The Top Five Moments for Historic Reno in 2014

As Reno’s revitalization continues to gain momentum, our city’s rich heritage is emerging as one of its most valuable assets. From digital projects to the renovation and repurposing of key historic properties, the year 2014 was marked by an increasing (and exciting!) realization of how our city’s unique past can be an integral, and irreplaceable, component of its continuing reinvention. Here are five of the year’s top stories in Reno’s heritage.

1. The Launch of Reno Historical

On May 9th, the anniversary of Reno’s original land auction in 1868, the new smart phone app and website Reno Historical launched. The map-based multimedia platform, a collaborative effort by most of Reno’s history-related organizations, allows users to explore Reno’s heritage through stories, images, audio, and video clips. The project continues to expand, with the regular addition of new locations and multimedia components. Look for the addition of historic sites throughout Midtown and the Wells Avenue district in 2015.

2. The opening of Heritage restaurant

While not housed in a historic building (by most standards, anyway), Mark Estee’s Heritage restaurant, which opened in May, was significant to Reno’s heritage for a number of reasons not limited to the establishment’s name. Located in the Whitney Peak Hotel, the old Fitzgerald’s casino building, the restaurant champions the city’s history in everything from the menu’s inspiration to the wait staff’s denim uniforms (a nod to the 1871 invention just a block away of Levi’s riveted jeans). Additionally, the establishment of a non-gaming hotel in the heart of the city’s casino core bodes well for the return of the city center to a more diverse array of businesses and attractions for both tourists and residents.

3. Historic UNR Dorms Saved from the Wrecking Ball

Citing seismic concerns, a press release issued by the University of Nevada, Reno on May 29th indicated that two of the university’s historic dormitories, Lincoln Hall and Manzanita Hall, might be “removed” in whole or part.  Immediate public outcry to save the two 19th century buildings, both listed in the National Register of Historic Places, included a student-led petition, an editorial in the Reno Gazette-Journal, and a flurry of activity on the part of local and state preservation groups. Just weeks later, UNR President Marc Johnson announced that both Lincoln Hall and Manzanita Hall would be preserved.  Bids to design the initial plan to convert Lincoln Hall into office space are due January 15.

4. The Renovation and Reuse of Reno’s Downtown Post Office

Reno’s historic downtown post office closed its doors in December of 2012 after 78 years of operation. Designed by Nevada’s pre-eminent architect, Frederic DeLongchamps, the Art Deco/Art Moderne building was purchased by the Reno Redevelopment Agency and sold to a local development group. Led by local resident Bernie Carter, the building’s new owners worked closely with Nevada’s State Historic Preservation Office and the City of Reno’s Historical Resources Commission to ensure that its renovation would retain the structure’s historical integrity. Renamed Fifty South Virginia, its historic address, the beautifully restored building’s office spaces are now open for lease.

5. The Renovation of the Nevada-Oregon-California Railroad Depot

Vacant for more than a decade, the Nevada-California-Oregon Railroad Depot on historic East 4th Street was long the subject of hand-wringing by locals who feared the building would be lost to deterioration or demolition.  Another Frederic DeLongchamps design, the historic 1910 depot was purchased in 2013 by a long-time Nevada family. Following an extensive renovation, it reopened on New Year’s Eve, 2014, as a combined brewery/distillery/restaurant, named the Depot Craft Brewery and Distillery. The property promises to play a key role in the reactivation of East 4th Street, recently named the Old Brewery District by the Regional Alliance for Downtown.

Stay tuned for my list of five issues in Historic Reno to look for in 2015!

Why You Should Care About Reno’s History

Why do I care about Reno’s history? If you read through my blog, the answer is pretty clear. Researching and interpreting Reno’s history for the public has become central to my professional life, and something of a personal crusade. You can read more about how all of that started here and elsewhere on this site, and I hope you do!

Ignite Reno, Cargo, November 20, 2014

But why should you care about Reno’s history? I addressed that question recently in a talk for Ignite Reno, held at Cargo in the Whitney Peak Hotel in downtown Reno on November 20th. If you’re not familiar with the format, Ignite presenters are given five minutes to speak on a subject of their choice–something that really fires them up–backed by 20 slides that automatically advance every 15 seconds. On this night, fourteen of us spoke on topics ranging from digital publishing to how lessons from cycling can make us a better community.

Ignite Reno speakers, Cargo, November 20, 2014

I geared my talk toward the local Reno audience, but my general points can apply to any location. History is every place’s most unique asset, and caring about it, promoting it, and preserving it, can help us make our places more walkable, more meaningful, and more community-oriented.

You can watch the 5-minute video here and the full powerpoint presentation here: Ignite Reno Powerpoint.  I hope you enjoy, and perhaps feel a little more inspired to care about the history in your community, wherever that may be.

