a plan to have five or six of the houses moved to a small nearby park for use as transitional residences for Washoe County’s Crossroads Housing Program.

This decision deliberately and shockingly sidestepped any public process or input by anyone with expertise in historic preservation or these houses in particular. The HRC was asked to provide suggestions only after the fact for how to interpret the houses at their new site or otherwise attempt to mitigate the loss of historic integrity accompanying such a move. The HRC and public were not given any opportunity to influence the choice of that destination, which is incredibly unsuitable for both the preservation of these houses and for use by disadvantaged populations who do not deserve to be housed at a site immediately abutting the interstate. I am not sure if that plan is still moving forward, but it would be incredibly problematic for many reasons and deserves much closer scrutiny.

The responsible thing for UNR to do is to establish an open and transparent public discussion about where these houses should be located and who would be responsible for maintaining them. I am afraid that this will not happen should the Regents approve the resolution requested under Item 5 on the November 30th agenda of the Business, Finance, and Facilities Committee of the Nevada Board of Regents. Please consider delaying consideration of this issue until a formal public process can be determined and incorporated into any blanket pre-approval of relocating these irreplaceable houses, which are so important to Reno’s cultural heritage.

Yours sincerely,

Alicia Barber

The City’s Plans for a Reno Heritage Center in the Southern Pacific Railroad Depot

Just over five years ago, in the fall of 2011, the City of Reno began to lay the groundwork for renovating the historic Southern Pacific Railroad Depot on Commercial Row into a community Heritage Center.  I worked closely on the plan with historic preservation specialist Mella Harmon and then-City of Reno Strategic Development Administrator Maureen McKissick. Not only a strong campus-community collaboration, the plan fits squarely into the goals of the recently completed Downtown Action Plan and the current revision of the City of Reno Master Plan by generating more foot traffic and general visitation at a downtown site in need of physical enhancement, connectivity, and walkability and by promoting adaptive reuse of historic resources.

The Depot was used in advertisements like this 1940s Lew Hymers postcard to portray Reno’s unique combination of urban sophistication and western charm. Special Collections, University of Nevada, Reno Libraries

Although plans for the Heritage Center were well underway, they were placed on the back burner due to budget constraints and shifting City priorities. There’s been a lot of turnover in City leadership over the past few years, and I think everyone could use a quick recap of what’s been done so far and why, and what the next steps would be.

Why a Heritage Center?

The purpose of a Heritage Center is to offer residents, visitors, and students a central downtown location where they can gain a sense of why Reno is here and learn about its rich cultural and architectural heritage.  A Heritage Center can house interpretive exhibits, meeting and instructional space for historical, cultural, and educational organizations (i.e. the Historic Reno Preservation Society, the City’s Historical Resources Commission, Our Story Inc., Scenic Nevada, Nevada Humanities, Washoe County School District and UNR classes), tour groups, and special events of all kinds. It can also serve the purposes of a general visitor center, providing information about community resources, events, and attractions.

The historic Southern Pacific Railroad Depot as viewed from the south. The railroad tracks are submerged below ground level on the building’s north side. The Depot is located on Commercial Row between Center and Lake Streets. Image by Architectural Resources Group.

Why the Historic Railroad Depot?

The Depot is the ideal site to interpret Reno’s history to the public due to its exceptional historical and architectural significance. Completed in 1926, this is the fifth depot on this same site, all four previous depots having burned down. In 2005, the railroad tracks were lowered through downtown and an addition was constructed on the west side of the building to provide access to the Amtrak trains from below ground level.  That freed up the historic portion for other uses and the City of Reno gained title to the building in 2007.

The building is comprised of five connected areas running west to east: the historic baggage office, restroom facilities, waiting room, ticket office, and district freight & passenger office. The proposal would involve the installation of permanent interpretive displays in public areas, but could also accommodate other uses including state-of-the-art meeting and event space, more extensive exhibits, oral history program offices, a reading room, and retail or dining.  There are Section 106 protections  on both the interior and exterior of the historic section of the depot, which were filed pursuant to the ReTRAC project that lowered the railroad tracks.

The waiting room has remained largely untouched since 1926. It is one of Reno’s most pristine historic interior spaces, with great potential for generating revenue through event rentals. Image by Architectural Resources Group.

