SCA Q&A with Corri Jimenez of Mid-Century Modern Reno

SCA Q&A with Corri Jimenez of Mid-Century Modern Reno

What is happening in Reno, Nevada?

Reno’s wonderful collection of mid-century motels exists primarily because Reno was an automobile travel stop in the post war era. Reno is a transportation island, located more than 300 miles from Las Vegas, Salt Lake City, San Francisco, and Oakland, and is positioned at the intersection of two major roadways, U.S. Highway 40 and Highway 395. Anyone traveling by car in the post war era made a mandatory stop in Reno. U.S. Highway 40, also known as the Lincoln Highway, ran east/west along 4th street in Reno and Highway 395 ran north/south along Virginia Street. These two major thoroughfares contain most of Reno’s remaining mid-century motels.

Interstate 80 bypassed highway traffic on 4th Street in the late-1960s, and traffic on Virginia Street was diverted to the U.S. Highway 395 bypass beginning around the same time. Traffic to the motels was further reduced by the introduction of big motel chains and hotel-casinos in the early 1970s that offered cheaper room rates and on-site gambling closer to the Interstate. This, combined with increased access to airline travel created functional obsolescence for the motels, motor lodges, and inns on these historic roadways. By the late-1970s, most of Reno’s motels became permanent housing for low-income families and the elderly—a use that continues to this day. Despite decades of residential use, most of the motels retain a high level of architectural integrity and their original neon signs, although to many may appear derelict at first glance. Historically, the owners of these residential motels have not been motivated to sell because the cash flow from the weekly room rentals makes for a high return investment. Recently, however, a Colorado based developer, Jacobs Entertainment, Inc., has come to Reno and purchased numerous motels and other properties at prices that have motivated the owners to sell. These properties were purchased for the sole purpose of clearing the land for a future development known as The Fountain District.

The City of Reno has a “blight fund,” to address blight in the City. Despite a market price offer from a local adaptive reuse developer, the blight fund was used to demolish two iconic, boarded up midcentury motels on Virginia Street in 2016; the Golden West (1958) and Heart O Town Motel (1960). These demolitions were accompanied by a “demolition party” hosted by Reno Mayor Hillary Schieve. Jacobs Entertainment, Inc. began a massive demolition spree in downtown Reno in the summer of 2017 and to date has leveled numerous buildings spanning six blocks including mid-century resources significant to Reno’s history. The Mayor and City Council attended more demolition parties and media events with Jacobs Entertainment, Inc. in 2017 to celebrate the demolition of “blighted” motels. The ongoing displacement of vulnerable low-income people has proven to be an unpopular side effect and these celebrations have come to an abrupt halt. Three recent motel demolitions in 2018 have occurred without such fanfare.

Jacobs Entertainment, Inc. stated to the local news media that development of these vacant parcels into The Fountain District could take a decade or longer and they have declined to share any of their plans with the community. All the public knows is that it will be eventually be an “Arts and Entertainment District” and will include numerous “Vegas style” fountains and potentially a skywalk that highlights their properties. With no plans to immediately redevelop all of the vacant parcels that are being created, many are asking why so much demolition has to occur so soon.

What drove you to get involved?

In August 2017, a reconnaissance survey of mid-century motels in Reno and Sparks was undertaken, overseen by adjunct professor/architectural historian Corri Jimenez and involving five students (two graduates and three undergraduates). Making up the Mid-Century Motel Team (Team), the Team was separated into two groups: architectural and history. The history team was led by History graduate student Christina Roberts who researched local archives to develop a historical context on the mid-century motels. The architectural team was led by Anthropology graduate Lauren Culleton who assisted Ms. Jimenez in surveying the motels in the area. At first, the Team thought there would be a less than 50 motels in both communities, but the numbers grew to 73 motels built between 1930-1968 in eight study areas, which did not include 13 motels built in the 1970s. As a group effort, the Team wrote an “Architectural Resource Survey of Midcentury Motels in Reno and Sparks” that included a context, methodology, architectural description, and findings, which will be provided to both the Nevada State Historic Preservation Office and the City of Reno’s Historic Resource Commission. Applying the National Register criteria, the Team assessed that of the 73 motels surveyed, 50 motels met the criteria. From these 50 motels, 24 retained architectural integrity, such as aluminum windows, wooden doors, and original neon signs. During the Team’s survey, Jacobs Entertainment Inc. demolished three motels: Donner Inn (1953), Carriage Inn (1963), and Star Dust Lodge (1968).