One Sound State

In light of this week’s announcement that Tesla has chosen Northern Nevada as the site for its new $5 billion battery “gigafactory,” it seems timely to recall the state’s long history of luring residents and potential investors with its unparalleled tax advantages. Perhaps the most well-known attempt was the “One Sound State” campaign of the 1930s, which hoped to attract wealthy new residents to Nevada by promoting it as a conservative tax haven.

The One Sound State campaign directly targeted more than 10,000 wealthy individuals, suggesting they move to Nevada for tax purposes.

As a promotional strategy, the “One Sound State” campaign was driven largely by local concern that the only Reno most Americans knew was the image purveyed by the media–as a capital of gambling and divorce. Its strategy was to convince the very wealthy of the state’s economic “soundness” by stressing the lack of numerous taxes, from state income tax to inheritance taxes.

Its methods could not have been more overt. In 1936, the First National Bank of Reno, in conjunction with the Nevada State Journal, published a pamphlet that it sent to a select list of 10,000 wealthy prospects, outlining Nevada’s fiscal advantages, and dropping the names of millionaires like Max C. Fleischmann, who had already made the move. As a reporter for Collier’s magazine noted, “The Nevadans aren’t going to play up this gay, devil-may-care side of life in their state anymore. They’re going to put the emphasis on civic respectability.”

So did it work? Undoubtedly. Numerous millionaires moved their residences to Nevada, although many clustered around the shores of Lake Tahoe in elegant homes far removed from Nevada’s urban centers. The long-term benefits to the state are difficult to calculate, but one point is clear: the charitable foundations founded by some of those millionaires and their heirs (among them, Max C. Fleischmann, E.L. Cord, Wilbur D. May, Nell J. Redfield) have injected hundreds of millions of dollars into the state’s educational system, cultural institutions, and non-profits.

If you’re in Reno, you can learn more about these millionaires and their foundations at the Wilbur D. May Museum at Rancho San Rafael Park in an exhibit on display through September 21st called “Rush to Reno: Millionaires in the One Sound State.” For more info, visit the museum’s website.

So will the massive tax breaks and incentives offered to Tesla come back to benefit Northern Nevada a hundredfold? Only time will tell. It’s a major achievement, and also a leap of faith. But that’s Nevada, land of the eternal gamble. You really can’t expect this state to operate any other way.

Eat, Drink, and Be Historic!

This year marks the second annual historically-themed Dine the District event, put on by the great folks in Reno’s Riverwalk District. This year, we have the added benefit of our new mobile app, Reno Historical, which will allow everyone to learn more about the historic sites throughout the area as they eat, drink, and stroll around. Additionally, I’ll be leading a guided tour just before the event for a small group. The date is Saturday, August 9th, and you can buy tix in advance here. Join us!

Buy tickets in advance for the Historical Dine the District event on August 9th.

Reno Historical

After more than a year of planning and preparation, I’m excited to announce the upcoming launch of Reno Historical, a free smart phone app and accompanying website about Reno’s history that we’ll be introducing to the public on May 9th, the date of the town’s initial land auction in 1868. We’ll be holding a fun event downtown for the launch–more on that soon.

This collaborative digital history project came out of my longstanding frustration that Reno’s history is almost completely unmarked on the landscape, even though glimpses of its rich heritage are visible everywhere. Sure, there are a few plaques scattered here and there, but in general, it is possible to walk from one end of downtown Reno to another without gaining any coherent understanding of its past.

Reno Historical will be available as a website and free smart phone app.

As a result, residents and visitors alike often find themselves guessing. Even while waxing positive about the city’s urban and natural assets, a writer for National Geographic recently referred to Reno as a “historic gold-mining town,” while a New York Times reporter attested that Reno was “never as cosmopolitan as its ‘Biggest Little City’ motto suggests.”

It’s hard to blame them for getting it wrong. Reno has in many respects erased its own history. That happened literally from the 1970s through the 1990s with the construction of multiple massive casinos, which, along with their accompanying hotels and parking garages, took out entire blocks of the city’s architectural and commercial heritage—as suddenly and as irreversibly as any urban renewal project could have done. But equally contributing has been a tendency to focus on the future without recognizing the incredible asset that our city’s unique heritage can be.

Despite substantial changes, especially to its downtown core, Reno retains an incredible amount of historical integrity. When I lead occasional downtown walking tours, I always encourage my audience to stop and look up. The city is filled with early twentieth- and even late nineteenth-century buildings featuring gorgeous ornamental details, often hovering just above and behind their modern facades. Each building contains multiple stories that can enrich our appreciation of this place, deepening its meaning and strengthening our connection to it. Reminders of places that no longer exist can also connect us to our shared past.

The gorgeous building on the northeast corner of 2nd and Virginia was once the Reno National Bank. Currently part of Harrah’s, the building houses an Ichiban restaurant. Photo courtesy of Special Collections, UNR Libraries.