What has been accomplished so far?

The City has in the past (I’m not sure about now) identified this project as one of its federal priorities, laying the groundwork for potential federal funding.  In 2012, the City received an HPF grant from the Nevada State Historic Preservation Office to complete two important tasks. First, the City commissioned the building’s nomination to the National Register of Historic Places, a designation the depot received in November 2012. Secondly, the City commissioned an extensive Historic Structure Report from Architectural Resources Group. Completed in 2013, this 100+-page report outlined the building’s overall significance and development, described its current condition, provided recommendations for repairs and restoration, offered recommendations for further research, and detailed several different options for adaptive reuse (these are just a few):

Outreach to community organizations has already generated enthusiastic support for the idea from entities on the UNR campus and throughout Reno.

What’s Next?

A decision should be made regarding the desired use of all the building’s spaces. The estimated cost remains unknown, as the total cost will be driven by the final design and architectural plans for the rehabilitation. It is anticipated that, at a minimum, there will need to be a re-design and rehabilitation of the restrooms, repairs to the exterior of the building, and potentially a modern HVAC system. In 2012 the cost of that work was estimated at approximately $600,000.

Successfully listing the Southern Pacific Railroad Depot in the National Register of Historic Places made it eligible for a variety of grants from the National Historic Preservation Program under the National Park Service and other entities.  These include CCCHP grants, which are administered through the Nevada State Historic Preservation Office. Other possible funding sources include the Union Pacific Foundation (who have already been contacted by City staff and have encouraged an application from the City) and other potential funding, including from private foundations, should be evaluated as well. The Boise Depot in Boise, Idaho provides an excellent model, as a city-owned historic railroad depot of the same vintage and many shared characteristics.

The Southern Pacific Railroad Depot is one of Reno’s most significant landmarks, and retaining it as a public Heritage Center will not only enable the City to benefit from revenue-generating event rentals, but will make an emphatic statement that Reno values its history, and is committed to preserving and promoting it for the benefit of everyone.

What Can the Public Do?

Let your elected representatives know that you support the City’s existing plan to renovate the Depot into a Heritage Center rather than opening it up to private development, as they appear to be considering. The City’s Historical Resources Commission will be discussing the issue at its monthly meeting on Thursday, June 8th at 3pm at the McKinley Arts & Culture Center at 925 Riverside Drive. Let your voice be heard.

The new SP Depot was decorated with colorful landscaping, and ice cream was sold from the window under the red-and-white striped awning. Image courtesy of Special Collections, University of Nevada, Reno Libraries

Nevada’s Iconic Dishes

Late last year, I was invited to contribute a feature for FoodNetwork.com on iconic dishes of Nevada and where to find them. Defining Nevada’s iconic dishes has always been something of a challenge, and I’ve taken it on to varying degrees in the past as a columnist for edible Reno-Tahoe and in occasional impassioned, Bourbon-fueled late-night conversations with friends.

The Silver State doesn’t have an obvious cuisine like, say, Louisiana (who CAN’T rattle off ten iconic Louisiana dishes in thirty seconds?)  or Maine (lobster, crab cakes, blueberries…). The difficulty of identifying regional dishes is not unusual in the American West, whose population has long been comprised of a mix of diverse native and immigrant groups, none especially dominant since statehood. But that’s no consolation with the clock ticking away toward a deadline and a blank screen staring you in the face.

So what’s a food-loving cultural historian to do?

Taking the word “iconic” to heart, I thought about the dishes many associate with Nevada, for a number of reasons–foods connected to varying aspects of the state’s culture, from casinos to ranching to mining; foods associated with communities with a longstanding Nevada heritage, from Native American to Basque; and iconic dishes found at some of the state’s most beloved restaurants.

And so, after several months researching eateries, chatting with chefs and staff, savoring bites and sips, and securing photos of all those tasty tidbits, we have a list. It may not be definitive, but it hopefully speaks to the eclecticism that is the Nevada culinary landscape–and I hope will inspire others to embark upon their own foodie tours of Nevada. And if you happen to get down to Dirty Dick’s saloon in Belmont for their signature Bloody Mary, tell Diana I said hi.

