For many years Carson City was America’s smallest capital city. Far from lamenting the situation, civic boosters boasted about the town’s status as the population hovered around 1,500 in the 1920s and 1930s.
From its very beginning as a toll crossing of the Truckee River in 1859, Reno was a place to stop on the way to somewhere else. The Pony Express rode through here, the Donner Party lingered a fatal few hours too long in Truckee Meadows, cattle drives crossed the river here and the railroads laid track through here. It was Charles Crocker who was one of the Big Four guiding the Central Pacific Railroad to link up with the Union Pacific Railroad in creating the Transcontinental Railroad who named the town in honor of General Jesse Lee Reno of West Virginia who was killed a few years earlier in the Civil War at the Battle of South Mountain. And the town was officially incorporated on May 9, 1868 when the railroad auctioned off some of its land for building lots.
Nothing symbolized the migratory nature of Reno more than its days as the Divorce Capital of the World. In the early 1900s an escape from an unhappy marriage only required six months of residency in Nevada and as the state’s largest city, Reno gained notoriety as the place to drop anchor for an unhappy spouse. The first “celebrity divorce” came in 1906 when Laura Corey, wife of the head of U.S. Steel, William Corey, came west from Pennsylvania to get “Reno-Vated.” And while most states would only grant a divorce for infidelity, Nevada issued divorce decrees for the asking. When other states attempted to muscle in on this source of cash infusion, Nevada dropped the residency requirement to three months and, in 1927, to only six weeks. In the decade that followed more than 30,000 marriages were dissolved in Reno.
If the divorce industry wasn’t unsavory enough to give Reno the tag of “Sin City,” there was its abundance of brothels (banned during World War II at the request of the United States Army) and the legalization of gambling in 1931. The modern casino, with its mix of entertainment and dining and hospitality, was birthed in Reno. So even though the town’s economy was historically grounded in transportation and mining, today Reno is a city of government and casino workers.
Our walking tour of the Biggest Little City in the World will visit Reno’s landmark casinos, past and present, but first we will begin where the town began with a half dug-out, half log shelter on the south bank of the Truckee River...
Virginia Street Bridge
Virginia Street at Truckee River
William Fuller, who ran mules out of Missouri, crossed the country to chase gold in California but by the late 1850s he was headed home without a strike and not much of a plan. As he passed through the marshy Truckee Meadows he got the idea that a bridge across the Truckee River might be a way to make some good money. He scouted the banks and at the highest point along the river he constructed a rickety wooden bridge and charged a small toll for prospectors and pioneers to cross. A spring freshet washed away the bridge in 1861 and although Fuller re-built the bridge the toll business was getting a little stale. Myron C. Lake, however, saw Fuller’s bridge as more than a river crossing and he happily traded his ranch north of the Truckee for the bridge franchise. Lake relocated the crossing, constructed a stronger bridge and added an inn to the enterprise. By 1862 Lake’s Crossing included a grist mill, a livery stable and a kiln. The town was launched. The current concrete double arch Virginia Street Bridge is now the fifth to cross the Truckee at this site, designed by San Francisco architect John B. Leonard in 1905. It is sometimes still referred to as the “Wedding Ring Bridge” since newly divorced women would supposedly stop on the bridge after leaving the Washoe County Courthouse and hurl their wedding rings into the quick-flowing Truckee waters below. Marilyn Monroe does just that in her last movie, 1961’s The Misfits with Clark Gable and Montgomery Clift.
FOLLOW VIRGINIA STREET NORTH (TO YOUR LEFT IF YOU ARE LOOKING AT THE TRUCKEE RIVER DOWNSTREAM).
Reno City Plaza
10 North Virginia Street, east side of the street on north bank of the Truckee River
In 1947 Charles Mapes pioneered the sheltering of gambling, dining, entertainment and luxury accommodations under one roof on this site. With a price tg of $3 million, the twelve-story Mapes Hotel was the tallest building in Nevada and revolutionized tourism in Reno, bringing the nation’s top talent to its fabled nightclub, the Sky Room. By the 1970s, however, glitzier new casinos had put Mapes in a fatal financial squeeze and the hotel closed in 1982. On January 2000 the Mapes Hotel was imploded over the howls of preservationists - it was the first building on the National Register of Historic Places to be demolished in a half-century. The result is this open air plaza.