More than a year ago, I gathered together representatives from all corners of Reno’s historical community to discuss pooling our resources to launch a digital platform that could present accurate and engaging stories about Reno’s past to the public. Headed by Donnie Curtis, the Special Collections department at the University of Nevada, Reno Libraries offered to serve as the administrative hub. Startup funding was secured from the Historic Reno Preservation Society and grants from Nevada Humanities and the Institute of Museum and Library Services. The Nevada Historical Society, the City of Reno’s Historical Resources Commission, UNR Special Collections and numerous private collectors have graciously donated the use of materials, and the Regional Transportation Commission of Washoe County and the University of Nevada, Reno have funded the production of substantial historical content. Writers have included professional historians, community members, and students, for a truly collaborative project.

We chose Curatescape, a digital, map-based platform with a simple layout, flexibility to function as both an app and a website (to reach the broadest number of people), and the ability to offer text, photos, audio, and video clips to present a wide range of stories about the city. We’ll launch with a good number of stories and then continue to add to it, expanding its offerings as we go.

Reno Historical will be equally useful to people who are walking around town, eager to learn more about what’s around them, and to people who may never set foot in the city but hunger for accurate information about it. It’s time to capitalize on Reno’s amazing past as we continue to revitalize and celebrate our beautiful city!

Stay tuned for more information about the launch and follow us on Twitter at @renohistorical.

Writing about food

I recently started writing the Edible Traditions column for edible Reno-Tahoe magazine, a wonderful publication that celebrates local food & food-related traditions. My last regular magazine gig was several years ago, when I initiated a column on local history for RENO magazine (some examples can be found on my writing page) under the direction of then-editor Amanda Burden, who went on to establish edible Reno-Tahoe in 2010. I’ve always loved researching and presenting tasty historical morsels that can help people engage with our community and its colorful past, and coincidentally, I also love food, so voila! A match made in culinary historical heaven.

A group of men and boys in a stand of mountain mahogany, 1920s. Photo courtesy of Special Collections, UNR Libraries.

For Edible Traditions, I’m hoping to share stories that not only illuminate the past, but provide us with food for thought (see what I did there?) about how to deepen our connections to those traditions today.

When brainstorming for the current issue, which focuses on meat, I found dozens and dozens of articles and ads for local steakhouses from the 1940s through 1960s, that heady dinner-and-a-show era of martini madness. And one dish kept appearing in those ads–the mahogany-broiled steak. You can read the full column here, but suffice it to say that researching the background of this delectable dish sent me following a trail of crumbs that included oral histories, such as that of Dick Graves, founder of the Sparks Nugget (among other local establishments), historical newspapers, city directories, and photo archives, such as the treasure trove found in the Special Collections department of the UNR Libraries.

A 1956 ad for the Supper Club, on Moana Lane.

The popularity of this local specialty may have dimmed, but its use of unique local ingredients is echoed in today’s growing preferences for locally-sourced food and farm-to-table preparations. Will mahogany-broiled steak return to fashion? I’ll leave that to the gastronomical visionaries and trendsetters among us. But I’m thrilled to participate in the conversation and illuminate what I can about our shared culinary heritage.

Reading the Streets

One of the best ways to deepen your understanding of where you live is to learn the stories behind the names of prominent streets in your community. Drivers whizzing along U.S. Highway 395/580 through Reno, for instance, may not realize how much of the city’s history is written on those green and white exit signs.

Just south of Interstate 80,Glendale Avenue takes its name from an early settlement located where East McCarran Boulevard meets the Truckee River. Originally a simple ferry crossing, the community later took on the name of the Glen Dale house, a hotel that opened there in 1866.

Mill Street follows the route of a small country lane that led to the Eastman mill, a saw mill constructed in 1861 near the current site of the Grand Sierra Resort.

Plumb Lane, Kietzke Lane, and the Damonte Ranch Parkway all were named for early immigrant ranching families. The Plumbs, originally from England, owned land near the current intersection of Plumb Lane and Hunter Lake Drive. The Kietzkes hailed from Germany, while Louis Damonte, a native of Italy, established his family ranch further south on Old Virginia Road. Virginia Street, of course, indicates the route to Virginia City.

Moana Springs has been a popular recreational destination for more than a century, in its various forms.

Moana Lane takes its name from Moana Springs, a resort that opened three miles south of Reno in 1905 and was itself named after a famous Hawaiian spa (“Moana” means “ocean” in Hawaiian). Residents flocked to the hot spring-fed pool, bath house, hotel, baseball diamond, man-made lake, and clubhouse. The buildings were demolished by the city in 1956 in order to construct a modern recreational facility.

Until 2004, the Neil Road exit was known as Del Monte Lane, named for the Rancho Del Monte, a dude ranch catering to the divorce trade. Its historic ranch house burned down in 1947, killing a divorcee who refused to evacuate naked.

