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

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