Reno has had a 90-year love/hate affair with its arch
Late in 2017, the City of Reno surveyed the public about a proposed “refresh” of the Reno Arch—not a whole new arch like we had in 1927, 1963 and 1987—just some touch-ups.
Almost 3,000 people filled out the survey. By a narrow margin, they favored one update—a color change from burgundy and gold to blue and silver—and disapproved of another: replacing the pink neon lights with more efficient LEDs that could change color for special occasions.
While City Engineer Charla Honey, who presented the proposed updates to the City Council in December, couched the conversation in practical terms—“The arch is scratched and faded. We definitely need to do some repairs on the arch”—the public’s responses were passionate. Design of any kind—graphic, civic, architectural—is necessarily tied to ideologies and ideals. But which do we hold dear as a community? And how does the design of a city symbol convey them? Well, that’s where we get into an almost century-long survey of conflicting viewpoints.
Many of the survey takers favored the energy efficiency and modern look of the proposed LEDs. Others wrote in the survey’s comment section that the neon is “iconic” or “classic” and should remain. One respondent was disappointed that the current font makes the Arch look like an outdated game show set. Another wrote, “This sign is a huge part of why I go to Reno every year to vacation and gamble. … I will be very, very disappointed if the neon goes away. This will put a damper on my tradition of going to Reno.”
The proposed color choice was subject to various readings, as well. Council member David Bobzien said in the December meeting that he was skeptical about changing the arch to blue and silver, as it would imply a cross-branding effort between the City and the University of Nevada, Reno. But other council members, including Mayor Hillary Schieve, were in favor of an implied association with UNR.
Schieve also made a point to alert the council members that no matter what they decided, they should expect some blowback. “You’re all going to get on your social media, and people are going to be mad at you—half of them, she said. “It’s hard to please everyone.”
On Dec. 13, the City Council voted 4-to-3 to proceed with the blue paint job and did not approve changing the lights. While the neon enthusiasts’ objections were noted, the council ultimately cited practical and budget concerns as the reasons to hold off on LEDs.
Work began Feb. 5. and is expected to be finished by late April. The arch now has a fresh coat of blue paint. Next, the dented gold-colored sheeting on the legs is scheduled to be replaced with a more durable silvery brushed stainless steel.
When the Reno Gazette Journal’s Mike Higdon posted an article on the arch updates on his Facebook page and asked readers to discuss, the discussion began like this:
“I second the meh.”
“My thoughts exactly.”
That thread continued with about a dozen people against the design updates—some citing the dented burgundy-and-gold arch as a beloved symbol of Reno’s quirkiness—and one person in favor.
In one way or another, the arch has been near and dear to Renoites for almost a century. Not only have we loved it and hated it, we’ve also used it in different ways over its 91 years to symbolize various versions of civic identity, brand identities and even personal identities.
On the map
While city icons such as the Eiffel Tower and the Golden Gate Bridge are now deeply embedded in the world’s psyche as symbols of the wonder and romance of Paris and San Francisco, they were each originally erected in the name of commerce—the tower as a focal point of the 1889 World’s Fair and the bridge to alleviate ferry traffic to Marin County. So, too, was the Reno Arch.
In 1927, Reno hosted an event called Nevada’s Transcontinental Highway Exhibition. Judging from the event pamphlet, the city looked like an idyllic paradise. It shows the Sierra Nevada—painted pink by muted, late-afternoon sunlight—behind the brand new California Building in Idlewild Park. That building is dwarfed by five opulently sized exhibition halls with terra-cotta roofs. On the back of the pamphlet, there’s a map of the West and its newly completed highway system. San Francisco and Los Angeles are just dots, and Reno is a big, green star, smack in the map’s center.
Among what a Historic Reno Preservation Society newsletter called “a flurry of preparations” for the exhibition, Reno erected its first arch, in the park, as part of the exposition. Its slogan read, “Reno: Nevada’s Transcontinental Highway Exposition, June 25-Aug 1 1927.”
“I don’t think [other cities] went as big as Reno did—because you’re hooking up the victory end of the Lincoln Highway and straightening out some real confusion,” said historian Neal Cobb. The Reno portion of the Lincoln Highway made for a coast-to-coast driving route. The confusion that Cobb mentioned had come from a messy system of route designations, which was now, for the first time, numerically ordered and easy to navigate. Americans were excited about an era of increased mobility and leisure travel.
