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 Save Reno’s Historic University Avenue 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