Reno Celebrates its Mid-Century Modern Downtown

Library
The Downtown Library contains several interlocking dramatic interior spaces. Photo courtesy of the Historic Reno Preservation Society

Reno may be best known for casinos, but fans of modern architecture have reasons aplenty for visiting. Banks, bowling alleys, residential towers, and an astounding library offer delights to those in the know.

Sharon Honig-Bear, former president of the Historic Reno Preservation Society, is doing her best to spread the word – and succeeding. The society’s first tour of mid-century modern architecture in downtown, to be held May 20, quickly sold out. She has prepared a guide to other mid-century marvels in Reno that is avaliable from the society.

And the state legislature declared May 20 Mid-Century Modern Day in the state.

Her tour will take people into four iconic buildings, the Downtown Library, 'old' city hall and 'new' city hall, and the Pioneer Center. But these are only the tip of the iceberg

“I want people to look around,” Honig-Bear says. “Keep your eyes open. There are bank buildings, there is stuff all over that reflects modern principles. There are examples of Googie, International Style, late Art Moderne. Things hit Reno in its own time frame.”

Office
Frederick DeLongchamps designed this cheery commercial building at 601 West First Street in 1964

The Downtown Library, added to the National Register last year, is a particular beauty. Designed by Hewitt Campau Wells, known in San Francisco for his Franciscan Restaurant at Fisherman’s Wharf, the largely windowless library opens onto a spectacular, three-story atrium. Circular reading areas, shaded by foliage, hover like pods.

Placing the library onto the National Register, Honig-Bear says, “was … important as another step in recognizing a time in the 1960s when Reno was growing and when its cultural institutions were flourishing.”

Planetarium
The Atmospherium-Planetarium is an icon at the University of Nevada, Reno. Photo provided by Special Collections Department, University of Nevada, Reno Libraries

“The pity is much of Reno was destroyed, downtown anyway, when the casinos kind of went corporate in that period, the ‘seventies,” she says, “so a lot of the structures downtown were replaced by these monoliths. Most of the casinos today are a hodgepodge.”

But Reno still retains enough beautiful modern buildings to warrant a visit. It would be worth coming for one of them alone -- architect Raymond Hellman's 1963 Fleischmann Atmospherium-Planetarium.

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