But, while Reno may have had its reasons to celebrate, literal truth in advertising was not necessarily among them. The terra-cotta roofs were fiction. The “buildings” were actually enormous tents, filled with exhibits of things like livestock and consumer products—Weartex Rug Company, Western Auto Supply Company, Schlitz beer and Feen-A-Mint laxative, to name a few.
Cobb, who keeps a private archive of historical photos in his house and is the co-author of the book Reno Now and Then, is skeptical about the exposition’s cultural import.
“We always do that,” he said. “It’s political. You can go ahead and make a big deal out of your dog’s droppings if you want to. When it comes down to it, was it really an important event, or was it a promotional thing?”
In October of that year, the arch was moved downtown. In a dedication ceremony with mayor Ed Roberts, it was, according to the preservation society newsletter, met with “oohs and aahs, cheers and applause.” The city held a competition to come up with a new slogan to replace the event. Submissions reportedly flooded in, including such nods to local industry as “Reno: If You Are in a Rush, We Will Get You a Divorce Within Three Months.” No slogan was settled on that year, and in 1928, another call, this time including a $100 prize, drew hundreds more entries. Among them: “In Progressive Reno, Loiter, Linger, Locate.” Several people suggested “Biggest Little City in the World,” and that’s the one that stuck.
In 1963, the original arch was replaced with a new one. This one was a straightforward public relations effort without the pretense of being anything else.
In the early ’60s, Roy Powers was the publicist for Harold’s Club. In the late ’90s, he told an interviewer from the University of Nevada Oral History Program that the casinos were in favor of a new arch.
A colleague pointed out to Powers that “the arch looked kind of tired, and that it was dwarfed by the larger buildings around it,” he recounted to the interviewer. “He asked me to look into replacing it with something more colorful, more modern.” But the perceived need for a new arch wasn’t just about sprucing up an outdated emblem.
Historian Cobb—who once worked at the Harold’s Club and was once married into the Smith family, which founded the historic casino—said that the impetus to modernize the casino industry’s image had a particular urgency behind it.
Gambling had been made illegal in Nevada in 1910 and remained illegal for 21 years. Prohibition did not stop gambling from happening, though—it drove it underground. This, according to Cobb, meant speakeasy-type clubs, mafia organization, houses that cheated their clientele and an all-around rough reputation.
When gambling was re-legalized in 1931, the industry had a dismal reputation. “It had to be cleaned up from the inside out,” Cobb said. He added that Harold’s Club, which opened in 1935, led the charge. Among the casino’s efforts to give the industry a more trustworthy face were to provide a scholarship for UNR students and to not cheat customers.
Still, said Cobb, the industry maintained mafia connections, struggled to attract “reputable” clients, and went another two decades without much oversight. A gaming control board wasn’t formed until 1955, and there wasn’t a gaming control commission until 1959. Corruption remained, and, as Cobb tells it, the casinos were still trying to fight off their image problem and attract a wider clientele into the 1960s.
Most of the downtown casinos got together and offered to fund the new arch—a symbol of a more affable, approachable industry—for $100,000.
“Harold’s put up the majority of the money, and the others put up smaller amounts,” Powers said in the oral history. The Ad Art sign company, then located in Modesto, California, designed it. The Reno City Council approved it. The casinos had it built and deeded it to the city.
“On New Year’s Eve, we had a grand arch lighting,” Powers recalled. “We had a large slot machine up on a stage, and at midnight Mayor Hugo Quilici came up and pulled the handle. It was rigged up so that the reel stopped on three pictures of the new arch, and the arch lights went on at the same time. Everybody cheered. Had a street dance until one o’clock in the morning.”
Decades later, according to a 1987 RGJ article, Powers also recalled, “There was a small but mighty uprising by those who didn’t want the arch changed. I thought I’d be tarred and feathered and run out of town.”
One more Overhaul
In February, 1987, the Reno Gazette-Journal had a Style section. On its front page, Rolland Melton wrote in his column about the Biggest Little City Commission, a group working on “examining the city’s wealth of plusses and numerous minuses.” The group was led by Mark Curtis, retired Harrah’s Casino public relations director.