 

 

Reno’s Blight Problem

The City of Reno has a blight problem.

No, the problem isn’t that Reno is suffering from a plague of urban blight. Despite the proliferation of vacant and deteriorating single-family houses and mid-century motels on the northern edge of the traditional casino core near Interstate 80, blight is not the cause or condition of the degraded appearance of this section of town, much of which is owned by a group of private investors.

Rather, the city’s blight problem is the fact that a handful of these structures are being defined as “blight” without a thorough and transparent public discussion of whether the term actually applies to them, who should be held responsible for their degraded condition, and whether money from the city’s limited blight reduction fund should be expended tomorrow (Wednesday, July 6th) to demolish two of them: the Golden West Lodge and the Heart o’ Town Motel on the 500 block of North Virginia Street.

If you haven’t been following the discussion, the City of Reno is poised to spend about $216,000 from its $1 million blight reduction fund to demolish these two late 1950s motels, which have stood vacant for many years across Virginia Street from Circus Circus. The City’s proposed plan is to foot the bill to demolish the buildings, requiring the property owners to repay the City upon the future sale of the properties. If the property owners don’t pay the City back, the City would impose a lien on the property and take ownership of them. This decision is scheduled to be made at noon tomorrow at a hastily scheduled special meeting of City Council.

Clearly something should be done with these long-neglected vacant motels. Anyone can see that they look terrible in their current state and don’t reflect well on our community, and it’s understandable that many downtown business owners, city officials, and residents want them gone. That’s not the problem; the problem is the mechanism by which the City is proposing to get rid of them and the lack of an open and transparent public process in hatching and executing that plan.

At its heart, the primary problem is defining these properties as examples of “blight” at all. The deteriorated condition of these two motels is not due to the systemic forces that commonly produce urban blight (abandonment, deindustrialization, and depopulation). It is the result of a strategic, economically-motivated decision deliberately pursued and entirely controlled by the property owners.

A “blighted” property, by standard definitions, is in extremely poor condition due to one or more of the above factors. Demolition of a blighted property may be warranted if it is in such poor condition that its continued existence poses a significant public hazard and/or an obstacle to investment. That’s basically the argument that was being made by the entities that supported the demolition of these motels at the City Council meeting on June 21st.  But neither of these two conditions applies here. First of all, the safety issue is a red herring; these properties are no less a public hazard than any other vacant downtown property—and perhaps less so, as they are encircled by fences. Cited as evidence of their imminent danger was the existence of needles on the floor and the stripping of copper wiring, both of which are no indication of structural instability and are easily resolved.

Secondly, a reputable local developer (HabeRae) with experience rehabilitating and transforming similar structures has now offered to purchase these motels (and their neighbors) in order to adaptively reuse them (that the offer was rejected as too low is not a reflection on their potential for rehabilitation, just of the owners’ self-imposed threshold for an acceptable profit  margin). And Northern Nevada Urban Development Co., the LLC that owns the structures, turned down those offers, ostensibly because they feel confident that they can receive a higher offer for the land fairly soon. Therefore, the condition of these motels, despite their degraded appearance, is clearly not an obstacle to investment in downtown. Rather, the land on which they stand IS the investment, purchased specifically for purposes of profit, with no intent by their purchasers to ever improve the structures on it.

No one is disputing that these motels don’t look good. But that does not make them irredeemably “blighted”; that makes them neglected by investors who have chosen to keep them in poor condition as they await more lucrative offers for the land on which they sit.

It isn’t entirely clear, since none of the conversations took place in public, but demolishing the motels seems to have been the brainchild of Operation Downtown, a group currently numbering 32 individuals originally assembled (with the best of intentions) by Mayor Schieve last year into a private working group to analyze and brainstorm solutions for downtown’s blight and homeless problems (I wish Operation Downtown were a public group; I’m not sure why, as advisory to the Mayor and city staff, it doesn’t have public meetings; it’s not even clear who’s on it). A Reno Gazette-Journal article in October of 2015 indicated that the Golden West Lodge might be demolished with the city’s blight funds, but didn’t indicate whose idea it was, and City staff at that point seemed to indicate that it wouldn’t come to that.

