Building on the past

Among other things, Reno’s collective consciousness recalls mobsters, political elbowing, booms and busts, cattle farms, fires, floods, ski resorts, a skyline of treacherous mountains, legal prostitution, railroads and gambling. Those colorful incidentals are part of what defines Reno to the world at large—a circumstance that locals wed themselves to when they move here and remain ironically unable to divorce.

Historic Houses and Buildings of Reno alludes to that semi-mythical image of Reno as both a northern Sin City and a resort sprung from a reinvented frontier. It also suggests that the city’s connection with its past relies largely on keeping its architectural history intact.

Recently published by Black Rock Press, Historic Houses selects some of Reno’s oldest architectural treasures from among the sea of renovation and demolition that has all but submerged the historic center of town. In a vivid recapitulation of Reno’s architectural history, the book provides an educational tour of our oldest neighborhoods from the Old Northwest to the Old Southwest, covering a lot of ground in between. Original photographs by Bob Blesse, along with some gleaned from the University’s Special Collections Department, illustrate the text.

A few surprises that will gratify even long-term residents crop up in Historic Houses, not the least of which is a description of the large variety of architectural styles existing around the city: Craftsman/Bungalow, Colonial Revival, Art Deco, Queen Anne and Victorian are just some of the forms commonly visible in public buildings and residences.

A few local myths are addressed, as well. It seems like every city has a millionaire-miser story; Reno is no exception. Many long-time denizens have driven past the huge Stone Hill/Redfield Mansion on Mount Rose Street and wondered what truth stood behind rumors that its eccentric owner filled his basement with bags of silver dollars—coins worth $1,000 apiece and supposedly unearthed only after his death (no spoiler here—you’ll have to read the book to find out).

While managing to avoid a preachy tone, Historic Houses does offer some comments about the dangers of taking historic buildings for granted—comments that should feel a little admonishing considering how recently efforts to protect such structures began. According to the book’s author, Holly Walton-Buchanan, accelerated growth of downtown Reno during the 1960s inspired local preservationists to spring into action during the following decade. Walton-Buchanan claims that the group managed to preserve several buildings through adaptive re-use among other strategies, though the validity of that statement is questionable. There’s no arguing that many more buildings were torn down than were ever saved.

Even with the benefit of eloquent and persistent advocacy, however, there is no guaranteed lease on life for many local historic buildings. The demolition of the Mapes Hotel in 2000 is perhaps the strongest evidence of that fact.

It is difficult to finish Historic Houses without reading between the lines and reflecting on the irreplaceable structures that are no longer with us. The good news is that the book is a reminder of how much there is still left to see. There is an easy-to-use and rewarding walking tour within its pages, when you can spare the time to take it, and a well-wrought assertion that Reno’s brick-and-mortar history defies the superficial image of a city that embodies all things transient.