1 East 1st Street at southeast corner of Virginia Street
Reno’s City Hall has its roots back in 1902 when optimistic moneymen in town came together to organize the Farmers & Merchants Bank with Richard Kirman at the head of the enterprise. Although only 26 years old, the Virginia City-born Kirman had already righted the fortunes of one failing bank. He set the course for Farmers & Merchants while charting his own in politics; Kirman would be elected mayor of Reno in 1907 and eventually governor of Nevada in 1935. By that time Farmers & Merchants had changed its name to First National and was the only one of Reno’s five banks to survive the Great Depression. It gobbled up banks in Las Vegas, Elko and elsewhere and as First National Bank of Nevada financed much of the state’s construction around the emerging gambling industry. In 1963 First National constructed this 16-story, International Style tower as its headquarters. It was known as the Cal Neva Building in 2004 when the City of Reno bought it for $5.5 million and after another $4.8 million was poured into renovations it became the home of city government.
Virginian Hotel Casino
140 North Virginia Street
George Karadanis and Robert Maloff built this 119-room hotel-casino in 1988; it closed in 2004. Karadanis hailed from Pittsburg, California and brought his construction company to Reno in 1974 to build the 249-room Sundowner on Arlington Street that was the largest hotel in Reno at the time under one roof.
Cal Neva Nevadan Tower
133 North Virginia Street
This high-rise began as the short-lived Onslow Hotel Casino in 1982 with its 182 rooms and the ballyhooed Golden Garter Steak House. It sputtered back to life but was snuffed out again before being taken over as the unattached hotel for the Club Cal Neva.
38 East 2nd Street at southeast corner of Virginia Street
Gambling on this block of 2nd Street dates back to 1937 and the Club Fortune at the corner of Center Street. The operation was consumed by Cal-Neva in 1948, which added floor shows and non-stop music and dancing. The Cal-Neva was one of the first venues to break a then-unknown pianist named Liberace, during a two-week stint in January of 1949. Cal-Neva has expanded vigorously through the years, including down the block to Virginia Street in 1980. It is the largest gaming house in northern Nevada without any hotel rooms.
Reno National Bank
204 North Virginia Street at northeast corner of 2nd Street
Frederic Joseph DeLongchamps was born in Reno, graduated from Reno High School and earned a degree in mining engineering from the University of Nevada in 1904. Nothing in his background included training in architecture yet at the age of 25 he was working in a design practice with Ira W. Tesch. In a career that would stretch into the 1960s, DeLongchamps was one of Nevada’s most prolific architects, doing more to shape Reno’s streetscape than any other designer. This Neoclassical vault from DeLongchamps was erected in 1915 for the Reno National Bank. What hasn’t been covered by modern casino chic reveals exuberant terra cotta ornamentation and a parade of fluted Ionic columns on the Virginia Street elevation.
Jacob Davis Tailor Shop
211 North Virginia Street
In 1873 two pairs of overalls arrived in the offices of Levi Strauss & Company in San Francisco. A letter was attached that read: “The secratt of them Pents is the Rivets that I put in those Pockets and I found the demand so large that I cannot make them fast enough. My nabors are getting yealouse of these success and unless I secure it by Patent Papers it will soon become a general thing. Everybody will make them up and thare will be no money in it. Therefore Gentleman, I wish to make you a proposition that you should take out the Latters Patent in my name as I am the inventor of it, the expense of it will be about $68, all complit...” The letter was from Jacob Davis, a Latvian immigrant from Reno, Nevada. Levi Strauss paid for Jacob Davis’ patent for “Improvement in Fastening Pocket Openings.” The patent would be the most illegally imitated patent in United States history. Davis invented the heavy-duty, riveted work pants in 1871 in his shop located here.