In another Reno Gazette-Journal article about the motels on June 13th of this year, Mayor Schieve praised Operation Downtown and the Reno City Council for their support in aggressively targeting blight. And yet, the first time that using city funds to demolish the motels appeared on a public meeting agenda was just three weeks ago, on the agenda for the June 15, 2016 meeting of the Reno City Council, with a staff recommendation to approve (the item was continued to June 21st due to the outbreak of a fire near Caughlin Ranch). There was great support for demolition of the motels at the June 21st meeting from representatives of the Chamber of Commerce, the Regional Alliance for Downtown (RAD), and Operation Downtown, who seemed surprised (not in a good way) that anyone should be questioning this plan, apparently months in the making. But you can’t help but arrive late to the table if you weren’t invited to the meal.

Let me be clear: I did not then, nor am I now arguing that these motels should be saved from demolition due to their architectural or historical significance. Rather, speaking only for myself, I argued on June 21st that demolishing these structures without a plan for their replacement seemed premature and, obviously, would permanently eliminate any opportunity to incorporate them into any future plans for the area—plans that to my knowledge have yet to transpire. I also challenged the notion that these motels were beyond hope of possible rehabilitation. Buildings in much worse condition than these have been made attractive and appealing through adaptive reuse and rehabilitation, in Reno and elsewhere.

That notion was supported by another of the voices raised in opposition at the June 21st City Council meeting—Kelly Rae, a reputable local developer who through her firm HabeRae has made a career of transforming structures many considered deteriorated and even irredeemably blighted (remember the old Firehouse with the Volkswagen spider on top, anyone?) into some of our area’s most innovative and appealing housing and mixed-use developments. Rae spontaneously offered during the meeting to purchase and redevelop these two motels in order to demonstrate their potential for adaptive reuse, and after a robust discussion, City Council postponed their decision on the motels until July 20th in order to allow her offer to be considered. Last week, the property owners rejected both of HabeRae’s two offers—first, to purchase these two motels; and second, to purchase the buildings in addition to several neighboring properties owned by the same LLC.

The owners’ rejection of those offers seems to have prompted the “emergency” special meeting of the City Council tomorrow, for which the motel issue is the only item on the agenda. After the June 21st meeting, I, in good faith, placed the motel issue on the agenda of the city’s Historical Resources Commission (which I chair), which next meets on July 14th. Due to this hastily scheduled special City Council meeting, we now won’t get a chance to submit formal comments as a body to the City Council, which our Commission is charged by city ordinance to advise regarding Reno’s historic resources (by the way, the term “historic” is defined by Nevada state statute as any structure at least 50 years old; this is different than “historically significant,” an important distinction).

Even the emailed newsletter of the Regional Alliance for Downtown (RAD), issued this morning (July 5th) indicated that City Council would not meet again regarding the motels until July 20th. Apparently few people even know this special meeting is happening.

If the City continues with the plan to demolish these motels despite the fact that a reputed developer has determined them perfectly suitable for rehabilitation (a position many more might take, if given the opportunity), then the City isn’t just trying to eliminate blight through this action; it’s making a determination about what kind of development it supports in this area. And if that’s what’s really happening here, then the City’s role in this case has clearly moved beyond blight reduction into the realm of city planning, without consulting the Planning Commission, the Historical Resources Commission, or the general public, as two other efforts currently underway (Reimagine Reno, and the “Downtown Action Plan” that the City hired Progressive Urban Management Associates to produce) are doing.

I understand that some downtown business owners, city officials, and residents don’t want these motels to be adaptively reused at all—that they don’t want to see them turned into affordable housing or artist studios or mixed-use development or boutique motels. They want something completely different to stand there—something that more clearly supports the widespread desire for greater density, walkability, and ground-level, pedestrian scale development in the downtown core. I get it. I’d be in favor of something like that, too, should a plan arise to construct something specific that would warrant the demolition of these motels. But a public body like the City doesn’t get to label a structure irredeemably “blighted” and use the City’s blight reduction fund to demolish it simply because it is run-down and because a vocal and powerful group of private citizens would prefer to see something else in its place—something that isn’t even being proposed (at least not publicly). That’s not how blight reduction, or how government, is supposed to work.