So the next time you’re stuck in traffic, don’t despair; entertain your friends with a little highway history trivia.

The Scramble

I’m loving this 1953 cartoon from the Nevada State Journal introducing the new “scramble” system at the corner of 2nd & Virginia Street in Reno. The intersection was deemed Reno’s busiest at the time, and the artist has so clearly captured the vibrant pedestrian life of mid-century downtown. Students, stroller-pushing mothers, businessmen, shoppers, workers, cowboys, couples, soldiers–all sharing the streets in a democratic swirl of energy. As we strive to bring vitality & walkability to our downtown spaces, let’s not neglect the lessons we can learn from traveling the streets of the past.

The Scramble, 1953

The Biggest Little City

I’ve seen and read a lot about Reno’s image through the years–concerns about the city’s persistent “identity crisis,” complaints about its unfair reputation, its incessant mocking by everyone from the Muppets to David Sedaris. Heck, I even wrote a book about it. We’re the city with a communal chip on its shoulder, ever crouched in a defensive stance, fists up, already flinching in expectation of the next jab.

But yesterday felt consequential, with the unveiling of a new grassroots marketing campaign, spearheaded by an alliance of creative professionals in advertising, PR &  communications, but clearly intended to embrace citizens from all fields & backgrounds in a massive outpouring of civic pride: The Biggest Little City.

Reno Arch, ca. 1940s. Special Collections Department, University of Nevada, Reno Library.

This campaign stands out for a number of reasons: first, it embraces the city’s longstanding nickname, the Biggest Little City in the World–one of its most recognizable and enduring assets.

Second, it echoes the very origins of the nickname itself, which was not born in 1929 when a Sacramento man won a contest to come up with a slogan for the Reno arch, as is often reported. G.A. Burns’ suggestion did win the contest, but the phrase had already been introduced to the world by the town’s own business community, nearly twenty years earlier.

The summer of 1910 was huge for Reno. That July, the city hosted the heavyweight championship of the world, pitting Jack Johnson against the hopelessly outmatched returning champ, Jim Jeffries, in a bout that gained global attention, not least for its divisive racial politics. The city’s divorce industry was in full swing, and the state was enjoying what was thought to be its last season of legalized gambling, after the 1909 state legislature approved the prohibition of all gambling, effective October first, 1910.

1910 postcard, Special Collections Department, University of Nevada, Reno Library

All eyes were on Reno, and its citizens knew it. That fall, the Reno Business Men’s Association and the Commercial Club met the attention with a booklet featuring an image of the globe and the words “Reno, The Biggest Little City on the Map.” As the local paper reported that year, people were already replacing “map” with “world,” noting, “Isn’t that something to be proud of? It is a merited title, to a certain extent, but should be earned in its entirety. It is the duty of every public spirited citizen…to make the title true.”

What made Reno so big for its modest population of approximately 11,000? The booklet outlined it all: its economy, beauty, climate, recreational opportunities, community spirit, university, and abundant energy. The Biggest Little City–not a tourist slogan chosen by an outsider, but a badge of honor, generated from within, encouraging every resident to help spread the word–to “make the title true.”  Everything old is new again. Hear hear.

The Art of the Casino

I’m excited to announce an event in which I’ll be participating this coming Friday, May 17th. It’s the May salon, “The Art of the Casino,” sponsored by Nevada Humanities, to be held at Sundance Books & Music in Reno at 6:30 p.m. More details on the event here.

Salon de Madame Geoffrin

This monthly series is inspired by their namesake gatherings of old, when people of wide & varied interests met together to share lively conversation about the topics of the day. They are stimulating (literally and intellectually–there’s wine!), and always draw an ebullient crowd.

This Friday’s salon, “The Art of the Casino” is particularly inspired for our time and place, and will feature David Kranes and  Susan Chandler. I’ll moderate and round out the panel. We’ll give our panelists a chance to share their thoughts and then we’ll all chime in.

David is an award-winning writer, playwright, and professor emeritus of Creative Writing from the University of Utah, who has written many pieces inspired by Nevada’s gambling landscape, including the novel Keno Runner. He is also a creative design consultant for casinos, giving him terrific insights on creating art both in and from the casino environment.

Susan, an associate professor in UNR’s School of Social Work, is co-author of the new book, Casino Women: Courage in Unexpected Places, which incorporates interviews with maids, cocktail waitresses, cooks, laundry workers, dealers, pit bosses, and vice presidents, into a pioneering look at women in the casino world.

What will we discuss? Whatever comes to mind! How casinos shape the visitor experience, who holds the power within them and how those dynamics have changed, why casinos look and feel the way they do, and what we all see as the future of casinos, their workers, and their communities as legalized gambling expands throughout the country and the world. Please join us and add your voice to the conversation!