The Team additionally identified 13 mid-century motels built from 1946-1968 as a perfect mid-century motel historic district in downtown Reno that included a solid Block of eight motels, also known as the Block, which was the last intact motel block within the city. The Team approached Jacobs in December 2017 with redevelopment ideas to reuse the motels as a commercial/residential district in promoting the motels’ history. Jacobs replied, “planning the block is still in very early stages” and asked “if you have some drawings you would like to share with me.” Less than 60 days later, Jacobs filed demolition permits with the city on February 12, 2018 on the Block. In a mad rush, the Team created a reuse concept for the Block that both re-purposed the buildings and fulfilled the City’s newly adopted 2017 master plan, “Re-Imagine Reno.” The Team emailed the developer on February 23rd, and was supported by the Lincoln Highway Association’s Nevada Chapter, Reno Historic Preservation Society, Nevada Preservation Foundation, and Nevada Neon Project. A presentation was also made at the City’s Historic Resource Commission on March 15th, urging the city and their historic preservation commission and pleading with the developer to reconsider demolition of the Block. The public media attention gained additional support from the Society of Commercial Archeology and interests from the Northern Nevada Nonprofits and American Institute of Architecture, Nevada Chapter.

On March 21st, Jacobs demolished three motels in the Block that included the El Ray Motel (1946), and Star of Reno (1957), Keno Motel #1 (1957); two additional motels are pending demolition, Keno Motel #2 (1964) and City Center Motel (1957). Besides these five motels, the Mardi Gras Motel (1964), In-Town Motel (1955), and Lido Inn (1979) are awaiting potential demolition permits. The Rancho Sierra Motel (1952), and two pristine Googie-style motels, Crest Inn (1965) and Bonanza Inn (1968) are all threatened by Jacobs’ direction of development. If you are following these numbers, this equals eleven mid-century motels demolished in Reno’s downtown by Jacobs and another three endangered. In addition to Jacobs’ development, there are three mid-century motels in the city, including the Everybody’s Inn Motel (1930), the oldest motel in Reno, still susceptible to demolition as blighted properties.

What are your next steps?

Since the demolition in March, our Team has been in the news media locally in the Reno Gazette Journal and This is Reno, as well as has been picked up in other newspapers from Elko, Nevada, to Merced, California. The New York Times, “California Housing Problems are Spilling Across its Borders,” actually published a thorough article on the development situation, calling the city the next Silicon Valley. Besides newspapers, we have also been interviewed on KTVN’s “Face the State.” The pace of growth in the city is disproportionate to previous years as big swaths of large development potentially cause environmental impacts to wildlife as well as cultural resources.

Since the demolition of The Block, a “Mid-century Modern Reno” Facebook group page is getting the word out, educating Renoites about the history of mid-century motels and other local resources. The hope is to meet and brainstorm efforts for support of existing preservation nonprofits, advocate and protect mid-century modern resources, and educate property owners and residents of these resources before they are totally lost. Preservation education is lacking with no leadership by the Nevada State Historic Preservation Office and the City of Reno, and there is reliance on nonprofit groups and volunteers in explaining best preservation practices. As one of four certified local governments in Nevada, Reno receives funds through the State Historic Preservation Office for identification, designation, and preservation. With all the demolition that has occurred in the city in the past year, questions are raised on the city’s accountability to the field of preservation. A citywide survey of all historic-period resources, especially for mid-century resources, design guidelines, and code improvements are three directions that could make a difference in improving all of the damage that has affected the built environment. Volunteers and preservation professionals working pro-bono cannot do it alone and need state and city officials to be involved and support the effort.

How can others help?

Please join our discussion on our Facebook Group, “Mid-century Modern Reno.” Our small little group has grown dramatically in the past few months and now have over 880 members. We are having lively discussion via posts and photographs on some of Reno’s past and present mid-century resource.

Sadly, it is a daunting task to attempt to preserve the city’s motels because they are in private ownership and have never been considered as potentially historic by the city.

  • Adaptive Reuse of Mid-century motels. Reno’s motels are looked at by most of the public and elected officials as unsavory buildings that should not be saved.
  • Preservation Case Studies on Mid-century Resources. We are interested in case studies on mid-century motels and/or other roadside resources, such as neon signs, throughout the country. If SCA members have any preservation successes that include details on how it came about through either working with the city and/or nonprofits as grassroots efforts where it turned a bad lemon into lemonade with the community, please share. Any success story could help us in moving forward in protecting the sensitive resources we are losing at an exceptional rate.
  • Grant Opportunities. If SCA members are aware of any possible federal, state, and/or private grants that could help us rehabilitate the city’s motels or neon signs, that would be helpful in maintaining the resources and potential use ideas. Reno, as well as Sparks, have no citywide survey, and it is in their best interests to not think of recent past resources. Preserving privately owned resources is challenging but incentives would be helpful before they are lost.
  • Heritage Tourism from Tours to Programs. We are also looking to do heritage tourism of these city sites someday like a neon tour, and examples out there of these types of tours would be beneficial in educating the Reno community preserve the city’s sense of place. Pamphlets and brochure examples would be interesting to view, and if there are any digital preservation tips linked to Heritage Tourism, let us know. One possible idea that we have thrown around is a heritage commercial business list to promote the businesses history and strength in the community.

Thank you all in advance for your time and interests in Reno. For additional information, please email Corri Jimenez at corri_jimenez@yahoo.com.