210 North Virginia Street
William Fisk Harrah was born in Pasadena, California in 1911, the son of a lawyer and politician who neither smoked nor drank and found gambling monotonous. Bill Harrah began studying mechanical engineering at UCLA but was driven from school by the Great Depression. He went to work in various family businesses manning a hot dog stand and a pool hall and also running a game of chance called the Circle Game where a ball rolled down a board clicking off card suits and numbers. Weary of harassment by local officials over the legality of the game, Harrah left for Reno in 1937 and opened a bingo parlor. Scarcely two weeks later he turned the key for the last time of the failed operation, little realizing that his kaput bingo game would be the foundation for the world’s largest gaming empire. Harrah’s Plaza Tango started up again in July of 1938 and two months later he was running games on this block. In June 1946 Harrah launched his first full-service casino here on the ruins of the old Mint Club, trumpeting his operation as “Nevada’s most beautiful casino.” Nine years later Harrah’s was in operation on the South Shore of Lake Tahoe. Bill Harrah died in 1978, five years after the company stock became the first gaming business to appear on the New York Stock Exchange.
229 North Virginia Street
Before 1955 no gambling was allowed on the west side of Virginia Street. After the prohibition was lifted the Horsehoe Club became the second casino to test the new frontier, opening on October 25, 1956 and promising “Fun, Food and Fortune.” The Horseshoe pioneered cheap food in Reno casinos, luring gamblers in with a full prime rib dinner on Wednesdays for $1.18 and other culinary come-ons. The Horseshoe cantered in and and out of existence until it closed for good in 1995.
Virginia Street and Commercial Row
City promoters first spanned Virginia Street with a commemorative arch in 1926 to herald the Nevada Transcontinental Highway Exposition and the completion of the Lincoln and Victory highways. When the Exposition closed down the Reno City Council decided to keep the arch and staged a slogan contest to go with it. G.A. Burns took $100 back to Sacramento with his tagline - “Reno, The Biggest Little City In The World.” This is the third version of the arch and has stood here since 1987. Behind the arch, on the north side, was Harold’s Club, the town’s first great gambling joint.
345 North Virginia Street at northwest corner of 3rd Street
The Eldorado opened in 1973, carrying the theme of the “Lost City of Gold” throughout the decor. The Carano family has shepherded the high end gambling palace since its opening days, building a reputation for fine food and renovating into one of downtown Reno’s largest hotels.
Silver Legacy Resort & Casino
407 North Virginia Street at northwest corner of 4th Street
The Silver Legacy opened in 1995, a casino so large it took a joint venture by the honchos of the Eldorado and Circus Circus casinos on either side. Reno’s first new casino resort in over ten years was outfitted in the image of a northern Nevada Victorian town with a 127-foot mining rig lording over the gaming palace. Its 1,700 rooms required a 38-story tower that was Reno’s tallest building for a brief spell.
TURN LEFT ON 5TH STREET.
Circus Circus Hotel-Casino
500 North Sierra Street at northeast corner of 5th Street
Circus Circus and its mascot Topsy the Clown opened in 1978 by welding gaming with a circus midway, ushering in the era of the casino as family tourist destination. The concept caught on quickly enough that the 102-room hotel was expanded to 725 within a few years to serve the pink-and-white big top casino.
CONTINUE FOUR BLOCKS PAST ACRES OF PARKING LOTS TO RALSTON STREET INTO A MORE RESIDENTIALLY FLAVORED AREA. THE HOUSE ON THE CORNER ON YOUR RIGHT IS...
485 West 5th Street at northeast corner of Ralston Street
Ebenezer Twaddle was a Nevada rancher who spent time in Reno as fire marshal and six-term city councilman. The house he constructed in town in 1905 was unusually opulent, rendered in the Colonial Revival style seldom seen on Reno streets. The curving front porch, designed by Benjamin Leon and supported by square Ionic columns, was considered the finest in town. After the Twaddle family departed the building has done duty as commercial use, including as a way station for divorce-seekers establishing short-term Nevada residency.
TURN LEFT ON RALSTON STREET.
467 Ralston Street at southwest corner of 5th Street
Constructed in 1906, this is an early example of the Mission Revival style that was beginning to permeate southern California at the time but was quite rare in Reno. The visual interest of the two-story, stuccoed house is enhanced by the scrolled parapets that jut above the roofline at all four elevations. Architect Fred M. Schadler designed the house for Frank E. Humphreys, a California native from a pioneering cattle family who also helmed the Lassen County Bank in Susanville, California.
