Brick by brick
A virtual walking tour of the architectural legacy left by Reno’s Frederic J. DeLongchamps
Before there were sprawling, prefabricated homes in monotonous subdivisions, there were a city center, a thing called red brick, and a man named Frederic J. DeLongchamps.
DeLongchamps … he’s that guy who designed all those courthouses around Nevada right? Well, yes. Our own Washoe County Courthouse, as well as courthouses in Yerington, Las Vegas (the only one torn down), Minden, Winnemucca, Lovelock, Carson City and two courthouses in California’s Alpine and Modoc counties. But the man was versatile. Among his 558 known designs are homes, post offices and apartment buildings.
Despite a limit of 35 people, nearly 70 people curious about those designs arrived for a DeLongchamps architectural walk hosted by the Historic Reno Preservation Society in July. But there’s no need to brave the mob of water-bottle-holding, comfortable-shoes-bearing retirees to get in on seeing the legacy DeLongchamps left in Reno. Granted, the HRPS tour, given energetically by former school teacher Anne Simone, is more informative than the extremely condensed version you’ll find in these pages. But here are some highlights you can enjoy on your own.
Let’s start beneath the shade of this tree on the corner of Flint Street and California Avenue. Now stay on the sidewalk, and don’t trample the grass. Many of these are people’s homes, you know.
DeLongchamps’ father, Felix, was a lumberman, who came to Nevada from Canada in the 1860s. At the time, trees around Lake Tahoe were being cut down right and left for the mines, so his lumbering skills were put to use. He married a girl in Carson City, and they moved to Reno in the 1880s and had five children, including Frederic in 1882. Daddy DeLongchamps built a (still standing) home in 1887 on Mill Street near the present day National Automobile Museum. Frederic lived most of his life in that house. He attended both high school and college (University of Nevada) in Reno and earned a degree in mining engineering. He became ill after working as a mining engineer in Inyo County, so he got a job with the U.S. Surveyor’s office until the San Francisco earthquake in 1906. He went to that city to help rebuild it, and he may have apprenticed there. He returned to Reno a year later and entered a competition for designing the courthouse in 1909, which launched his architectural career. He and partners George O’Brien and Hewitt Wells designed buildings until the 1960s. He died in Reno on Feb. 11, 1969.
Joseph Giraud House
442 Flint St.
DeLongchamps designed this handsome red brick house in 1914, and it still looks exactly like his original design, according to tour guide Simone. The porches on three sides are each framed by Tuscan columns, and it has a “hipped roof.” (The ends turned slightly upward.) French doors decorate the front.
It was originally built for sheep rancher Joseph Giraud, who’s thought to have lost the house around 1930, after the stock market crashed. Moving in after him was Roy Hardy, who worked for George Wingfield. Both those names may sound familiar. Wingfield was a Nevada big shot who owned banks, buildings and gold mines. Hardy was a mining engineer who operated many of Wingfield’s mines in places like Virginia City and Tonopah. When those mines started going downhill, Hardy moved back to Reno, where he owned the house for 40 years. After Hardy died, a succession of restaurants, including the Hardy House, took residence there.
45 California Ave.
Hang a left off Flint onto California Avenue, and walk east to the California Apartments, formerly called Vachina Apartments. The modest building, designed by DeLongchamps in 1922, has been nominated for the National Register of Historic Places, and it’s one of Reno’s earliest apartment buildings. Many divorce-seekers waited out their required Nevada residency time here before their divorce was granted. The building, including exterior concrete blocks and a portico, was built in a “Classical Revival” style, meaning in the spirit of classical architecture. The entrance is framed by plain, Doric columns. Hardwood floors and French doors are found inside, where tenants still reside.
Washoe County Courthouse
117 S. Virginia St.
This courthouse, which signaled the beginning of DeLongchamps’ architectural career, was built in the Classical Revival style with Beaux Arts influence. A copper dome tops the building, which was the scene of much activity in the 1930s, when divorce was one of Reno’s leading industries. DeLongchamps designed additions to the building in 1946, 1949 and 1960. Parts of the original courthouse, made of red brick in 1871-1873, are actually inside the present day structure.
17 S. Virginia St.
Conveniently located next to the courthouse, the Riverside Hotel became a centerpiece for the divorce industry during its heyday. The original Riverside Hotel at this site was destroyed in a fire. George Wingfield then bought the property, and DeLongchamps designed a new version for him in 1927. At six stories high, it was the tallest building in Reno at the time, and in 1931, Wingfield had a huge neon sign erected on the roof so all of Truckee Meadows (and those in unhappy marriages) could see it.
The building is red brick with Gothic Revival-style terra cotta detailing. For wealthier divorce-seekers, it had 40 corner suites with kitchen facilities and connecting rooms for children and servants. It also had 60 smaller single rooms. The Riverside fell into decline in the 1970s when “no-fault” divorces were established, and it closed in 1987. It nearly succumbed to demolition about the same time as the Mapes Hotel, but it was instead converted into the Riverside Artist Lofts in 2000.
U.S. Post Office
50 S. Virginia St.
Not many U.S. post office main lobbies have aluminum panels set with such intricate designs as the downtown Reno one.
DeLongchamps designed it in 1932. It opened for business in 1934, and it’s still busily sending forth the mail. The building is Art Deco, with a specific style called Zig-Zag Moderne. Its outside is a pale green terra cotta resembling stone. The first floor has dark marble walls and cast aluminum details.
401 Court St.
From the post office, cross Virginia Street (first saying hello to Woodrow at the hot dog stand), and head up to Court Street, stopping at a two-story, white mansion built in a Colonial Revival style. DeLongchamps designed it in 1913 for Lewis A. Gibbons, who sold it to Patrick McCarran, a Nevada senator from 1933-1954. It’s colloquially known as the “Mary Pickford House” even though she never lived there. But McCarran, a former state Supreme Court judge, secured Pickford’s divorce here in 1920 only two weeks after her arrival so that she could marry Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., 26 days later. It’s thought his attorney’s fees from that divorce may have helped him pay the then-sizable $35,000 for the mansion.
We seem to be running out of time, but let me just quickly point out a few other worthy DeLongchamps sites:
• Honeymoon Cottage, 4 Elm Court: Built in 1919. Quite possibly the most enchanting stone cottage in Reno. Private residence.
• Ginsberg House, 543 Ridge St.: Designed in 1928. Private residence.
• Donnels House, 546 Ridge St.: Designed in 1920 in the American Four-Square style. Private residence.
There are many more in the area; DeLongchamps even designed some for the regular folk on “spec” along Marsh Street, but our tour has come to an end. Happy wanderings.