A river runs around it

A history of Wingfield Park

Early in the 20th century, a woman gazed at Belle Isle’s amusement park, including a Ferris Wheel, invented in 1893 by George Ferris of Carson City.

Early in the 20th century, a woman gazed at Belle Isle’s amusement park, including a Ferris Wheel, invented in 1893 by George Ferris of Carson City.

Since 1996, summer in Reno has become synonymous with Artown. The month-long arts festival showcases the breadth of the city's creative offerings, staging performances and installations from local and international artists, and provides free entertainment every night throughout July for Reno's rapidly swelling population.

To many locals, though, Artown itself has become synonymous with something else—its primary venue at Wingfield Park. Nestled on an island in the middle of the Truckee River, wreathed by towering cottonwood trees and criss-crossed by pedestrian footbridges with their iconic hanging flower baskets, Wingfield Park’s plein-air theater has become the backdrop to many of Artown’s most well-attended events. However, the park’s history as the geographic and cultural heart of Reno is longer than most people know, and its potential as a community gathering space was recognized not long after the city’s founding.

“I think it was a little, you know, getaway,” said Sharon Honig-Bear. “A little piece of heaven right in the middle of the city.”

Honig-Bear is the former president of the Historic Reno Preservation Society, a volunteer organization of citizen historians and tour guides, and currently chairs the city’s Arts and Culture Commission. She’s familiar with Wingfield Park in its many past and current incarnations, including its origins as Belle Isle, a fairground and events venue created by attorney Lewis Hinckley in 1911.

According to an article by Nicholas Caparso for Reno Historical (an archival project managed by the Special Collections Department of the University of Nevada, Reno Libraries), Belle Isle included a dance hall with electric lighting, 700-seat outdoor theater, boat rentals and a roller-skating rink. Carnivals, boxing matches and traveling curiosity shows were common attractions at Belle Isle, as were the era’s moving pictures—aired outside with orchestral accompaniment—88 years before the Century Riverside Theater was established nearby.

“I think it was the indicator of the time that people wanted open-air,” Honig-Bear said. “People’s houses were very small. Being able to get out right there in your city and enjoy what was there, I think was important. And it was, at that point, pretty much up to private enterprise. Government wasn’t quite doing this yet.”

That changed in 1916, when Hinckley filed for bankruptcy, as was common in the boom and bust economy of the West at that time. In 1920, the land was purchased by its namesake, George Wingfield, who deeded it to the city unconditionally. An Arkansas transplant, Wingfield was perhaps the richest man in Nevada at the time due to his part ownership of Tonopah’s Goldfield Consolidated Mining Company and subsequent banking ventures.

Wingfield left behind a mixed legacy, as his money and influence dictated Nevada legislation on both sides of the aisle—usually to his own benefit. In her 1992 biography, author C. Elizabeth Raymond writes, “For a number of years, Wingfield was described, without exaggeration, as the owner and operator of the state of Nevada. Some have revered him as Nevada’s benevolent ’friend.’ Others have condemned him as a ’sagebrush Caesar.’” The Reno News & Review’s Dennis Myers counts Wingfield among the organized crime leaders of the era (“Public Enemies in Nevada,” July, 2009) who escaped regulation, and, later, federal prosecution.

Revitalization efforts in the mid ’90s improved Reno’s Riverwalk, now considered its own district.

“He had a checkered history, I suppose a lot of people would say,” Honig-Bear said. “He had a lot of power in this town and power can be used for good and for bad. But in the case of Belle Isle, now named after him, it was done for good.”

Throughout the 20th century, Wingfield Park remained a community gathering spot as the city grew around it, incorporating new features like the pedestrian foot bridges and Arlington Street thoroughfare.

According to Honig-Bear, the tennis courts on the adjacent Barbara Bennett Park—the entirety of the area colloquially referred to as “Wingfield Park” is actually made up of five smaller parks—served as inspiration for scenes in one of the most famous books about Reno, Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s 1945 The City of Trembling Leaves.

The island’s natural setting was also desirable to Hewitt Wells, the architect of the downtown library (301 S. Center St.). The library famously incorporates hundreds of live plants, making the space equal parts book repository and conservatory.

“They wanted to build [the library] in Wingfield Park, probably about where the basketball courts are now, if I understand correctly,” said Honig-Bear. “And they couldn’t get the land for a variety of reasons. And so the famous quote, and I’m paraphrasing, that the architect Hewitt Wells said was, ’Well, if I can’t build a library in the park, then I’ll build a park in the library.”

The island withstood flood damage over the years, and the reality of the river’s natural ebbs and flows dictated the architecture of the current Wingfield Amphitheater, built in 1992, as seen in its staggered and gapped retaining walls on the eastern side of Arlington Avenue. In 2004, the city paid for construction of the whitewater kayak park, which changed the riverbed’s topography to alleviate flooding and make the area more conducive to swimming and other water sports. To Honig-Bear, these developments marked a change in the city’s relationship with the river, as well as it’s other natural resources and attractions.

“When I first moved here—this is before they built the kayak park—the City had a history of turning its back to the river,” she said. “Casinos didn’t want you out, you know—there are no windows. They don’t want you to acknowledge it. Over the last—particularly—decade or two, we’ve really embraced some of the beauty of Reno’s natural features. And I think Wingfield Park is, really, a premium example of that.”

Artown began in the mid ’90s, and set the literal stage for a plethora of events and festivals at Wingfield Park, the sight of which and the subsequent diversion of traffic past the Arlington bridge are now common occurrences in the summer.

Artown begins its 24th season on July 1, kicking off opening night with Paul Thorn and the New Breed Brass Band at 7:30 p.m. on the amphitheater stage. Artown has now evolved to offer events and attractions at venues all over the city, but to Honig-Bear, watching the crowds gather for opening and closing night at Wingfield hearkens back to a time over a century ago, when Renoites were doing the exact same thing.

“If you’ve ever been to Rollin’ on the River on a Friday night, how different is that, really, from the regular Saturday night dances that Mr. Hinckley had?” she said. “Or anytime you’re sitting in for a wonderful Artown performance, are we so very different from when there was a 700-seat open-air theater at the very same location that Mr. Hinckley put in? So, although we may not have boxing matches and snake charmers and small boat rentals … some of that tradition of being a comfortable entertainment center right in the middle of town lives on.”