339 Ralston Street
Ralston Street is one of Reno’s oldest residential avenues and this wood frame Gothic Revival cottage dating to 1875 looks much as it did during its creation in the Victorian era. Most likely birthed from an architectural pattern book, the house was one of the first constructed in Reno’s new Western Addition and one of the few remaining from that time. James Howatt Borland, a 26-year old clerk, erected the house on Lots 8 and 9 of the Western Addition. The Borlands stayed about five years but rented the property out until selling the house in 1902. Five years later Oscar Jed Clifford, a pharmacist, bought the house and the Clifford family retained ownership until 1991.
333 Ralston Street
Another Gothic-flavored house and another of Reno’s oldest homes, this stucco residence was raised for Washoe County Clerk John Shoemaker in 1875. It was said to be the finest residence in Reno, at a time when the buildings in town were not even numbered yet and mail deliveries to individual homes was still ten years away. After the Nystroms sold the house in 1897 it meandered into rental property, including catering to the busy Reno divorce traffic.
TURN LEFT ON 3RD AVENUE.
Sands Regency Casino
345 North Arlington Avenue at northwest corner of 3rd Avenue
The legendary Sands Hotel opened as the seventh casino on the Las Vegas strip in 1952. In the early 1970s the nameplate came to Reno with a small hotel and casino. By the late early 1980s a second tower and more casino space was built. and in the late 1980s a third and final tower brought the resort to 800 rooms.
TURN RIGHT ON ARLINGTON AVENUE.
El Cortez Hotel
239 West 2nd Street at northeast corner of Arlington Avenue
In 1931, after Reno reduced the residency requirement for obtaining a divorce from three months to six weeks developers sprang into action putting up temporary residential facilities. Chief among them was the El Cortez Hotel that was Reno’s tallest building when it was finished that same year. Architect George Ferriss, whose design career in Reno spanned more than three decades beginning in 1906 and who would serve as Nevada State Architect, provided one of the town’s prime examples of Art Deco style, garnered with foliated motifs. The steel-framed building is dressed in dark brick and decorated in white terra cotta. Developer Abe Zetooney correctly read the divorce market and an addition to the swanky El Cortez was swiftly added.
TURN RIGHT ON 2ND STREET.
St. Thomas Aquinas Cathedral
310 West 2nd Street at southwest corner of Arlington Avenue
The cornerstone for what would become the mother church of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Reno was laid in 1906 and dedicated two years later. A fire crippled the structure in 1909 and it was quickly rebuilt. The Diocese of Reno was created by Pope Pius XI in 1931 that comprised the entire state of Nevada and was the largest ecclesiastical jurisdiction in America. That year the school and rectory were both raised on 2nd street on plans drawn by Frederic DeLongchamps.
TURN LEFT ON STEVENSON STREET. TURN LEFT ON 1ST STREET.
20th Century Club
335 West 1st Street
This low-slung brick building was assembled in 1925 for the first women’s club in Reno. With a membership of around 1,000 during its salad days, the club attracted the town’s most prominent women to take on social issues and promote the arts and literature. The handsome home, designed by Fred M. Schadler with classical detailing, was eagerly sought out as rental space by the community, so much so that the Club was able to hire a live-in housekeeper and caterer
First United Methodist Church
201 West 1st Street at northwest corner of West Street
The first Methodist services in Reno were conducted in 1868 and this is the third Methodist sanctuary raised in town, completed in 1925. The 1920s were a golden age of church-building in Reno as town fathers sought to combat an increasingly unsavory reputation enveloping the city. The Oakland, California architectural firm of Wythe, Blaine and Olson tapped the Gothic Revival style for the poured-concrete cathedral, one of the first such constructions in Reno. The exterior was purposely kept rough-faced to encourage the growth of vines up the walls that only partially happened. The parish house was constructed in 1940 and came from the drawing board of Edward Shier Parsons. Parsons, a Reno High product, was a much-favored and versatile architect around northern Nevada until his death at the age of 84 in 1991.
Colonial Apartments/Ross Manor
118 West Street at northeast corner of 1st Street
This four-story red brick building trimmed in rough stone was built in 1907 as Reno’s first large, multi-residence dwelling. The money man was Charles E. Clough who put together the power grid for Reno and established the first water system in Sparks. The fine brickwork is a legacy to Clough’s Reno Press Brick Company.
