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 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

July 5, 2016

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


Time to replace the Reno Arch (again)?

Reno Arch, 2004. Photo by Max Chapman.

Word came out this week of a local group’s efforts to promote the redesign or even replacement of the Reno Arch, in order to better reflect Reno’s changing identity and economy.  As Reno Mayor Hillary Schieve later clarified, the group first approached the City with the idea several years ago, but the discussions have so far resulted in no plans to renovate or replace the famous arch.

Historically, it’s not a new idea.  The widespread belief that the previous two arches were outdated was what led to their replacement in 1963 and 1987 (when the current arch was installed).  Based on that calendar—replacement every 20 to 30 years—we’re about due for a new one.

Or are we?

The arch’s role has changed significantly over the past 89 years. The first Reno Arch was installed in 1926 to promote a specific event, a Transcontinental Highways Exposition held in Idlewild Park to mark the completion of the Lincoln and Victory Highways. You can read more about that on Reno Historical.

The original Reno Arch, installed on Virginia Street in 1926. Special Collections Department, University of Nevada, Reno Libraries.

A centrally-located, well-lit arch was the perfect vehicle for promoting the expo—erected on Reno’s main thoroughfare, it loomed over the very people the event hoped to attract: people in cars. It’s not like there were a lot of other marketing methods back then.  Oh sure, there were brochures and newspaper ads, if you could afford the costs. But a big, bright street-width illuminated banner stretching overhead was a constant, unmistakable reminder to GO TO THE EXPO, CAR PEOPLE.

After the big event, Reno folks just liked the arch, so it stayed. Once it gained its famous slogan and Reno became the talk of the nation for legalized gambling and the six-week divorce, the Reno Arch became the city’s most recognizable icon, as famous as San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, New York’s Statue of Liberty, and that much bigger arch back in St. Louis–which is kind of incredible considering how much larger those cities were and are.

The Reno Arch in the 1930s. Image courtesy of Philip Galbraith.

But that’s what made Reno the Biggest Little City in the World—its outsized reputation and larger-than-life banquet of cultural enticements, far more cosmopolitan than anyone would expect for a city its size.

Keeping Reno’s arch current was essential in the postcard, pre-Internet era, when the chief aspiration of a city dependent upon tourism was to create an image in people’s minds that could single-handedly epitomize their destination’s cutting-edge appeal.

The Reno Arch, New Year’s Eve 1963 through 1987. Note the continuity of the starburst topper on this and the current arch. Special Collections Department, University of Nevada, Reno Libraries.

And the Reno Arch did just that. Touting the city’s famous nickname, it conveyed just the right mix of brashness and charm through every era. In the neon age, as Virginia Street filled with clubs and casinos, it blazed in bright neon. In the swinging sixties, it grooved in yellow and orange octagons. And in 1987, increasingly dwarfed by the rainbow-hued multi-story dazzle-fest of Fitzgerald’s, the Eldorado, Harrah’s, and Harolds Club, it burst forth in a blinding carnival of over-the-top pizzazz. Dependent upon casinos and tourism, Reno fully embraced its new icon’s unapologetic glitz as the city’s calling card.

In the subsequent 28 years, Reno’s economy has diversified, and the downtown landscape with it. Some casinos have closed, some have been demolished, many remain, neighboring Fitzgerald’s has transformed into the non-gaming Whitney Peak Hotel, and the city is embracing a new era of start-ups, high tech, higher ed, outdoor adventure, and unprecedented innovation.

So why not update the Reno Arch once again to reflect the new Reno?

Because city promotion and consumption don’t work like that anymore. In this era of advanced technologies and sophisticated marketing strategies, both promoters and consumers can immediately access an endless array of images (and narratives) to correspond with whatever stories they seek to construct and absorb. Platforms have multiplied, markets are segmented, campaigns are targeted, and places no longer project a single image (nor do they wish to).

Reno’s original arch, relocated on Lake Street. Photo by Max Chapman.

At the same time, as Reno forges ahead with a new resident-centered vision, appreciation of the city’s rich heritage is growing, and the arches help to tell that unique story. The original Reno Arch was reinstalled on Lake Street in 1995 after years languishing in a city storage yard. The site is appropriate, neighboring the National Auto Museum, which celebrates the car culture that inspired its creation. The lost sixties-era arch, donated years ago to Willits, California, would have looked fabulous next to a renovated mid-century motel.

The current arch, if replaced, would certainly need to be preserved and relocated. But what site would better suit it or the story it tells than its natural habitat, the historic heart of Reno’s casino core, where it serves as an unabashedly spectacular, infinitely recognizable commemoration of the pioneering role Reno played in the creation and ascension of the American gaming industry?

Each Reno Arch is a product of its time, and like any building, artifact, or cultural product, it derives deeper meaning from the way we interpret it to the world. Does the current arch symbolize everything that Reno is today? Of course not. But why should we ask it to, when we have so many other tools at our disposal to accomplish that?

Rather, we need to recognize that as Reno reinvents itself, our city’s rich heritage is one of its most valuable assets. There is no place like it. And its incomparable story, embedded in the landscape in ways we have only begun to tap into, is a key component of the city’s multi-dimensional, excitingly complex, absolutely unique identity.

This Reno Arch, in its historic spot at Virginia Street and Commercial Row, is an iconic part of that story. Outdated? No. It is masterfully, flamboyantly, beautifully outrageous, an assertion of Reno’s abundant civic pride and boundless delight in celebrating itself. And what could be more timeless than that?

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!