The existence of run-down buildings on a piece of land is not an impediment to development. Experienced developers have no trouble envisioning a proposed new structure on property already populated with buildings. One need only look two blocks east of these motels to the future site of the Standard at Reno, where a developer recently purchased an entire city block filled with dilapidated single-family homes with the intent to demolish them all and construct a single student housing structure in their place.

Demolishing these two motels using funds designated for blight reduction via a process that was not transparent and inclusive would set a troubling precedent. If these motels, then why not the old Masonic Lodge, or the Freight House, or the Reno Brewing Company Bottling Plant? You might say, “Oh, that would never happen. Those are too historic.” But if these motels are demolished using the City’s blight funds, without a greater opportunity for public discussion or consultation with the City’s Historical Resources Commission, the precedent has been set. Without a public process that involves abundant opportunity for public comment and consultation with the city’s own advisory boards, the same thing that is happening to these motels easily could happen to vacant, long-neglected, privately-owned buildings that carry greater architectural and historical significance for our city. What’s to stop it?

Involving the public isn’t an onerous process. It’s easy to charge people with opposing views as obstructionist to your preferred plan, but it’s an unfair charge to lob at people who had no opportunity to be involved in concocting that plan in the first place. If you don’t want to see members of the public showing up at the eleventh hour to question some of your assumptions and decisions, there’s an easy solution: invite them to the table when those decisions are first being made.

Reno’s limited blight funds should be used in situations where private investment cannot proceed without the City’s help—for instance, when a degraded property’s owner can’t be located, or when a property owner has struggled in good faith to keep a property well maintained but simply could not manage to do so, or if a structure is literally falling down or poses a significant and immediate threat to public safety.

Yes, the fantastic Mural Marathon at Circus Circus, directly across from these motels, is next week. Yes, we are just embarking upon a summer chock-full of special events and it would be nice for Virginia Street to look prettier for our visitors and residents. But that doesn’t justify calling these owner-neglected properties irredeemably “blighted” and sidestepping the public process in order to make them disappear.

It doesn’t matter how many newspaper articles have been written about an issue; if it doesn’t appear on a public agenda, it hasn’t been part of a public process. As Jane Jacobs once wrote, “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.”

Reno’s Endangered Historic Buildings

There is much work to be done to preserve Reno’s architectural heritage. Some of our most historic properties are in dire need of realistic solutions in order to survive. Some are owned by sympathetic property owners in search of feasible solutions; others may require organized intervention to avoid irreparable damage or even demolition. For all, awareness of what’s at stake is the first step to ensure the preservation of some of our city’s most significant, and most beautiful, historic structures.

I’ll have more to say about this in the weeks to come. But for now, take a look at some of these buildings. They deserve the attention of local residents, who can help to persuade their owners to take care of them and help find the resources that will allow them to do so. Whether fifth-generation Renoites or new arrivals, we are all stewards of Reno’s heritage. These structures, ranging from 19th century Queen Anne homes to modest commercial brick buildings to architectural landmarks, all have enormous potential to contribute to our city’s character, its ongoing revitalization, and our economy. But when they’re gone, they’re gone. Let’s not allow that to happen on our watch.

Embracing the Divorce Capital of the World

A postcard from the 1940s adds a little humor to the notion of the Reno divorce. Postcard from the personal collection of Mella Rothwell Harmon.

Perhaps it’s no big surprise that Reno, Nevada hasn’t done much to promote or even to acknowledge its six decades as Divorce Capital of the World. The title might seem a dubious honor, implying that Reno’s culture proved so poisonous to the concept of stable wedlock that the city’s married couples didn’t stand a chance.

In fact, Reno’s migratory divorce trade played a pivotal role in enabling the matrimonially dissatisfied, abused, and abandoned to be free of their conjugal constraints, in the process increasing the widespread acceptance of divorce, empowering thousands of men and women to take charge of their own lives, and hastening the enactment of similar legislation nationwide.

At the same time, the divorce trade played a significant role in establishing Reno’s image and its tourist economy, something I covered at great length in my book, Reno’s Big Gamble. The unique industry clearly demonstrated the economic potential of attracting outsiders to the state (and to Reno in particular, as its largest and most accessible city) by legislating highly desirable activities not available elsewhere, and paved the way for its embrace of legalized wide-open gambling.