TURN RIGHT ON SIERRA STREET AND CROSS THE TRUCKEE RIVER. ON THE SOUTH BANK TURN RIGHT ON ISLAND AVENUE.
Trinity Episcopal Church
200 Island Avenue at southwest corner of Rainbow Street
This was the town livery stables until the Vestry of the Trinity Church purchased the ground in 1923. By 1929 the Episcopal church had constructed a sanctuary overlooking the Truckee River, although the Great Depression scuttled some of the original plans. Formal dedication took place in 1949.
TURN LEFT ON RAINBOW STREET. TURN LEFT ON COURT STREET. TURN LEFT ON VIRGINIA STREET.
100 South Virginia Street at northeast corner of Court Street
A geodesic dome takes interlocking circles and creates a sphere of great strength by distributing the stress across the structure. It originated in Germany in the 1920s but the term “geodesic” was applied, patented and popularized by Richard Buckminster Fuller in the 1940s as a way to produce efficient and inexpensive housing. The Pioneer theater-Auditorium is the architectural firm of Bozalis, Dickinson and Roloff’s take on the geodesic dome from 1967. They used 500 gold-anodized panels to create a 140-foot diameter geodesic dome.
Washoe County Courthouse
117 South Virginia Street at northwest corner of Court Street
Washoe County was established in 1861 as one of the nine original counties of the Nevada Territory. Washoe City started out as the county seat but the government was in Reno by 1871. This Beaux Arts confection, one of nine courthouses designed in California and Nevada by celebrated architect Frederic DeLongchamps, was built in 1909 around the original red brick Reno courthouse. The courthouse boasts a ribbed copper dome above a Corinthian portico. In the 1930s the Washoe County Courthouse was one of the busiest in the country, granting some 33,000 divorces as changes in Reno residency requirements made Reno the divorce capital of the country. The courthouse graced the cover of Life Magazine on June 21, 1937 with a young woman kissing a pillar on the front steps.
United States Post Office
50 South Virginia Street
When the federal government went on a building spree to help stimulate the economy during the Great Depression its preferred style of architecture was the stripped down classicism of Art Deco. For this New Deal post office that opened in 1934 architect Frederick DeLongchamps augmented his Zig-Zag Moderne design with pale green terra cotta scored to resemble dressed stone and American Indian motifs. The block-filling post office on the south bank of the Truckee River is still sorting Reno’s mail.
17 South Virginia Street
There was a house of hospitality on this location from Reno’s very beginning in 1859 when C.W. Fuller hauled logs here to build a small traveler’s inn. When Myron Lake took over the toll business he called his shelter the Lake House; when he died his daughter and son-in-law re-christened the hotel as the Riverside. When Harry Gosse took over the business and converted the wooden frame inn into a well-appointed brick hotel he kept the name. The bricks didn’t prevent the Riverside from burning and when Gosse was unable to foot the bill for repairs the property was assumed by George Wingfield, a one-time faro dealer who was the richest and most powerful man in Nevada. Wingfield came to Nevada as a ranch hand at the age of 20 in 1896. Ten years later, after mining successes in Tonopah and Goldfield, Wingfield was worth an estimated $30 million. He came to Reno and immersed himself in banking, politics and just about anything with dollar signs attached. Wingfield hired go-to Reno architect Frederick DeLongchamps to design this incarnation of the Riverside in 1927. Most everything about the town’s most lavish hotel was set up to cater to wealthy divorce-seekers waiting to file papers in the court house next door; forty of the rooms featured kitchen facilities and Wingfield even opened a bank and casino in the Riverside to serve the needs of three-week residents. Unhappy marrieds were lured to the hotel by an enormous rooftop neon sign visible from miles outside of town. When Hollywood sent movie characters to Reno for a quickie divorce you could count of the Riverside taking a star turn in the films. Today the six-story brick building does duty as apartments and studios for artists.
YOU HAVE NOW RETURNED TO THE TOUR STARTING POINT AT THE VIRGINIA STREET BRIDGE. IF YOU WANT TO SEE THE ORIGINAL RENO ARCH TURN RIGHT AND AMBLE TWO BLOCKS DOWNSTREAM ON THE TRUCKEE RIVER WALK TO LAKE STREET.