Melton wrote that while the group “detected defeatism here and there,” it “confirmed that Reno has class, backbone and that in our consciousness there is a pride in the place where we live, and a hankering to fix our ailments.”
Among the ailments were things like litter in parks—which the committee addressed by encouraging clean-up days—and the 1963 arch.
Of course, the idea of the previous arch as an outdated eyesore wasn’t unanimous. Five days before the 1987 arch was scheduled to debut, a national news brief from Gannett summarized public opinion this way: “To some residents of this city, the new Reno Arch is no more than a well-lit target for pigeons. [Pigeon droppings had, in 1977, led to a fire that left the arch dark for five months.] To others, it’s become a symbol of the city’s determination to deal with social and economic problems that in recent years have tarnished its image and polarized the citizenry.”
But in a 1986 RGJ piece, columnist Cory Farley had portrayed the arch as a matter of little import: “The mail indicates a surprising number of people don’t give Hoot One if the arch glows, darkens or falls beneath its burden of pigeon poo.”
Once the 1987 arch was installed and the “Biggest Little City in the World” slogan—which Melton wrote had been “ridiculed in the past for being corny and unsophisticated”—was reinstated, media accolades were plentiful. An RGJ editorial read, “It’s an attractive concept, at once traditional, contemporary and nostalgic.’” A headline in the same paper called the new design “triumphant.” And Nevada Magazine called it “more modernistic and glamorous than its predecessors.”
Behind the design
The Reno Arch—in all of its iterations—has meant many things to many people over the years. In the 1940s, it was used on postcards to help promote Reno’s image as a divorce capital. In other decades, postcards have presented the arch as modern or retro, in styles ranging all the way from documentary to farcical. Locals and tourists have taken countless pictures under the arch, and the block of Virginia Street underneath it has been used as an event space for symphony concerts, fireworks displays, and zombie crawl flash-mob dances. Photos of the arch are used on souvenir T-shirts. Archie Wood from Battle Born Tattoo said in an email, “I do have a few folks with the arch tattooed on them.” And, as of this writing, the Reno Gazette Journal uses a Reno Arch graphic as its profile picture. Really, it can be adapted to pretty much anything.
“The meaning is not fixed,” said Katherine Hepworth, a design scholar and UNR professor who has studied and published on civic design. That goes for the arch—and for city monuments everywhere.
“Any symbol, over the long term, comes to represent the sum of the activities of the people who make up that city, as well as the government,” she said. And for boosters and haters alike, symbols like the arch “become about the beliefs and habits of the people who make up the city.”
“The Reno Arch and structures like it—they become very important to citizens’ sense of place,” Hepworth said. “If Reno didn’t have an arch in the future, I think for quite some time afterward, like decades, it would be felt as a missing thing. It would be like the Truckee was missing or something, in terms of what it means to residents or what it means symbolically.”
While city monuments in general don’t tend to change their appearance much over time, change has been a constant with Reno’s arch. It’s design has changed with the times, reflected different versions of Reno’s commercial aspirations, and also served as a symbol of personal pride and identity for many. But, this time around, Hepworth said, something feels different. Even though so far it’s just a paint job, the arch’s new look, she observed, “is more conservative and more tentative than ever it’s been in its history.”
“If anything, Reno has been a gauche and bawdy and uncouth and more on the wild side,” she said. “This arch is like Reno’s in an interview suit. … I think it’s been interpreted by some citizens as a fear of being controversial.” That, she added, is not something we’ve traditionally shied away from. But lately, with a surge in interest in attracting out-of-state businesses, the concept of projecting a widely palatable civic image is something that the city—and the City—often favor.
“There’s a common phenomenon with new designs: people always hate them first, no matter how successful they become,” said Hepworth. “So, you can only really test the effectiveness or gauge the popularity of a design over a few months. The initial thing is always influenced by the shock of the new.” Hepworth, who is originally from Australia, drew this comparison with the Sydney Opera House: “People in 1950s/1960s Australia were sure this crazy monstrosity would be unbearable.” It opened in 1973 and has long been a source of intense national pride.
Here in Reno, will the blue paint and stainless steel coatings continue to resonate as strongly, for better or for worse, as they do now? Will the neon fans’ nostalgia be swayed by arguments of reduced power bills? Will the association with the university remain, to some, a problem of ill-advised identity confusion and, to others, a reassuring symbol of unity to others? Time will tell.