Illuminating Reno’s Divorce Industry is a project of the Special Collections Department, University of Nevada, Reno Libraries

The absolute centrality of the migratory divorce trade to Reno’s development, and its largely unacknowledged significance both nationally and in Reno itself, prompted the creation of the new online exhibit and archive, Illuminating Reno’s Divorce Industry–a project I was thrilled to participate in for the past 15 months. A project of the Special Collections Department of the University of Nevada, Reno Libraries, this effort involved digitizing over a thousand photos, books, pamphlets, diaries, postcards, and other materials; recording interviews with individuals who experienced the divorce trade firsthand; writing narratives to explain the many facets of the trade; and designing an exhibit and online archive to bring this story–in all its marvelous complexity–to the public.

Browse the online library, read the narratives, and listen to the voices, and I think you’ll begin to appreciate the magnitude of this six-decade industry and its wide-ranging contributions to the culture of Reno, the state of Nevada, and the United States. The legacies of this trade are everywhere–in Reno’s architectural and business landscape; in the large number of local residents who came to town for a Reno divorce and decided to stay; in the city’s longstanding identity as a cosmopolitan crossroads; and in this rich and often surprising collection of colorful stories that hold such potential for further research, for tourism, and for strengthening the identity of a community almost perpetually in transition.

Goodbye to the Virginia Street Bridge

Photo by Bob Harmon

Scott Sonner of the Associated Press has written a nice piece on Reno’s historic 1905 Virginia Street Bridge, soon to be demolished. I was glad to be able to share with him my thoughts about its significance to the city and beyond. You can read the story here.

Early one morning a few weeks ago, I stood on the bridge with three amazing women who devoted years to the effort to integrate preservation of the bridge into plans for the future of downtown Reno.  I joined those efforts soon after I moved to town in 2003, inspired by the bridge’s understated elegance and classical form, its centrality to Reno’s development and identity, and the multitude of stories it contains.

Together, we worked for years in pursuit of a solution that would allow the bridge to remain in place while still accommodating the needs of flood control and the concerns of downtown business owners, and it is important that we did that. It is right and good for us to make every attempt to combine development with preservation of our most historic structures. It is critical for us to ask questions and to engage in those difficult conversations, sharing our opinions in a public forum. We should continue to do that as a city. We owe it to our past, recognizing that the future we are building will be infinitely enriched by embracing the stories of who and what we have been. The loss of each historic structure deprives us of a tangible reminder of our heritage, making it that much more difficult to connect to what came before us.

I’m proud of how hard we worked to save the bridge. And when it was clear that this bridge could not accommodate the level of flood protection required by the City of Reno, the Army Corps of Engineers, business owners, and the Truckee River Flood Project, I’m proud that each and every one of us who stood on the bridge that day participated in the process of determining what would replace it. We attended meetings of the Design Review Board convened to select a new bridge design, we met with its architects and engineers, and we discussed how to incorporate elements of the historic bridge into the new span. It is impossible to be a dedicated historic preservationist, at least a successful one, without also being a clear-eyed realist.

On that day, our final day on the bridge together, we talked about how much it had seen in its 110 years: the growth of the city’s population from fewer than 10,000 residents to more than 250,000; the devastating fires that brought down earlier versions of the Riverside Hotel and the Masonic Temple; the demolition of the charming little Carnegie Library to make way for the Post Office building now gracing the south bank; the golden peals of laughter and music cascading from the Mapes and Riverside in their prime; the hum of the streetcar traversing its length; and yes, the footsteps of the newly divorced, pausing for a moment at the railing to consider whether or not to join the ranks of the famed ring-flingers.

We brought with us armfuls of white roses and daisies, and flung them one by one, like discarded wedding rings, into the river, watching them land gently in the rivulets and catch in the rocks, until they finally broke free, winding their way downstream and out of sight.

Goodbye to a bridge that has served this city so well. Goodbye to your beauty and elegance, to your steadfast endurance through times both robust and lean. Goodbye to a well-worn path trod by thousands. Goodbye to the rings and flowers, to the crystalline blue of that morning sky. Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye.

Photo courtesy of Special Collections Department, University of Nevada, Reno Libraries